‘Revenge City,’ Interrupted

By Trevor Ballanger

THE NIGHT SKY CASTS A shadow over Chicago, and a series of gunshots echo through the streets as three groups of onlookers—a thug, peace advocates and a film crew—become entangled in a violent crime. A young man’s life hangs in the balance, and “violence interrupters” stagger in their attempt at achieving peace. The camera crew filming the scene stands by, witnessing what every city fears most.

Those advocates are members of Cure Violence Illinois, a Chicago-based organization that arrests the spread of violence using methods associated with disease control: detection and interruption. Along with the organization’s outreach behavior, change agents and community coordinators, they possess the ability to defuse situations that lead to gang violence and death, according to Tio Hardiman, director of CVI, formerly known as CeaseFire.

It was this mission that caught the attention of Vice Media Inc. in New York, which sent a camera crew to produce “Chicago Interrupted,” a two-part series documenting the interrupters’ efforts that aired on Vice’s website Sept. 10 and Sept. 18. As of press time, the videos had been removed so they could be placed elsewhere on Vice.com, said Alex Detrick, Vice’s communications director, in an email.

Jed Thomas, the Britain-born producer and series director, said he thought it was important to film CVI’s efforts because inner-city violence is often ignored. He said Vice was attracted to the story because the company doesn’t shy away from truthful

subject matter.

The documentary was also produced by Bethesda, the video game publisher of popular titles like “The Elder Scrolls” and “Doom.” Pete Hines, vice president of Bethesda Softworks, said it was important to advertise with a company with editorially driven content to promote its latest video game, “Dishonored,” which follows the bodyguard of an assassinated princess

who tries to earn back his honor by finding her killer. When Vice pitched the documentary, Bethesda agreed to help produce the film because of “Dishonored’s” similar themes of revenge and justice.

“We were really lucky because everything at Vice is sponsored content,” Thomas said. “We threw this story out and we expected not to do it. [Vice was] a really forward-thinking, creative client who wanted to have something to say, rather than produce some kind of wooly, fluffy video. They didn’t try and change the film in any way. I don’t think any other client would have put that

story out.”

Thomas called Chicago the “revenge city” because of its long history of bloodshed. During the making of the series, he was guided by interrupter Ameena Matthews through the most dangerous parts of the city, including Englewood and Little Village, to seek out and defuse hostile situations through peaceful negotiation. Matthews said her past street experience in Englewood allows her to get inside the heads of violent offenders, which gives her the ability to relate to them on a

respectful level.

“Ameena, in my view, is a bold young lady,” Hardiman said. “She has a lot of tools in her toolkit. She’ll come out any kind of way to talk them down. She’ll bring up stuff that they didn’t know she knew about them. It’s all about education, and when you talk to the guys and say the right thing, it locks in their mind to help them think a different way.”

Matthews said she was very apprehensive about agreeing to do the project with the two white filmmakers because leading them into areas like Englewood could put all of their lives in jeopardy. She said her mind is trained to be aware of every exit strategy should mediation become dangerous. However, having other people present who aren’t trained to handle these situations could result in a loss of control.

Thomas said he became immediately involved in every situation once he turned on the camera, which he said possibly saved his life because no one wanted to be implicated in a crime caught on camera. In one conflict he filmed, Matthews and two interrupters attempted to resolve a situation involving a group of men who were planning to kill someone they suspected of stealing. Shots were fired, and Matthews said her immediate mindset was to run to a group of children in a nearby yard and shield them from stray bullets.

She said if someone had been shot, the police wouldn’t have looked at her as an interrupter helping two white men with an anti-violence documentary, and she might have faced jail time because of racial profiling. After the shots went off, Matthews returned to the shooter and made another attempt at a peaceful resolution.

“I know what his mindset was, but a bullet has no name,” Matthews said. “You know what he said to me? He said, ‘I didn’t even see the kids. All I kept seeing was my family getting guns pulled on them and money getting taken and my doors getting kicked in.’ I have to shake that s—t off. I can’t beat him up for it. He already admitted to where his head was. When he admitted that he was out of [line], I knew we got him.”

Thomas said the videos are a cry for help from Matthews and other Cure Violence members who are trying to break the cycle of revenge, adding that it was the appropriate time to reinforce concerns about gang violence and gun control in light of the upcoming election and President Obama’s ties to the city.

“It was actually really inspiring,” Thomas said. “[Matthews] is an incredible woman, and it was an amazing thing to watch and experience her doing that. I felt that as much as anyone could be in control, she was in control and had a lot of people’s respect.”

Matthews said control starts in the home with raising children and setting boundaries, including monitoring the consumption of violent content in media. Hines denies there is any evidence playing video games causes violent behavior. According to him, each game produced by Bethesda can be played with or without a violent solution, depending on the player’s preference. He said “Dishonored” is promoting choice rather than violence, but it is ultimately up to parents to control what content their children view.

“I have two boys,” Hines said. “I’m a huge advocate in that we have a very good system that runs through the Entertainment Software Ratings Board who provide and monitor how information is conveyed and displayed by video games in advertising, making sure parents understand the content of the games.”

Matthews said she was unaware of Bethesda’s involvement in the series, and that her children also play video games. She said her responsibility is to educate her children and make sure they understand that violent plotlines are not their reality.

Empathy and educating one’s self about particular neighborhoods and violence is a crucial part of defusing situations that people like Matthews are willing to challenge themselves with, CVI’s Hardiman said. Matthews agrees, noting it’s typical to work with co-workers at Cure Violence who once were willing to kill her before being “interrupted” but are now her “brothers” in promoting peace.

Six years ago, Matthews was recruited to the Cure Violence team by the Englewood office’s program manager, James Highsmith, whom she knew from her street life. He took her on her first mediation in which

the mother of a student called and said her son was being bullied at school and was planning to commit a shooting.

“When [Highsmith] called me, I thought it was [to talk] about past life experience,” Matthews said. “He asked if I could track this little guy down. I didn’t even sit back to talk to my husband. I said yes. It’s worth it because I’m a mother. So when a mother calls, and these young guys are out here struggling, I can’t help but get my ass up and get my ass out in the street and help.”

Thomas said he believes the film is a new way to help people become involved with curing violence. He said this film is different from his other work because it has a clearer purpose and statement about involvement in the community and living with the possibility of being shot every day. For Cure Violence workers, “interrupting” is their livelihood. It’s not about the money, but the cause they believe in, Thomas added.

Hardiman said the organization takes real action to promote change in violent behavior through personal outreach, rather than simply talking about it. Working as a team, interrupters stop violence on the street while outreach workers handle the aftermath by helping reformed offenders get jobs and go back to school. These teams are continually trained in conflict resolution strategies and role-playing to perform the job.In 2011, CVI employees spent approximately 40,000 hours with high-risk youth and

successfully mediated 946 conflicts, according to Hardiman. Afterward, offenders are monitored for nearly a year to help them break the cycle. Former offenders meet with CVI workers on the street, at their offices and occasionally for dinner to provide progress updates and report impending or immediate situations.

“I do believe [violence] can be cured,” Matthews said. “Look at me. My life was on the path of destruction. My life wasn’t destroyed, but I could’ve made sure that I continued that destructive path when someone came and intervened … All we ask is for fairness and equality.”