9:33am

Mon August 1, 2011
Movie Interviews

Gang 'Interrupters' Fight Chicago's Cycle Of Violence

For 11 years, former gang members in Chicago have entered dangerous neighborhoods in the city and staged group interventions for at-risk youth, in an effort to try to stop the cycle of retaliatory gang violence that plagues the city's western and southern neighborhoods.

The men and women, known as "violence interrupters," work with an organization called CeaseFire, which operates under the assumption that violence moves through a city in the same way that an infectious disease moves through the body. To fix crime, says the organization, violence needs to be stopped at the source.

But there's a problem: "Not just anybody can come in and tell a guy to put his gun down," says CeaseFire's director Tio Hardiman, in a scene from The Interrupters, a new documentary about the group. "Most of the violence interrupters come from the hierarchy in some of these gangs. [And they] have one goal in mind: to stop killings. They're not trying to dismantle gangs. What they're trying to do is save a life."

The film is a collaboration between Hoop Dreams director Steve James and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who profiled their organization in 2008 for The New York Times Magazine. The topic of violence in Chicago hit particularly close to home for both men, James tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"Alex saw three people in the course of writing [his book There Are No Children Here] perish on the streets," he says. "And for me, two people [related to the cast] from Hoop Dreams ... were murdered. ... What we wanted to do, in some ways, was to refocus some attention on this issue because it feels like we've gotten to a point where murders are down, but they're still way too high. And I think there's this feeling that we've kind of done what we can do — and it's just the way those neighborhoods are at this point."

Members of CeaseFire establish relationships with people affected by violence and then work to get them to channel their anger in non-violent ways. The film profiles three of the interrupters, including a man whose father was murdered and another who committed a murder when he was 17.

The third subject of the film is Ameena Matthews, one of only two female members of Chicago's interrupters team. Matthews is the daughter of a famous gang member and had been in a gang herself — which, she says, gives her credibility when navigating potentially volatile situations among teens on the streets.

"The first thing they'll say [to you] if you come on the block and you haven't lived or walked the walk, [is] 'How can you tell me anything? You don't know how I live. You don't know how I breathe. You don't know nothing,'" Matthew says. "And nine times out of ten, these little young guys and girls that I encounter, they know my father."

Gang members who aren't familiar with Matthews or her father will often do research on her before she comes back to talk to them again, she says.

"And when I come back around, the way they look is 'Oh my goodness, what did I do to have this person come and speak to me?'" she says. "It's a door opener."

When Matthews was heavily involved in gang activities, it was her Muslim faith, her children and grandmother who served as her own violence interrupters, she says.

"[My grandmother] would step in the middle of raids, asking, 'Where's Ameena?'" she says. "Guns were drawn and she's not even looking at the guns or the gas that was thrown in the building to smoke us out, she's yelling my name and telling me to get my behind out. ... She was there."


Interview Highlights

On having a camera crew follow her while talking to former gang members

Matthews: "When Steve and Alex were on location, [there was] still business that needed to be tended to. And that was something that I needed not to worry about, these cameras. I needed to make sure the business at hand was taken care of ... I didn't feel from my heart that Steve and Alex were there for any type of ill."

On making sure Matthews was comfortable with filming

James: "It took us a long time to get Ameena to a place where she was fully open with us. She gave us access to her mediations and she gave us an initial terrific interview, but when we talk about this, there was a point earlier in the process where I think she did see us as maybe like the other media and she was really wondering, 'What is it that these guys really want?' And I think it took a while to get to that place."

Matthews: "The issue is that I fought so hard to get to where I am today. And what I do in the streets, it's personable and it's personal but they wanted the storytelling about who Ameena is inside and out of being a violence interrupter ... I have children and some people don't look at my life — as far as my dad being who he is and as far as my journey and where I've come — [as a] nice thing. And it was hard for me to let that guard down and let them in."

On fighting back

Matthews: "When you're looking at these guys and these girls and they're on defense, they don't want to fight, they don't want to kill. That's the given of what happens and then when I come in, someone after knowing where I've been, will use that as an out. 'Well, you better be glad that Ameena told me to fall back because if it wasn't for her that came in and stopped that, then I would have done what I needed to do to take care of my business.'"

On funerals

Matthews: "Chicago has always been notoriously known for street organization, crimes and murders and all that but what's so profound for me is to see that, as I'm growing up, that death is inevitable and we're not afraid of it ... In that casket, I'm looking at 13, 14, 15, 18, 19-year-old men and women dying on the streets of Chicago. That's what's so profound to me about the violence.

