By Brent Glass
America has problems. Who knew? Well, I suppose, just about everyone. When most people think of America’s problems they are quick to forgo the mirror and look to large cities. It’s easy to unjustly assign blame to urban areas. I mean, just take a look at their contributions to the emission of greenhouse gases and their murder rates. However, statistics can be misleading. Rural areas, on average, actually produce more greenhouse gases per capita than urban ones (Speck, 2013). The murder rate is a little less forgiving. Even figured as per capita, murder rates in urban areas tower over rural areas. So cities aren’t the worst in all areas, but they are in at least one of the most important, right? One would think. But why, then, are more academics, administrators, and city planners convinced that cities are going to save the country?
I have been reading “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America” by Jeff Speck, a renowned city planner and architect. Not exactly a cake-walk of a read, but interesting nonetheless. Speck’s thesis, backed by compelling research and experts in the industry, is that as America looks to become less dependent on petroleum, both because of the financial burden and ever-growing environmental awareness, cities will flourish – but not just any cities, “walkable” ones. Cities where individuals can eat, sleep, work, and play in a single neighborhood. One city Speck applauds is Chicago. Chicago, Speck asserts, is car-optional; it is entirely possible to utilize public transportation and God’s gift of legs and feet to get around town. It is an example for other urban areas in this way.
Obviously, Chicago still has its fair share of woes. The City’s public debt is remarkably high and – even though violent crime across the nation is declining – their homicide rate is still one of the highest in the country. I know, let’s all move there! That sounds great, right? Let’s ditch our cars, move into lofts, and spend the rest of our lives as wannabe hipsters. At least, that’s the message I glean from some of these academics claiming that cities are the answer. I realize I loaded a few of my last statements with sarcasm, and that’s not completely fair. I fully plan to move into the city – and soon. Maybe not Chicago, but another major hub of culture and entertainment. My angst came from a truth that took me a while to comprehend.
Academics, city planners, and policy wonks constantly cook up nifty concoctions with the intention of helping urban areas – therefore usually, but not always, the less fortunate. However, more often than not, these very same people, claiming to have the needy at mind, focus on how to change urban areas by attracting new people to live in cities. This is not an inherently bad notion. The error lies with what is forgotten: what about the people already living in those cities?
As an outsider, it can be easy to forget about the disenfranchised living on the inside. So often the suggested solution to a sagging economy involves bringing in ambitious, young individuals. The general idea is to bring a thriving tax base to the city. Again, the idea is not innately a bad one. It is an undeniable fact that struggling cities (especially those like Detroit) are starving for a taxable population. However, a balance must be achieved if progress is expected.
Cognizant of this unforgiving equilibrium, I decided to immerse myself in troubles of urbanites. First, let me clarify. Helping the overall economy of a city will benefit the citizens. However, it must not be at the expense of their culture. The good news is that the citizens of Chicago (and other urban areas) are proud people. And, although it can be a setback at times, it is an overall boon; their culture will not soon die if they have anything to say about it. Citizens across the nation have dedicated themselves to reversing undesirable trends in their neighborhoods. One unique “neighborhood watch” program is be found in Chicago. CeaseFire is the Illinois branch of a national initiative, Cure Violence, and is funded by the city of Chicago. They call themselves “The Violence Interrupters” and their story is nobly presented in the documentary “The Interrupters.”
The Interrupters directive is fairly simple: prevent violence, especially homicides, in their neighborhoods. What sets their operation apart from others is that the “interrupters” were formerly gang members, and most have served a lengthy prison sentences. As a result, the interrupters have credibility on the streets, giving them an edge not available to police officers.
“The Interrupters” focused on the work of Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie. Ameena is the daughter of Jeff Fort, former gang leader, co-founder of the Black P. Stones gang, and the founder of the El Rukn faction. She uses her Muslim faith to help steer young women in better directions. Cobe is one of the most effective violence interrupters. He displayed his devotion when, in 2007, he worked without pay for seven months. Eddie served a 14-year sentence for murder. Like many gang members, Eddie was not forced to join but longed to be a part of something bigger than himself. Since his release, he has devoted himself to preventing violence in his neighborhood, often risking his own life to do so.
