Interrupting Violence, on Screen and on the Streets
By TIM STELLOH
The men in orange and white Save Our Streets T-shirts were in a good mood.
It was Friday night, and “The Interrupters,” a new documentary that depicts the front lines of urban crime in Chicago and an anti-violence program trying to stem those battles, had just premiered at the IFC Center in Manhattan.
For the men in orange and white, watching the sold-out two-hour film was like a seeing a reflection — and confirmation — of their day-to-day work lives. In some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes, a woman working for the program, called CeaseFire, inserts herself into the middle of a knife brawl and also calms a gathering mob seeking revenge for the killing of a friend.
In other words, she accomplished one of CeaseFire’s goals: to “interrupt” violence.
The men who attended the movie interrupt such violence, too, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, through Save Our Streets, or S.O.S., a program modeled after CeaseFire. And they, too, often find themselves in the middle of the same raw dramas that was depicted on the screen.
“We see someone else doing the work that we’re doing, and it’s just like us being up there, word for word,” said Rudy Suggs, 48, who, along with several other S.O.S. workers, gathered at a McDonald’s across the street from the theater after the movie to compare their own experiences with what they had seen.
There were plenty of similarities, the men said.
In one scene, for instance, one of the film’s main characters, Ameena Matthews, visits an area where a teenager has been shot and killed. A large group of the man’s friends have gathered on the street and appear to be planning a counterattack. In typical fashion, Ms. Matthews, a former gang member and daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most legendary gang leaders, bursts into the middle of the crowd and defuses the situation.
Achisimach Yisrael, 35, of S.O.S. recalled that after a 14-year-old was killed this summer in Crown Heights, more than 100 of the teenager’s friends gathered at his wake.
“Seeing him laying there — that was real life for them,” Mr. Yisrael said, adding that a large group then left the church to confront those who they believed were responsible for the teenager’s death.
“Every last one of them had every intention of retaliating and basically creating a bloodbath,” he said.
From their storefront office on Kingston Avenue, S.O.S. workers saw the throng marching by. After quickly determining where the group was going, several workers were dispatched to the intended target; another squad headed to a nearby park, where a worker persuaded the dead teenager’s friends to congregate.
With a large, volatile crowd gathered around them, four workers undertook what was perhaps their most tense, most expansive mediation to date, said Lavon Walker, who works for S.O.S: They told the group that they needed to respect the dead teenager’s mother and family; that killing someone else would not bring their friend back.
“Then we called out and said, ‘Is there anybody in the crowd who is a father?’ ” Mr. Yisrael recalled. “Do you want to remove yourself from your children?”
In the end, the crowd returned to the wake, Mr. Walker said. This was one of the 54 conflicts the group has interrupted since early last year, when the program began, said Amy Ellenbogen, S.O.S.’s director.
Another echo of the group’s work was reflected in one of the film’s most memorable characters — the lanky, alternately hilarious and explosive Flamo, a pistol-carrying, self-described drug dealer and gambler whom a CeaseFire worker is attempting to deliver from a life of crime and prison (the program often tries to help former gang members and others to turn their lives around).
Flamo eventually comes around — he describes the worker as a fly constantly buzzing in his ear — and by the end of the film, he is gainfully employed.
Flamo reminded Mr. Walker of Sledge, who had long been a powerful, but unpredictable force on the streets of Crown Heights.
“He was a loose cannon,” Mr. Walker said. “He wasn’t hearing nothing from nobody, because that was the power that he had.”
Last year, Mr. Walker undertook a task similar to the worker in the film: to show Sledge that a different kind of life was possible. After a short time, Sledge had begun volunteering for S.O.S. and is now a staff member of the group.
“To have a person like Sledge, which is our New York City Flamo, turned over and to be working with S.O.S., that’s a great testimony that the work we’re doing is effective,” Mr. Walker said.
“We’re the fly,” Mr. Suggs added. “We’re those nagging individuals.”
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