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'Interrupters' Take On Chicago's Youth Violence

Ameena Matthews, a violence interrupter with the Chicago organization CeaseFire, confronts young men after a student was killed in a gang shooting. (Kartemquin Films )

In June, a fifth person was found guilty in the death of Derrion Albert, the 16-year-old Chicago honor roll student beaten to death on the street in 2009.

A graphic cellphone video captured the attack and made Albert's homicide a national story, but it was only one of hundreds investigated by Chicago police that year.

Albert's death also made headlines just as a small film crew began work on a documentary about violence interrupters, former gang members dispatched to their old Chicago neighborhoods to try to stop youth violence.

Eddie Bocanegra is one of the interventionists featured in the resulting documentary, The Interrupters. Bocanegra spent 14 years in prison for murder and now works with the Chicago violence prevention organization CeaseFire, which runs the interrupter program.

"I'll be honest," Bocanegra tells NPR's Neal Conan. "During the filming, I was very ashamed revisiting some of these places and then taking somebody with me."

Most of the youth that we work with suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder]. ... So a lot of the time it's learning how to address that. It's learning how to communicate with them.
Eddie Bocanegra

But while taking outsiders to the scenes of his former crimes was humbling for Bocanegra, he says it also served as a fresh reminder of the positive changes he's trying to make in his old neighborhood.

"I look at my life, where it's at now, and what I've done," he says. "I feel that I've failed more than I have succeeded, but I do take some comfort in knowing that there [are] times that I have made a difference in some people's lives."

Bocanegra says the key to CeaseFire's work is understanding how growing up in the midst of gang violence influences young people.

"If you really think about it, most of the youth that we work with suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder], from mental disorder," he says. "So a lot of the time it's learning how to address that. It's learning how to communicate with them."

Bocanegra works primarily with young men, ranging from their teens to their 30s. He says he's able to intervene in heated situations in large part because of his own credibility in the community.

"It opens up the doors and ... other places I wouldn't be able to get into ... or the average person wouldn't be able to get into," Bocanegra says. "Because of my past, my background ... I know the signs. I can understand the body language. It makes it a lot easier to know what to say, what not to say, who to get involved with the mediation."

And while The Interrupters demonstrates CeaseFire workers' ability to help defuse violent street confrontations, it also demonstrates a difficult truth: Conflict mediation is dangerous work.

Author Alex Kotlowitz produced The Interrupters, and, with filmmaker Steve James, worked closely with Bocanegra and his CeaseFire colleagues in the making of the film.

Kotlowitz tells Conan that two violence interrupters were shot during the year the crew spent filming. One of them, he says, "was actually visiting his father and a dispute erupted on a porch nearby."

Kotlowitz says that when the interrupter tried to help resolve the dispute, it soon became clear that his presence wasn't helping.

"He did the right thing, which was to turn and leave," Kotlowitz says. "And as he was leaving, he got shot in the leg."

Kotlowitz says he and his crew also witnessed confrontations where they felt compelled to leave for their own safety, or for the safety of the interrupters.

Bocanegra says it felt weird to be followed around by a film crew while working with young gang members. People would want to know who the filmmakers were and what they were up to.

"You're ... an outsider [in] the community," Bocanegra says, "and there are certain things they don't necessarily want to expose."

"I know it's a rather grim landscape," Kotlowitz adds. "But for us, in the end we were inspired by the likes of Eddie. I hope people who watch the film will be inspired, as well."

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: A fifth person was found guilty earlier this month in the death of Derrion Albert, the 16-year-old Chicago honor student beaten to death in 2009. A cell phone video made that incident notorious. Albert was one of several Chicago students murdered in 2009, one of hundreds of homicides investigated by Chicago police that year. Over a decade ago, a program called CeaseFire was established with a simple goal in mind, stop the shootings and the killings. A new documentary follows three violence interrupters through a year in Chicago, among them former gang member Eddie Bocanegra. In this scene from the film, he talks with a young boy worried about his cousin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INTERRUPTERS")

DANIEL: Think he's like, gonna get shot or killed because of all the bad stuff that happened, my cousin. I know he has a gun in, like, in his bedroom, like, I'm really afraid for him because - I don't know - he might like - I don't know.

EDDIE BOCANEGRA (CeaseFire): You know, I mean, because he probably, right now, feels hopeless. He feels probably like he's alone. Why not do these things, you know? Nobody cares if I get locked up. Nobody cares if I get shot.

DANIEL: I think he still can change.