The film documents a year in the life of the aforementioned violence interrupters. Ameena is a dynamic interrupter, having the capability to be compassionate and stern, and the wherewithal to know when each is appropriate. One of her most impactful experiences was consoling the Albert family after Darrion Albert, a high school honor student, was beaten to death in the crossfire of a gang brawl. Her prowess was fully exposed when she took Caprysha under her wing. Growing up in a very dangerous neighborhood – Englewood – Caprysha was predisposed to violence. This upbringing failed to properly educate her, leaving her without a GED, and denied her of many simple pleasures the majority of Americans enjoy from time-to-time. In a touching scene, Ameena takes Caprysha to get a manicure. Caprysha, who had never had a manicure, was deeply moved, and that simple act allowed Ameena to foster a stronger positive foothold.
Cobe’s storyline was equally resounding. A proverbial story: two brothers who, though united through blood and the corresponding emotions, joined rival gangs. As a result, the mother lives in fear that there will come a day when one son will fall by the hand of the other. Although both sons graduated from high school, they were absorbed into gang culture. Cobe’s mission: bring them together and mediate a discussion. Another transformational story, Cobe intervened when a man, “Flamo,” was wronged. An enemy of Flamo’s tipped off the police that there were illegal weapons in his home. Flamo wasn’t home when the police arrived, so his brother and mother were arrested instead. Knowing who had made the call, Flamo was livid and poised for a counter attack. CeaseFire was tipped off to the situation and Cobe went to prevent Flamo from exacting vengeance.
The final profile was on Eddie. Eddie was one of the few Latino violence interrupters. Eddie’s past was one of the most troubling of all. As previously mentioned, Eddie had served 14 years for murder. Eddie now has one of the strongest resolves of the group. Maybe one of the most regretful, Eddie firmly believed that since he had taken a life, he was required to devote the rest of his to preventing violence. Eddie’s magnum opus was working with children. The documentary beautifully depicts the lives of children growing up in ghettos. Eddie entered the schools and acted as their confidant. Free from judgment or scrutiny from teachers, Eddie offered honest advice to the children who spoke of regular shootings and siblings joining gangs and dealing drugs. As with all of the stories included in “The Interrupters,” it leaves the viewer feeling distraught yet sanguine.
There is much to be taken away from “The Interrupters.” The delicate balance on which people live is evident in this documentary. Individuals who have never been acclimated to a poor urban lifestyle are quick to believe that no one would want to live that way. Au contraire. As Cobe noted, “some people don’t want the help.” Therein lies one of the reasons Chicagoans’ pride can be damaging. They have their way of life and have no desire to live another one – even if it’s better than their status quo.
The City of Chicago cut funding for CeaseFire last year. In 2012, the city signed a one-year contract for CeaseFire to cover two new neighborhoods, Lawndale and Woodlawn, in conjunction with the 19 it had already patrolled. By the city’s own estimates CeaseFire slashed shootings by 38 percent and homicides by 29 percent. That was not enough to persuade the city to renew the contract. Many things were likely factored in the decision, but odds are that CeaseFire had friction with the police force. Ameena and Eddie still work for CeaseFire Chicago and Cobe now works as a trainer for the national Cure Violence association.
“The Interrupters” is an important film. Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) did not make the movie to feel better about himself. Well, I guess that is a possibility, but I choose to think otherwise. He made this documentary to educate and promote action. If the future of this country really does lie within cities, it’s about time that we all start paying more attention to the present crises that involve them. Humans are usually shortsighted, but they don’t have to be.
Crime and violence will always exist, unfortunately. But a noble battle is always worth fighting. Many people in these situations believe they have to get violent; if they don’t, someone will get to them first. It’s a vicious circle. “If you don’t go hard, it’s your life.”
Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Urban Development.