"People look at it and they say, 'Oh, well, Chicago has always been violent.' But Chicago has not always had the youth violence and the youth death as high as it has been for the last several years. [That] has struck my nerve and my heart and my soul."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new documentary "The Interrupters" is about former gang leaders who now are working with current gang members, trying to intervene to prevent violence. The violence interrupters break up fights as they're happening, mediate, call for truces or simply try to talk someone out of violent retaliation. The Violence Interrupters Project is part of a larger anti-gang violence program in Chicago called CeaseFire.

My guests are the film's director, Steve James, and one of the interrupters that the film follows, Ameena Matthews. James also directed "Hoop Dreams." His film "The Interrupters" was inspired by a New York Times magazine article written by Alex Kotlowitz, who produced the film with James.

Ameena Matthews used to be the enforcer in a gang, and has a lot of street credibility. Her father, Jeff Fort, led one of Chicago's most notorious gangs, The Black Rangers, which he expanded into a street cartel that united many individual gangs in the '60s. He's now in prison for drug trafficking, conspiracy and murder.

Before we talk, let's hear a scene for the beginning of "The Interrupters." It takes place at a roundtable meeting of the Violence Interrupters. We'll hear a couple of cutaways to Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire Illinois, who originated and piloted the Violence Interrupters Project.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Interrupters")

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody that's in the meeting, this is serious now, okay. We're in a crisis mode, and we need to people to step up to this table and go over and beyond. Guys are getting killed for just anything. Have there been any conflicts mediated on the front end from last week to this week?

Unidentified Man #2: Two guys was arguing. One guy threatened to blow the other guy's wig back. I got him to calm down, tell him he didn't shoot you. He was just talking. We stopped that one on the front end.

Unidentified Man #3: That kid, he was off in a pretty crazy neighborhood. Some guys passed by in a car. They said something. He jumped out in the middle of the street, confronted these guys. The guy went behind him with a baseball bat, hit him in his legs, dropped him to his knees and then cracked his head open. Our understanding is he wants to back away.

Mr. TIO HARDIMAN (Director, The Interrupters Project): I had the dirty dozen at the table. We've always had outreach workers, but the violence was not necessarily going down at that point. So in the year 2004, we began a new concept called The Violence Interrupters.

Most of The Violence Interrupters come from the hierarchy in some of these gangs, because can't no anybody come in and tell a guy to put his gun down.

People at this table used to shoot at each other, used to try to go at each other for real, serious enemies.

Unidentified Man #4: For real.

Mr. HARDIMAN: I haven't been around this many (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARDIMAN: To stop a killer, you have to be able to intercept whispers.

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible) they kept calling me, and they shooting at me. What you want me to do? They're, like, what you want me to do?

Mr. HARDIMAN: The Violence Interrupters have one goal in mind: to stop killing. They're not trying to dismantle gangs. What they're trying to do is save a life.

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Interrupters."

Steve James, Ameena Matthews, welcome to FRESH AIR. Steve, why did you want to make a film about the violence interrupters?

Mr. STEVE JAMES (Director, "The Interrupters"): Well, it really started with my colleague Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote an article in the New York Times magazine that focused on CeaseFire. And Alex and I have been friends for years, looking to do something together. And when I read the article, I called him up, and I said I think this is the thing we should do.

And I think for both of us, we've seen violence in this city be so persistent and seem to paralyze the city in some ways, and even personally. Alex, in his book "There are No Children Here," he saw three people he knew, in the course of writing that book, perish on the streets.

And for me, two people from "Hoop Dreams," Arthur Agee, one of the kids we followed, his dad was murdered back in 2004. And William Gates, the other kid we followed in that film, his older brother Curtis was murdered in 2001.

GROSS: So this is an issue that strikes really close to home for you.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah. I think, you know, it's like I've been blessed because I haven't been touched in my own family by this violence. But seeing the impact that it had on Arthur and William and their families was just profoundly devastating.

And so I think, you know, what we wanted to do was maybe, in some way, is to refocus some attention on this issue because it feels like we've gotten to a point where, you know, murders are down since the '90s, which is great news, but they're still way too high.

And I think there's this feeling that we've kind of done what we can do, and, you know, it's just the way those neighborhoods are at this point.

GROSS: Now, Ameena is one of the people you focus on in the film, one of the interrupters you focus on. Why did you choose her? The answer's obvious to anyone who's seen the film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But for those of our listeners who haven't...