CONAN: If violence has been a part of your life, how did it get out of control or get under control? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Eddie Bocanegra spent 14 years in prison for murder, now works as a violence interrupter for CeaseFire. He joins us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. And it's nice to have you with us today.

BOCANEGRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us here is the producer of the film, writer Alex Kotlowitz. Nice to have you with us today.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And, Eddie, that scene where you're talking to that young boy, that was you at one time, was it, that little boy?

BOCANEGRA: Yeah. Actually, the cousin he's referring to, that was pretty much me.

CONAN: And how does - how can you by talking to him, are you trying to help him, or are you trying to get him to help the cousin? How does it work?

BOCANEGRA: I'm actually - I was trying to do both. One, the kid, Daniel, I was trying to help him out because of the environment that he's in, and he's recognizing some of the, you know, signs of violence already. But more importantly, it's like he recognized that his cousin is already following these footsteps of, you know, being involved in the gangs. The fact that he saw a gun in his house, you know, was alarming to him. So the question is now is that he doesn't - he can't go to his parents and tell his parents, well, this is what I found. This was going on. So, in this case, he approached me and told me, Eddie, this was going on, the situation, and I want to be able to help my cousin. How can I help him?

CONAN: And did you go then talk to the cousin?

BOCANEGRA: It was very hard to find him. I mean, I researched. I've networked with some people. The thing is he didn't live around the area that I normally work at. He lived across town, and so it was very hard. It was very hard to actually get a hold of him because he kept moving from house to house. He didn't have a set home.

CONAN: Which is, well, not untypical.

BOCANEGRA: Not at all.

CONAN: As you talk - try to intervene in this process, you run across a lot of frustrating situations like this. Yes, there are times you succeed, but one of the things the film makes very clear is that there are no grand catharses here. People don't suddenly start putting flowers in the barrels of their pieces and embracing each other. This is difficult work. It often doesn't work. It must be very frustrating.

BOCANEGRA: Well, I'll be completely honest. I feel that I've failed more than I've actually succeeded, but I do take some comfort in knowing that there's times that I have made a difference in people's lives. And in that sense, it's made a difference in my life.

CONAN: In what way?

BOCANEGRA: In a way that this is my way of giving back. It also means that sometimes I work with some, you know, really high-risk youth, you know, 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds, even grown men who are in their 30s. And I see how they're living their lives in destruction, and I try to do my best and try to help them out, either by leading by example or, more importantly, by connecting them with the resources they actually need. And part of what I do is also educating.

CONAN: Let me bring Alex Kotlowitz into the conversation. And you wrote about this before it became - decided to go and make a movie. And you followed it for a year. In the course of that year, that notorious episode, you know, the Derrion case, that happened. And in a way, your film allows us to see that in context really for the first time.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Well, you know, when myself and my colleague, Steve James...

CONAN: The filmmaker.

KOTLOWITZ: ...the extraordinary documentary filmmaker, well, when we began filming that summer, it was as it happened that - was that instance of Derrion Albert, which, as you pointed out, was caught on cellphone videotape, became national, international news, suddenly, all this attention to the violence. We - you know, the attorney general came, Arne Duncan from Department of Education came to Chicago. And, of course, what happens often in these instances is people come, there's this outcry, and then they disappear.

And what's clear in spending time with Eddie and the two other interrupters in the film is that, clearly, you know, there's - it's going on all the time. I mean, Derrion Albert just happened to get all this attention, and it just brought all this noise to Chicago. And yet, Eddie's out there time and again, trying to interrupt these other disputes before they turn violent.

CONAN: There's a powerful image in the film. There's a brick wall painted yellow and each brick has the name of a kid who was shot and killed. And on one brick, it says, I will be next.

KOTLOWITZ: Right, right.

It's extraordinary. It's down at Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex where they've got a list of all those who have been shot and killed in that neighborhood. And somebody has taken pen to that brick wall and written, I will be next. I mean, I think there's this fear out there among many, especially the young kids, that they won't make it to adulthood.

CONAN: Eddie Bocanegra, you - again, we see you describe the terrible anger that seized you and led you to commit a murder. You describe it and you go back to the scene of the crime.

BOCANEGRA: Uh-hmm. Again, for me, I'll be honest. A lot of this stuff I was - during the filming, I was very ashamed, you know, like revisiting some of these places and taking somebody with me this time. It's like a different thing when I visited it myself and look back at some of the mistakes that I've done in my life. But I look at my life where it's at now, you know, what I've done as far as from other negativity that I was involved in.

