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Trevor Stone's Journal
Those who can, do. The rest hyperlink.
The Interrupters: A Meaningful, Impactful, Touching Film 
30th-Sep-2011 11:50 pm
intense aztec drummer DNC 2008
Movie recommendation: The Interrupters. I just saw it at IFS. It's playing short engagements around the country and in the U.K. The credits include Frontline, so I assume it's either been on PBS or will be soon. It's intense–I was crying a lot more than I was laughing. It's also important–it's a documentary about people taking action and getting results on a major social problem: inner-city violence, especially the cycle of revenge killings.

The Interrupters is a documentary about the organization CeaseFire in Chicago. Their goal is to stop the spread of violence by interrupting situations that could escalate into somebody getting killed. To do this effectively, the interrupters have to be people that the potentially violent folks can relate to–former gangbangers, hustlers, and convicts. Just as only a recovering alcoholic can effectively lead an AA meeting, these are guys (and a couple women) who participated in the cycle of violence, paid the consequences, and realized they need to help their community understand that those consequences aren't worth whatever benefits folks see in the moment.

This movie goes deep with a handful of interrupters, catching amazingly candid discussions. They start by diffusing an immediate situation, from two groups about to clash in the street to folks who call up feeling they've been wronged and want to kill the punks who messed things up. And while the immediate interventions are a great way to reduce murders one at a time, the real strength of the program is how the interrupters stay involved with the people they've intervened with. The documentary follows several of these long-term relationships, where the goal is to defuse not just a situation, but someone's attitude and outlook on life. And it works: 41-73% reductions in killings in neighborhoods where CeaseFire was working with a 16-35% drop directly attributable to CeaseFire. That speaks to what they call "a public health model to stop shootings and killings." They're working to build up herd immunity to violence in the neighborhood, but instead of vaccinations and doctors they use conversations and role models.

Where I'm Coming From

I was interested in this movie in part because it's similar to the work I do as a Black Rock Ranger at Burning Man, though these guys have orders of magnitude more intense situations, more personal connections, and more long-term value on the line. Some similarities:
Mediation, not authority
In both cases, many the folks we're reaching out to don't always have a good relationship with authority figures in general and police in particular. As mediators, we're not telling people what not to do; we're helping them think through why their first instinct may not be a good idea.
Social capital as a tool: community members, not outsiders
People are more likely to listen to folks they can identify with. As ex-gang leaders and hustlers, the people walking the streets for CeaseFire share a common background, skin color, and communication style as the folks they're reaching out to. As Burners who like to spend their vacation helping out, the Rangers share the aesthetics and lingo of the folks we're interacting with. And despite training and experience, both of us would do worse if we switched scenarios. I can create a much better connection with hippies and ravers and drunks and nerds and artists than I can with African Americans from the inner city. And vice versa, I expect.
It's not about you
This is a phrase the Rangers use in training to remind ourselves that the Ranger isn't the important one in an interaction: we leave our ego in camp and focus on the needs of the participants having a challenge. The movie didn't raise this point explicitly, but I noticed that the interrupters they followed were completely focused on the folks they were trying to help. When they talked about themselves, it was to illustrate a point, to let the person know they'd been there and they'd come around. It's not about trying to be a hero, it's about doing what you can to make things better.
Community acknowledgment
Through the social capital they've built through past actions, both groups are recognized as important mediators. While the movie had a scene of a hospital visit to an interrupter who'd been shot, it seemed the communities generally respected them; both sides in a conflict would listen to a guy with a CeaseFire logo. Rangers similarly focus on social capital, and have created a situation where someone in a khaki shirt and a floppy hat will usually be listened to with respect.
Focus on the immediate problem with an eye to education for the long term
One way the Rangers have it a lot easier than CeaseFire is that our solutions only need to work for a week. If two camps are driving each other crazy with their music, we can mediate a solution that will keep everyone from coming to blows until Sunday, when they get to pack up and not be neighbors any more. We try to educate so that participants will be less likely to have the same problem next year, but our main concern is the immediate situation. CeaseFire's first goal is to make sure nobody gets shot right now. They then take it a day and a week at a time, checking in on their new friends and finding ways to show them how to make progress.
I'm not claiming to be in the same league as these guys–my week in the desert contributing to public safety is nothing compared to stepping into potentially lethal situations, year round, day in and day out. But I'm glad to see that we've independently developed a similar approach to community conflict resolution. This style works well in inner city environments with decades of social baggage from unemployment, challenged schools, and cycles of violence. It also works in a radical experimental city with a demographic slanted towards the college-educated, the middle-class, the artistic, and the broadly-traveled. Maybe that's evidence that it can work in communities all over the country and throughout the world.
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