Mr. JAMES: Well, when we went to CeaseFire after Alex's article and approached them about doing a film, we wanted to meet with several interrupters to see if the thing we would be - you know, that would be the hardest to get - which is mediations in the street - would be possible with a camera there.

And, of course, by meeting some of the interrupters - and Alex knew a bunch of them - I mean, Ameena immediately jumped out. She's one of only two women interrupters around the table. And she's this - as you noted, if you've seen the film, she's this incredibly charismatic person, you know, that, you know, she walks into a room, and your eyes go to her.

And I think the other thing was is that we knew that she was the daughter of Jeff Fort, who is, you know, one of the most notorious gang leaders in the history of Chicago crime. And, you know, all of that just made us think we've got to have Ameena in this film.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a scene with Ameena in it. And this scene starts with Ameena describing the story of a boy who was shot on his front porch. And then we hear her at a street prayer vigil for him, trying to talk his friends and family out of violently avenging his death.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Interrupters")

Ms. AMEENA MATTHEWS: Their mosque is holding a prayer vigil for a kid shot sitting in front of his home, just listening to the radio. Corey(ph) definitely wasn't in a gang, and he was loved by his block.

When rage sets in, when ego sets in, when that tendency sets in - hey, I'm gonna walk down here to where Corey's friends are. You stay right here. These young guys say let's go get who we think did it.

I'm hearing 20 different things why that brother got changed, and all of it is stupid. All of it is stupid. Two o'clock in the afternoon, when these babies coming home from school, y'all shoot. For real? This is unacceptable for me to be holding this boy, this young man's obituary. Schools, churches, your mama's house, your cars, those are safe zones.

When I was about your age, I was making some real stupid decisions and some stupid calls that was causing me, my life, blood on my hands and my head. Stop.

Who does this baby belong to? Who does this little shorty belong to? He just hanging around y'all? He's just hanging? This little - he's just hanging around y'all, right? So he see everything that you all do, right? So if this brother right here catch a case and do 100 years, whose fault is it? It's his fault? Teach him righteous.

GROSS: That's Ameena Matthews in a scene from the new documentary, "The Interrupters." Ameena, did that particular story end with violent retribution, or were you able to help prevent that from happening?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Yeah, we stopped retaliation. It was done at that point. And Corey wasn't shot on his porch. He was short in the car in front of his house with his mother in the car speaking with him. So that's really how his life ended. And we stopped the retaliation. And from there, it's been pretty quiet from that situation.

GROSS: Ameena, have - you've seen a lot of funerals, both from the times when you were in the life and now as an interrupter working with young people trying to prevent violence. Has the tone of funerals changed from when you were young to now, when you're attending the funerals of a lot of young people?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Absolutely. Steven spoke about, early on in the interview, about the violence and how it's down in the - you know, but Chicago has always been notoriously known for, you know, street organization, crimes and murder and all that.

But what's so profound for me is to see that, as I'm growing up, and death is inevitable, and we're not afraid of it. And what's so profound to me is that in that casket, I'm looking at 13, 14, 15, 18, 19-year-old men and women dying on the streets of Chicago. That's what's so profound to me about the violence.

People look at it, and they say, well, oh, Chicago has always been violent. But Chicago has not had the youth violence and the youth death as high as it's been for the last several years. So that is the most profound impact that has struck my nerve and my heart and my soul, you know, and it's just heart-wrenching to me.

GROSS: My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary "The Interrupters," and Ameena Matthews, one of the violence interrupters that the film follows.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary "The Interrupters," about a group of former gang leaders in Chicago who now are members of The Violence Interrupters. They intervene to prevent gang violence. And also with us is one of the interrupters the film follows, Ameena Matthews.

How did you become a violence interrupter?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Wow. It's - I'm asked that question a lot, and it was a mediation that needed to be handled. It was at Leo High School. Leo High School is in the Auburn Gresham area of Chicago. And this young man and a couple of guys got into a fight in the school. And one of the young guys got his shoes stolen, and he went home, and he told his brother, and his brother wanted to go back and, you know, defend him.

And the mother called CeaseFire and got in touch with Tio, and Tio got in touch with James Highsmith, which is one of the guys that taught me the game back in my heyday of my life.

And he had called and asked me could I help him with a situation that could turn deadly. And I did. And I didn't know the young man, and I got in a car and grabbed some few guys, because I didn't know what the temperament of this young man was.

