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Is There Hope for Interrupting Community Violence?

A panel sponsored by UC Berkeley addressed the issue of local violence and talked about how a Chicago program, illustrated in the film The Interrupters, is attacking the problem.

There was more hope than hand wringing at Tuesday evening’s panel discussion at the Brower Center on how to blunt violence in local communities. The dialogue centered on strategies depicted in the newly-released documentary The Interrupters.

The panel, sponsored by UC Berkeley, included Alex Kotlowitz, who co-produced the film with Steve James, Jabari Mahiri, professor in the Graduate School of Education, Emily Ozer, associate professor at the School of Public Health, Susan Stone, associate professor in the School of Social Welfare, Ron Smith, principal at West Oakland Middle School, and moderator Cynthia Gorney, professor at the School of Journalism.

The Interrupters — currently playing at the Shattuck Cinema — focuses on three individuals, all reformed gang members. They are part of CeaseFire, a nonprofit organization that trains mostly formerly-incarcerated people to work on the streets of Chicago where they insert themselves into situations likely to explode into violence, such as gang retaliation.

CeaseFire looks at violence as a disease, a public health issue. “That takes morality out of the equation,” Kotlowitz said, before showing two clips from the film. “There’s no longer good and bad people. It makes it easier to grapple with the actors.”

Social work professor Stone pointed out that methods used by the workers — known as “interrupters” — are different from the social work training people get at universities, where students are explicitly taught not to become personally involved with their clients. The Interrupters become highly involved, going to the homes and funerals of people they’re working with — even visiting them when they are re-incarcerated. She said that rather than CeaseFire workers becoming overwhelmed by the situations they get into, “I saw the Interrupters being healed themselves.”

Jabari Mahiri is a professor of education and works hands-on in the Berkeley public schools. He’s particularly involved in Berkeley’s new charter middle and high school , Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement. He said that, in the right setting, teachers can do the job of the interrupters.

He pointed out several problems in the school setting. One is that there are few male teachers — and even fewer African American educators in the schools. “Sometimes the only African American man is the custodian,” he said.

And he talked about another societal problem: guns. Before there were so many guns on the streets — and on TV and in video games — youth solved their differences in less lethal ways, he said.  

“People had fights and disagreements, but they didn’t end with the devastation that we see going on now,” he said, adding, “We need to start getting serious about gun control.”

Another policy question, brought out to a degree in the film, was the need for jobs for young people — and particularly, jobs for people getting out of prison. “That’s a political problem,” commented one member of the audience.

Dr. Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilmember, also in the audience, agreed. “The question of jobs is paramount for us, and it is racialized,” he said. “The more unequal the society becomes in terms of income, the more people end up in jail.” He said people need to eat and will enter the violence-prone “underground economy” if there aren’t other options.

When people in the audience spoke, it became evident that many were doing some of the same work as the interrupters in the film. Regina Jackson is executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center. She said her program works with young people “so they can learn to value their lives [and] begin to see their path to greatness.”

In that vein, she said the EOYDC worked with youth to create a volume of poetry called Y U Gotta Call It Ghetto? which encouraged introspection among the teen authors. “Every opportunity to succeed is one more bud that gets to open,” Jackson said, explaining that while the program is small, its work is important for the youth and for the community.

The audience reserved its greatest applause for three of the young people Jackson had brought with her — authors of poems in Y U Gotta Call It Ghetto?

Jamal Racheed, 17, read one of his poems, which talks, in part, about working “through difficulties/to discover mysteries/about myself.”

And he closed out the program with some words of promise. “One of the things I was asking myself was, ‘Do people still believe in hope?’”

He answered his question, pointing to himself and the two other teen authors standing before the crowd. “Not to be cocky,” he said, “I think we’re examples of hope.”

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