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Gang 'Interrupters' Fight Chicago's Cycle Of Violence

Ameena Matthews is a former gang member who now works to stop retaliatory gang violence in some of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods. She is one of the subjects of a new documentary called The Interrupters.

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20110801
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Fresh Air
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Gang 'Interrupters' Fight Chicago's Cycle Of Violence

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.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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