And we drove down on where we thought this young man would be, and I asked him to get in the van, and he ran from me. And then he started calling people and asking, who is this lady in a scarf looking for him.

And then I actually sat down with him and talked to him and weighed his options. And he promised that he was going to stand down. And we got the other side. James was handling the other side, and we got them to stand down, and that was a mediation that was stopped.

Really, we consider that a front end. It was, you know, a boys' fight, and that it didn't end up in gunplay. And from there on, anything...

GROSS: And had you ever done anything like that?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Have I ever done anything like that before? I got kids, Terry. So, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: It's - you know, yes and no. I didn't know exactly the weight that it held. But, you know, in the street, and you're on the block, and you're trying to hustle, and you've got a, you know, a mob that you're dealing with, and you want to keep peace. You don't want the police to come. You don't want, you know, drama on your block.

Or - yeah, if it's some - you know, if it's some beefing going on, you get right in the middle of it and you resolve it, and then you keep it moving.

GROSS: So the concept of the Violence Interrupters is that these are people who have been not only gang members, but often in the leadership of the gangs, because that will give them more credibility on the street when dealing with other gang members.

So did the people - do you find that a useful premise, a useful working premise? Does that work? Do you have more credibility when you're trying to mediate, when you're trying to prevent, you know, retribution because you were in the gang?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Yes. In the population that we're dealing with, you know, you have to have some type of background. The first thing that they'll say if you come on the block and you haven't lived or walked the walk: How can you tell me anything? You don't how I live. You don't know how I breathe. You don't know nothing.

And nine times out of 10, with these little young guys and girls that I encounter, they know my father maybe 45 percent, but they knew different things about what I did 75, 85 percent, because it was a household name with maybe their aunt or their uncle or their grandfather or their father, even with my old man. Once I get in, I'll mention, you know, or they'll ask me, because, of course, they'll go and pull my file.

Pulling file is making phone calls, riding down on people and saying: Is this person, this person, is this person? And, you know, and when they come back, or if I ride back around, the way that they look is like, oh, my goodness. What did I do to have this person come and speak to me? And, you know, it is. It's a door-opener.

GROSS: So what's one of the things in your file that is most impressive?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: I don't have the file in front of me right now. So I just can't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: You know, of course you know that I'm a girl, and I ran with the big dogs. I ran with the guys that - the known brothers in the street. And when I say known, I mean known brothers in the street, and it had nothing to do with my old man - known brothers of the street. And with every interaction that they made, I was right there beside them, or if not in front of them leading the charge.

And so I didn't back down from - I would really die for what I believed in back there, the same way as now. And then I understand how these kids feel, that they're out on the street, and it's like Afghanistan to them. And if one of their brothers or sisters die out there, it's like a fallen soldier over there across the waters. They feel that this is something that is honorable, and that I served well.

GROSS: And in the movie, you describe this gang as having dealt with drugs, stickups, pimping. You said that you would die, then, for what you believed in. What did you believe in?

Ms. MATTHEWS: You know, I really wasn't a banger. I wasn't a gang banger. I was out there hustling and thinking that I was making my life and my family's life a heck of a lot better by generating some finance.

You know, I felt really sincere about whatever was needed, whatever I needed to protect and whatever I needed to generate, that that's what I was going to do. And if anyone or anything got in the way, we had to take care and address that, and by any means necessary.

So it led me to have a sense of this was my land. I had to take care of it and protect it. And I had to make it work for me, also.

GROSS: Did you have an Ameena in your life? Did you have anybody like yourself to tell you violence isn't a good thing - anyone in your family, an outsider? Anyone?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, you know, not an outsider. You know, it's - history is just so profound, and me being a parent and looking back at a lot of things that I used to say that I never was going to do. And I look back, and with my kids, I think I've said maybe about a million times the exact words that Madea(ph) had said to me...

GROSS: This is your mother?

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...with my children - it's my grandmother. That's who raised me. So looking at her, she just looked like, to me, that's Madea. What does she know? She's a lady that get up and go to work, had three jobs sometimes. She would be dog tired coming in. What does she know?

We lived in a roach-infested apartment. What does she know? I'm going to make her life better, and she's going to see. But things that she was really telling me, and nuggets that she was dropping on me as I was growing up, it was really law. It was really the truth. She was - you know, got a heart of a gunfighter.

