Documentary Film Review: The Interrupters (dir. Steve James)

Mauricio Salazer is the coordinator of international relations of Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz (SERAPAZ; Services and Advice for Peace), in Mexico, and the coordinator of the Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) North America Region. 1

The Interrupters follows the work of an anti–gang violence group working on the south side of Chicago, where youth violence is endemic. The “interrupters” are older members of the community—some of them former gang members, some of whom have served prison sentences—who use their knowledge, charisma, and contacts to try to head off violence before it burns out of control. They do this through community building, counseling, and guiding those at risk of committing violence, sometimes even physically intervening, separating people about to become violent before they act. The film is a searing portrayal of a community in crisis and a moving portrait of people trying to improve the situation. It draws attention to the structural causes of violence—marginalization, poverty, unemployment, and exclusion of social services such as education and health care—showing how they combine to create an atmosphere in which the threat of violence is a near constant. It also offers a blueprint for resolving conflict, as the interrupters’ personal experience, and often their own criminal history, gives them the credibility they need to reach those in danger of committing violent acts and helps them develop alternatives to violence. The film shows how essential it is to increase prevention work and demonstrates how it succeeds, or could succeed, in the field.

The film deals only with violence in Chicago, but the situation is recognizable in urban neighborhoods around the world, from Mexico City and Bogotá to New Delhi and Johannesburg—places where social structures are broken. Certain groups of young people in these cities are stigmatized and marginalized, often because of their race, ethnicity, or poverty. The urban areas where they live are marked by anonymity; they lack the links of solidarity and responsibility toward others that exist in a strong community. These social spaces thus can be fertile environments for violence, as homicide, repression, bullying, rape, or harassment become a way of impressing others. Such brutality causes other parts of society to turn away, to be afraid of the people living there, and to push for a higher police, or in some countries army, presence.

I am coordinator of international relations and advisor for conflict transformations at SERAPAZ (Services and Advice for Peace), an organization that works on community-level conflict transformation to address issues of inequality, exclusion, and human rights violations in southern Mexico and with victims of forced disappearance in northern and central Mexico. In my work, I see how the marginalization of youth akin to that in Chicago leads to crime and makes gangs appealing to young people. Gangs offer peers, an identity, and, in some ways, a sense of protection. They also substitute for other, more constructive types of community. As a young man explained to me, “I prefer to live two years as a millionaire than to be poor and excluded for my whole life.” But this only increases the violence.

If The Interrupters were shown to young gang members in Mexico or Colombia, it would have real resonance (though the language in the film is difficult to follow, so foreign audiences would need either a translated version or subtitles). But anyone attempting the kind of peacebuilding work shown in the film needs to keep in mind the profound differences that exist among countries in institutional structures, justice systems, and the net of public and nonprofit social services. An intervention that works in Chicago may not be specifically replicable in Mexico City. But despite the differences in governmental and social structures—some countries are controlled by military dictatorships, others have authoritarian structures that bar access to prevention work, others may lack strong gun control laws—the causes of urban violence are very similar. The lessons that the The Interrupters teaches us can be applied all over the world, breaking the chain of violence one link at a time.

  1. Jorge Laffitte says:

    Dear Mauricio,

    How could I get a copy of the vídeo? From your description some strategies might be useful for reducing negative social capital among urban Brazilian youth. Only point is I believe the interventions do may stop violence but do not transform conflict. Am I right?