On Tuesday February 21st at the Chicago Cultural Center, Ameena Matthews told the story of a recent violence interruption – one that ended, as they frequently do, with the participants in her car, whisked away from the scene to give them enough space to regain their cool.  Her car packed full of teenage boys, she hit Lakeshore Drive.  “Is that the ocean?” one of the boys asked.  Because of gang boundaries, these youths had never seen Lake Michigan.

The story drew gasps from her audience, all prominent members of Chicago city government – including Mayor Rahm Emanuel himself.  They had gathered to view several clips from The Interrupters, followed by panel discussions.  The private event was put on by the Mayor’s office, which had approached Kartemquin Films several weeks ago with the idea of showcasing the film to city officials.

With WBEZ’s Steve Edwards mediating, participants engaged in frank, open discussions about the culture of violence in our city.  The two-hour event was structured around discussions of key clips from the film: the opening of the film; the Peace Summit about Fenger High School; and the Town Hall Meeting about the National Guard.

Each clip was selected to open up a specific topic for that panel.  The first clip set up Ceasefire and its mission, showing how violence interrupters work in the field, while the subsequent panel focused on violence as a matter of public health.  The second explored the response of high school teenagers to gang violence (prompted by the Derrion Albert killing), and re-evaluated conventional methods of youth outreach.  The third clip panel debated how to approach the underlying causes of violence, from lack of jobs and education to the despair and hopelessness afflicting these affected communities.

View photos of the event on Facebook.

It was clear that both the film and Ceasefire’s mission had made a big impact on all those present.  Central to all of the conversations was effect of violence upon inner-city children, an emotional subject.  Mayor Emanuel stated that he’s tired of going to certain neighborhoods where kids stand on the street corner, “with nothing in their eyes,” a characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder described by both Dr. Slutkin and Alex Kotlowitz. 

Violence typically occurs over the smallest matters, as Tio Hardiman pointed out, and is accepted as behavior.  Up for debate were different ways of changing this culture – a change that should start at home and not with law enforcement, as both Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and the Mayor contended.  One possible solution put forth was to increase afterschool activities and open new recreation centers to give youths an alternative to gang activity.  Cobe Williams spoke in favor of this idea, having grown up in a neighborhood were there were no such safe havens for teens to hang out.

Mayor Emanuel also stressed the need to celebrate positive accomplishments in these communities and questioned the violence portrayed in mainstream media. He argued that “this provides a model where the only recognition these kids get is for violent acts.“

Chicago has long been grappling with this problem, yet we are a city trying to change.  “A shooting in Englewood, or over in Garfield Park, is a tear in the fabric of our city,” the Mayor said, making it clear that addressing inner city violence is at the forefront of his agenda.  After seeing the film promoted by mayors of other cities and Ceasefire offshoots spring up across the country, it’s heartening to have our own city government join the conversation.

Thanks to the Mayor’s Office for setting up the event, and to all who attended.  We were happy to see more familiar faces from the film - Vanessa Villalba, Kathryn Saclarides, and Ceasefire’s youngest interrupter, “Lil’ Mikey” Davis – all of whom are happy and healthy.  For more updates on them, check out the Frontline website.

The Interrupters is the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards winner for Best Documentary. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and continues to screen around the country.

View photos of the event on Facebook.