I mean, Madea would step in the middle of raids, asking: Where is Ameena? You know, guns is drawn, you know, and she's not even looking at the guns, not even looking at the gas that was thrown in the building to smoke us out. She's yelling my name and telling me to get my behind out and let's go home, and I'm not coming back again. And she was there. You know, but an outsider, nah.

GROSS: So when you started bringing home money that came from the gang and its illicit activities, she must have known where the money was coming from. Did she accept it?

Ms. MATTHEWS: No, not at all. No, she didn't accept it. No, she didn't condone that life. You know, she knew what was going on, because the apple didn't fall too far from the tree from my mom, you know. So she never accused me. She never did. But she'd seen the Cadillacs driving up, and she'd seen the, you know, the Corvettes driving up, and she'd seen the cars that I was driving and the clothes.

And when I dropped the money to her, she would tell me that she didn't want that (bleep). She said don't bring that (bleep) in my house. So what I would do is I would give it to another family member to use it to try to, you know, get a down-payment on now where we live.

So she didn't, but she never closed her door. She never locked her door on me. She never locked her door on, you know, my son or her other grandchildren. But she would drop nuggets, and it wasn't acceptable.

GROSS: Ameena Matthews and Steve James will be back in the second half of the show. Matthews is one of the violence interrupters featured in James' new documentary "The Interrupters."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview about former gang leaders in Chicago who now intervene to prevent gang and youth violence.

My guest Steve James directed the new documentary, "The Interrupters," about this group. He also directed the documentary "Hoop Dreams."

Ameena Matthews is one of the violence interrupters the film follows. She's a former gang enforcer. When we left off, she was talking about being raised by her grandmother.

You were talking about how your grandmother laid down the law.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's times when you do that. We see an example of that in the film, and I'd like to play that scene. Through the film, you're working with a 19-year-old young woman named Capricia. And she's - she has no parents. And you've been working with her thinking that you're really kind of making headway and getting her to believe in herself and to believe that she can make changes and believe that she can be loved and that she could lead a more - just a better life. And then there's this really discouraging moment where you find out that she's kind of lied to you about school.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So in the first part of this scene, you're describing what happened. In the second part, we hear you and her sitting on park bench and talking. And this is a scene from the new documentary "The Interrupters."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Interrupters")

Ms. MATTHEWS: She was saying that tomorrow's the first day of school, and I'm so excited. And I was excited for her. She's going with a fresh hairdo. I went today and found out school started three weeks ago.

CAPRICIA: I did go to school.

Ms. MATTHEWS: You went to school when you got the (bleep) ready to.

CAPRICIA: Ooh.

Ms. MATTHEWS: You didn't go up there what it was time for them to go in.

CAPRICIA: Actually, yes I did. Miss Ameena, you don't know that. You don't know that.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Capricia...

CAPRICIA: Yeah.

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...your counselor said you got there when you got there.

CAPRICIA: No. I got there at 8:55, before everybody.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Capricia?

CAPRICIA: Right.

Ms. MATTHEWS: You didn't fight hard enough for you to get up in that school and do what you need to do.

CAPRICIA: Nah. I ain't got to say nothing.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Capricia, don't nobody have to kiss your ass for you to do what you need to do for you.

CAPRICIA: But I'm still going to be the same person at the end of the day.

Ms. MATTHEWS: At the end of the day doing what?

CAPRICIA: Getting my life together takes time.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Time for what? You did two years out of your life. Wasn't that enough time for you to get your life together? What you do is you manipulate, you do this and you do that, and then you're so ashamed and afraid that what I ask you to be honest with me, you can't. Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved?

CAPRICIA: No.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Absolutely.

CAPRICIA: No.

Ms. MATTHEWS: First thing, you got to love you.

GROSS: All I can say is, wow. Ameena, that's really amazing, the work that you're doing with her there and how hard you're trying to reach Capricia.

I should mention what we've just heard is a scene from the new documentary, "The Interrupters." My guests are Ameena Matthews, who we just heard in that scene, talking to the young woman Capricia, and Steve James, who is the director of the film. He also directed the now-famous documentary "Hoop Dreams," about young basketball players.

So, Ameena, you were just talking about how your grandmother really laid down the law and was really tough with you. How did you know that this was time to really kind of get tough with her? We see so many different sides of you in this film. There's times when you're just so warm and loving and supportive, and times like this when it's time to just really get tough.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Well, you know, time is valuable, and it's not promised us. And I just looked at Capricia as, you know, only for the grace of God, there once I was. So with someone like Capricia, you can't, baby can you please, when you feel like it, get up and go to school? And can you please, baby, not go back to jail? And can you - you can't, because then she'll manipulate that circumstance and situation. But once you let me in and you let me know that you want what I have to offer, then I feel like, look, this is what you need to do for you, especially after I'm putting in my time, my money, leaving my children and my family for her, and she's out there struggling.

