Stopping Exposure to Community Violence: The Interrupters

Violence in America is a growing public health crisis, and the City of Chicago has seen some of the worst of its outbreaks in the past few years. Communities are losing children and teens every day to the affects of this violence exposure. But community members and organizations are working to prevent and reduce this impact. One of these organizations really stands out from the crowd.

CeaseFire was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who once fought infectious diseases in the developing world. His belief is that the spread of violence works exactly the same way as disease, and that in order to stop it, it must be treated in the same way. One of the most compelling aspects of the organization is their Violence Interrupters program. It works because it employs the people who once carried out violence in the streets. Because of their history they have the drive to prevent further violence and the experience and credibility that get people to listen. They operate under the assumption that people about to transmit violence have two thoughts:

  1. I have a grievance
  2. That grievance justifies violence

To target and stop this violence Interrupters focus on that last thought. Their role is to do an interruption at the start of violence transmission, similar to stopping an infectious disease at is source.

These unlikely advocates were recently the topic of a documentary, The Interrupters. It follows three Interrupters as they work in their neighbourhoods mediating conflict. These men and women provide compelling insight into what drives the spread of violence in their city and its root cause. One of the main themes throughout the film is that the cycle of violence is rooted deeply in the structure of the neighbourhood. The film also argues that violence is not part of who a person is but a learned behaviour. It really is a disease.  Similar to someone with a family history of cancer might expect to die from it, people in these neighbourhoods expect to die from the after-effects of violence.

These Interrupters are:

Ameena Matthews, a former gang enforcer and the daughter of one of Chicago’s most famous gang leaders.

Cobe Williams, a man that was exposed to violence at a young age through the murder of his father, but turned his life around to support his family.

Eddie Bocanegra, a former gang member working to help children exposed to violence cope with what they’ve seen.

The film is both heartbreaking and encouraging. It’s devastating to see the impact that violence has had on these Interrupters and every member of their communities. Two stories in the film about the impact of violence exposure on children really stood out.

In one of Eddie’s art therapy classes, one little girl breaks down in tears because her mother won’t allow her outside very often because of the fear she’ll be shot. Another scene depicts a former gang member returning to a barbershop where he committed a robbery. He apologizes for his actions and learns how one mother and child still cope daily with the fear they experienced that day.

But the film really leaves you with a feeling of hope. Throughout the film, even though the threat of violence is still strong in the community, people are listening and working to reduce and prevent exposure to violence.

You can view the film for free here.

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