Between July 5, 2016, and July 9, 2016, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Alva Braziel were shot and killed by police officers. While fatal police shootings are hardly new phenomena, what distinguished this series of killings was the raw video footage: Sterling’s arrest, beating, and subsequent death were recorded on the phones of multiple bystanders; while on Facebook Live, Castile’s girlfriend began to record the scene seconds after an officer shot him at point-blank range, while he was obeying instructions. Although early reports from police stated that Braziel pointed a revolver at the officers, surveillance footage from a nearby gas station and the officers’ body cams (only turned on after the fact) cannot confirm this. What is clear in the videos, however, is Braziel’s posture: seconds after the police pull up, Braziel raises both of his arms high in the air. The officers shoot him on sight—multiple times—with Braziel’s hands still up in surrender.
All of this gave way to a hailstorm of news reportage, and, to put it mildly, agitated public discourse in the wake of events—especially after a lone sniper shot and killed five police officers in retaliation at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas. The barrage of media coverage in its wake only accounted for a portion of the public response, as many (myself included) took to social media to voice our grief, anger, pain, and fear.
Most of us who use the medium are well acquainted with the limitations of social media as a platform for reasonable discussion, but one thing Facebook and Twitter are quite useful for is tracking observable trends when it comes to debate. In the exhaustion and deficiency of back-and-forth dispute, one may begin to notice a repetition of go-to counterarguments for a given subject. In this case, thinly veiled accusations of the persistence of “black-on-black” crime emerged quite consistently as a muzzle against protestation—ignoring the ways in which segregation still affects the statistical likelihood of higher rates of violence within a given racial group, including “white-on-white” crime, for which we have no specialized name.
Such arguments presume, as well, that no one is already doing substantial work to dissolve inner-city violence. And here, Steve James and Alex Kolowitz’s 2011 documentary film The Interrupters takes the floor and dispels this idea, chronicling about a year’s worth of work undertaken by a group of peacemaking activists in Chicago. Collectively known as CeaseFire, these men and women work as mediators who preemptively neutralize violent situations in some of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods. James and Kolowitz closely shadow a few members of the organization, including Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, whose compassion for the people of their city is unmistakable, and fully grounded in their own former experiences with gang conflict, on both sides of the violence.
The purpose of their work is straightforward: to preserve life, and to offer understanding and respect to their community members in the process. As Tio Hardiman, the creator and director of the Violence Interrupter Program says of the group, “The Violence Interrupters have one goal in mind: to stop killings. They’re not trying to dismantle gangs. What they’re trying to do is a save a life.”
And save lives they do—as much as they are able to with the resources they have. The Interrupters closely documents members of CeaseFire physically intervening in numerous conflicts, a number of which local police avoid entirely—largely, we may assume, out of resignation, dismissal, or fear. But the substantial work that CeaseFire accomplishes seeks to embrace more than just the preservation of life. In their mediation, they build as many sustained relationships as they can along the way, recognizing that the violence they witness is only one symptom of a much larger issue, and of much deeper pain.
The Interrupters hones in on an essential component for progress that, I have found, is often lacking in public discourse when it comes to addressing issues of brutality, especially when this violence is perpetuated by or directed toward neglected or marginalized racial groups. This component is as elementary as anything we are taught in grade school: basic human compassion; “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” In an inability or unwillingness to see people as people—human beings who are desperate to be heard, and are desperate to be cared about—it becomes all the easier to justify hardness of heart, and all the easier to think of justice as the antithesis to mercy, of misfortune as an indicator of worth.
I encourage anyone reading to find this film and watch it—not only due to the urgency of this national moment, but also due to the human need all of us have to widen our lenses of the world. To be present with these stories, and to practice empathy—recognizing, in the meantime, that empathy without action is by no means enough. The Interrupters, as you will see, understands this all too well.