So, you know, that scene just, I guess, came from the heart, man. And it's something that needed to have been addressed with her, and still continuously to be addressed with her, because if it doesn't, it's going to be fatal for her.

GROSS: Now, Steve James, you were there with the camera to shoot that scene for your documentary, "The Interrupters." How did you get to be at that moment that we just heard, at that scene we just heard, with the camera?

Mr. JAMES: Well, as you said earlier, you know, this is a story that is sort of, you know, strung throughout the film. We first met Capricia when we shot a mediation that the interrupters did and that Ameena was at the center of any transitional home where Capricia lived. And Capricia was quite belligerent in that sequence and sort of stood out.

And at one point, you know, Ameena, when she's trying to talk people into, you know, putting this all past them and making peace, she really latches onto Capricia and says, you know, and that's for you, too, little Ameena.

And from that moment, I remember seeing, through the camera, this young girl's face just light up at the attention, this otherwise very tough kid, just light up at the attention that Ameena gave her in that moment.

And we saw that they exchanged, you know, digits and we thought, you know, I wonder where this is going. And so I think what happened - in order for a scene like that to happen on the bench, we had to have been there along the way, and you see that in the film, because there's other scenes. And we had to - you know, we had to actually establish a relationship with Capricia, too - not, obviously, in the same way Ameena does. But we really came to know Capricia quite well, and even spent time with her away from the shooting during the course of that year that Ameena was in her life, and is still in her life.

I mean, we just both saw Capricia a few weeks ago, and she's, you know, she's out of the juvenile facility again, and Ameena is still very, very hopeful that this is going to be the time when, you know, she really finally turns that corner.

GROSS: My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary "The Interrupters," and Ameena Matthews, one of the violence interrupters that the film follows.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary "The Interrupters," about a group of former gang leaders in Chicago who now are members of the violence interrupters. They intervene to prevent gang and youth violence. Also with us is one of the interrupters the film follows, Ameena Matthews. When we left off, we were talking about whether the presence of the camera affected the actions of the people being filmed.

Ameena, did it affect your work at all or your comfort level to know that you were being filmed during interactions like the one we just heard with Capricia?

Ms. MATTHEWS: No. I don't think so, because at the time when Steve and Alex and Zach was on location, it was business that needed to be tend to, you know, and that was something that I needed not to worry about, is these cameras. And I needed to make sure that the business at hand was taken care of, because it was of urgency.

I didn't feel from my heart that Steve and Alex and Zach was there for any type of ill or, you know, the media that we see now sometimes kind of twists and pick and choose what they want and destroy the message. But I didn't feel that from Steve. I didn't feel that from Alex, because Alex had did a beautiful piece on the program, you know, some months before. So it didn't affect my effectiveness. I thought that it would, but as it flowed, it didn't.

And, you know, they were not on my back, you know...

Mr. JAMES: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...telling me to move over so I can get this shot. You know, they got what they needed from their space, and not in our space.

Mr. JAMES: Can I add something to that?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. JAMES: Because in that scene with Capricia, at one point, Capricia says to Ameena, well, it's easy for you to open up. It's - that's easy for you to do. And Ameena says, no. I don't just open up to anybody.

And the thing that was interesting about that is is that Ameena was telling the absolute truth, because it took us a long time to get Ameena to a place where I think she was fully open with us. I mean, she gave us access to her mediations, and she gave us an initial terrific interview.

But I do think, when we've talked about this, Ameena and I have talked about this, it's - there was a point earlier in the process where I think she did see us as maybe like the other media. And she was really wondering, like, what is it that these guys really want?

Ms. MATTHEWS: The issue, and Steve knows this, is that I fought so hard to get to where I am today. And what I do in the streets, it's personable and it's personal, but they wanted the storytelling about who Ameena is inside and out of being a violence interrupter. It's like looking at the brain of an interrupters.

And I have children and, you know, and some people don't look at my life - far as my dad being who he is and as far as my journey and where I've come - a nice thing. And it was hard for me to let that guard down and let them in so they could understand, so people can understand that here it is, someone that has come from the South Side of Chicago, that has been raised under bricks and, you know, a flower has grown from up under the bricks.

So I was really just reluctant to let them in, because I know people don't love my dad like I love my dad. And I'm very protective of my family, because I've lost my brother to the streets, you know, and I had to identify his body in the river. And it was because of people that loved - said that they loved him, killed him.

So it was kind of - you know, I know Steve. He doesn't look and he doesn't feel like a mean, malicious person and want to get the best next thing. And Alex showed that through black-and-white in the paper. I let them into my world and I put myself at a vulnerable state for people to judge. And so that's why the reluctantcy was there.

GROSS: I think the key word that you just said is vulnerable. That's like the last thing that you're allowed to show when you're doing work on the street, is vulnerability. I mean, what everybody says is if you show a vulnerable part of yourself, that's what people will take advantage of and exploit.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Right. Right.

GROSS: So I can understand why that was really hard to show any vulnerability in a public way.

You know, Ameena, one of the things you mentioned, you know, in talking about vulnerability, you're talking to a group of young teenagers - I think it's like in their school, in a classroom - and you're trying to convince, you're trying so hard to convince them, even if somebody has done something to your friend or to you, the answer isn't to fight back. You can be strong and not fight. Not fighting can be a sign of strength. You can feel really good about yourself by not fighting.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Right.

GROSS: And they're all saying to you sure, that's easy to say. Maybe it's even true. But if you don't fight back, you're going to be seen as a punk. You're going to be seen as being weak, and people are just going to take advantage of you for that.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so how do you talk young people - I mean, it's true, isn't it, that you will be seen as a punk if you don't fight back? So how do you not fight back in a situation where that's the norm and that's how you prove yourself?

Ms. MATTHEWS: You know, and that's what makes me effective, because when you're looking at these guys and these girls and they're on defense and they don't want to fight. They don't want to kill. That's like the result of, you know, that's the given of what happens. And then when I come in, someone after knowing where I've been, and they'll use that as an out. You know, well, you better be glad that Ameena told me to fall back, because if it wasn't for her or, you know, one of the other interrupters that came in and, you know, stopped that, then I would have done what I needed to do to take care of my business.

Mr. JAMES: She does this wonderful thing in the - early in the film that I just think is brilliant. I mean, it's Ameena, through and through. After there's this big altercation in the streets and she's getting the one guy that got hit by a brick away from it, and he's in her car, and he's a guy who's clearly just come back from prison from the way the discussion progresses.

And she says, you know, I know you don't want to go back, and you want to look after your family by not going back and retaliating. And she says to him, she goes, that's so gangster of you. Which is like taking this concept of gangster, which is normally ascribed to being tough and retaliatory and turning it completely around. And the guy goes with it.

GROSS: That leads to another interesting thing, Steve, about making this movie. There are scenes where people have just been a victim of violence. There are scenes where people have hurt somebody else. There are scenes where people are talking about wanting to retaliate. And these are things that could be seen as incriminating or almost incriminating. So you've probably had to make some tough decisions about what to leave in and what to take out to protect the people who were being really honest.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Or his self.

GROSS: Or his - right, or yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: Or he'll be on the witness stand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Yes.

GROSS: So would you talk about that process a little bit, what your lines were?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, first of all, at a certain point during the editing, we really vetted the film with legal counsel to make sure that there was nothing in there that would lead to someone being arrested, frankly.

But even as, I think, maybe a more interesting way for us is, in the film, when you meet Ameena and Kobi and Eddie, the interrupters, and you get to know them through the back-stories of what they did, we're very careful not to tell you too much about that, even. Because just like Ameena, early in the interview, was reluctant to get into her file, as she said, it's like we try to respect the fact that you, as an audience, don't need to know all those details if they don't want to share those details with you.

You get - we feel like you get to know enough of what you need to know, and that's it. And even in the meetings, you don't, you know, they don't talk about a gang by name. They say Group A, Group B, even though everybody in the room may, in fact, know exactly which gangs are involved, because if it gets back to the streets that somebody's name was coming up in a meeting or a gang name was coming up in a meeting, that could be a problem for the interrupters.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Right. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new documentary "The Interrupters," which is about a group of former gang members in Chicago who are now dedicated to preventing gang violence, to intervening, to mediating, to talking people out of retaliating. My guests are Steve James, who is the director of the documentary, "The Interrupters," and Ameena Matthews, who is one of the interrupters and is really amazing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...to watch in action.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new documentary "The Interrupters," which is about a group of former gang members in Chicago who now try to intervene and prevent violence. So they will try to mediate disputes. They will try to talk individuals out of retaliating or taking any kind of a violent action. So along with Steve James, the director of the documentary, Ameena Matthews is joining us. She's one of the interrupters.

You know, Ameena, one of the things that I was thinking about watching the movie is how sometimes like something that's seen as the slightest sign of disrespect will set somebody off...

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and it will lead to violence. And you say something very interesting about that. You mentioned that when you were young and your father was in prison and your mother's boyfriend sexually abused you, you were just really on a short fuse. So after a situation like that, if someone just knocked into you and didn't apologize, you'd flip immediately into rage.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I thought that was a really interesting explanation for how what could be seen as a really like minor infringement or minor sign of disrespect can be met with such a kind of violent, hostile reaction.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Right.

GROSS: Does sharing stories like that help people consider their own reactions?

Ms. MATTHEWS: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's, like, a profound issue in our community, may it be African-American or white, I mean, you know, these girls are violated, even the guys are. And it's, you know, taboo to talk about, and you're not feeling good and, you know, just understanding what they're going through because I went through it, you know, been there, done that and I have the T-shirt, the coffee mug and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...you know, all of that. And I understand their mindset of why they would react and go from zero to rage in 30 seconds. You know, I understand that. So, yeah. But that did play a part in my history.

GROSS: You are Muslim, and your husband is the...

Ms. MATTHEWS: Big daddy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: He is the Big daddy.

GROSS: Yeah. He's the ahead of the mosque that you belong to. And I'm thinking that you wear a headscarf when you're on the street.

Ms. MATTHEWS: All the time. Got on one now.

GROSS: I'm thinking that must be actually very valuable in its own way, because what it's saying - you dress very modestly. And what it's saying to the young men who you work with on the streets is like you are not there as an object of - you know, you're not there as a sexual object in any way. And you're not presenting yourself as, like, a sexual object in any way, and they are not to see you that way.

And you're also as implicitly sending the message to the young women: You're not there to compete with them, sexually. You're not there to compete about who's better-looking or who's got the better clothes. You are there to help them, and that's it.

Ms. MATTHEWS: I need you to have that typed up and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...email that to me so I can present that to them as I'm introducing myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: Yes, that's exactly it. Very good put together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: People, I've never - I don't - I ain't think about that, see. I just, you know, get up and get dressed, Terry. I didn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: I - you know, but it was a scene that, early on in the movie, when one of the guys, they were in Inglewood and the guy that got hit with the rock and, you know, his guys were - they all were about to beat this group of sisters up because the sisters came on the bus from, like, literally, 30 blocks east and maybe 15 blocks south on the bus with a knife and their kids, five and - they were about four or five, five or six, their kids, and they were about to defend their brother.

And one of the guys that I know has a lot of respect in the community, and if he jumped everybody else would jump in just and mutilate these girls. And I would grab him and take him down the street, and I said, look. That's a sister. That's a woman. You talk to her like you talk to me. And he clearly looked at me, and he put his finger up and he pointed back at her and said: She does not talk to me like you talk to me, Ameena. That B do not talk to me like you talk to me. You don't - she don't carry herself like you carry yourself.

And at that moment, I was like - I don't have nothing to say, because she...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATTHEWS: ...you know, I, you know, what is my comeback from that? But she still is a sister, and you got to think about what you're doing.

GROSS: Steve, your film is filled with interesting people, like Ameena, and some amazing stories. Are there things that you learned by making this film that you really didn't understand before?

Mr. JAMES: Oh, absolutely. You know, I think, you know, because I don't obviously live in Inglewood or those communities that we're following, documenting in the film, I think I had this sense that people were numb to the violence in those communities, because it's so pervasive, and that they've maybe even given up. Because that's the sense you get when you read the articles day after day in the paper of the violence. And I think one of the things that was remarkable about this experience in making this film was, number one, seeing they're not numb at all.

They may not be surprised when they lose a loved one, but they're devastated. And you see that, you know, I think, in this film. And people haven't given up hope. People, despite the fact that the economy's where it's at, all the vacant lots and foreclosed homes and lack of jobs, people still have some hope, tenuous though it may be.

GROSS: Ameena Matthews, Steve James, thank you so much.

Mr. JAMES: It's been great being here.

Ms. MATTHEWS: Thank you.

GROSS: Steve James directed the new documentary "The Interrupters." Ameena Matthews is one of the violence interrupters that the film follows. The violence interrupters project is part of the group CeaseFire Illinois.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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