It's sad because, you know, this year alone, I've already been about eight funerals. You know, last year, about 25 funerals. I just wish there was more of us doing this type of work. And I really commend even the - my coworkers. You know, there's about 50 of us that are out there doing this type of work, and I just wish there was more people in the trenches.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. If violence has been a part of your life, how did it get out of control? And how - or maybe, how did it get under control? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And if there's anybody here in the audience with a story to share, we'd like to hear from you as well. But let's go to Jeff, and Jeff is with us from Vancouver in Washington.

JEFF (Caller): Hello, sir. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JEFF: I've experienced personally being the aggressor. I borderline being abusive and aggressive to my wife and there are points where I threw plates against walls and was intimidating and just downright a big butthead. And what I found was, by going into recovery for alcohol abuse, I have actually discovered that not only was my alcohol fueling a lot of the rage that I lived in, but I discovered characteristics inside of me, like my ego and my selfishness and just my world view was so messed up that through the process of recovery I have been able to chip away at and not end up causing murder. Because I think, ultimately, I would be capable of that with my self-will run riot.

CONAN: And it sounds like you've done a fair amount of work. You've identified some of your difficulties.

JEFF: I feel like I have, but it's a constant improvement.

CONAN: I wonder, Eddie Bocanegra, how much alcohol and drugs fuel - exacerbate the situations that you try to resolve.

BOCANEGRA: I think in most of the cases - I mean, speaking in my case, a lot of the guys that I grew up with weren't too much into the drugs or alcohol growing up. But now, I see a complete difference. It's - a lot of the kids that I actually work with, the adults, alcohol and drugs do play an important factor in this, especially when it starts escalating, you know, into them having these thoughts of violence, retaliations. So, yeah, I would say that alcohol plays an enormous role in this.

CONAN: Now Jeff, hang in there. Stay with it.

JEFF: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

CONAN: OK. Let's go to a mike here in the audience in Aspen.

SALLY OLSON (Audience Member): I'm Sally Olson(ph) from Oakland, California. And I want to share a violence interruption that my daughter and her female partner did. A couple of years ago, they had just moved into a somewhat mixed neighborhood in Oakland. And they were coming back in the evening and a young - two young black men came up to them and pulled guns on them and told them that they wanted their money. And my daughter reached in and immediately pulled out her purse. And Denise said, you don't want to go down this road. You can stop. You don't want to go down this road. Don't do it. And they left.

CONAN: Hmm. Eddie, is that advice that you would give other people?

BOCANEGRA: Definitely. That's part of my interruption right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOCANEGRA: The difference is I just wouldn't go to a stranger and talk to him like that, you know, like that. Most of the kids that I work with, most of the adults that I've worked with, I have somewhat of a relationship with them. And that's what makes my work more effective. If I don't know them personally, I - it's more like because of the community that I work in, I know somebody who knows that person.

And part of the interruption is trying to buy time, reason with them. A lot of that has to do with just communication. You know, it's - if you really think about it, most of the youth that we work with, you know, suffer from PTSD, from mental disorders, and so a lot of times it's learning how to address that. It's learning how to communicate with them. And it's been good for me because of my past, my background and I know the signs. You know, I could understand the body language. It makes it a lot easier for me to really figure out what to say, not to say, who to get involved with the mediation.

CONAN: You know them, they also know you, and your background gives you some credibility with them.

BOCANEGRA: Oh, they do. To some extent, my background does give me a lot of credibility. You know, it opens up the doors and typically other places I wouldn't be able to get in or, for the average person, wouldn't be able to get in. So even for the kids who might be a lot younger - and I'm referring more, like, 16, 17-year-old guys - they might not necessarily know who I am, but they do their homework as well. They'll ask some of the older guys and, like, hey, you, what's up with this guy? He's working for CeaseFire. He's telling me to that, you know, put my gun down or why I shouldn't be doing this. Man, what's up with this dude? He's a joke. Then the older guys are, like, hey, man. Well, that's be one of the guys in the neighborhood and, you know, this is what he was locked up for and so forth.

CONAN: We're talking about a new documentary called "The Interrupters." And you're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Mohammad(ph), Mohammad with us from Houston.

MOHAMMAD (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment that I grew up in an abusive household. My father was a recovering alcoholic and he beat all of my siblings and myself, and so I grew up learning that violence was the way to, sort of, get what you want or solve conflicts. And as I, you know, grew up and got older, I was, you know, 18, 19, I realized that, hey, when I do this, my friends stop being my friends. And so I stopped using violence on other people and instead, you know, when I got angry, I took it out on myself.

And when I was about 21, I tried to kill myself and ended up in the hospital, in the psychiatric treatment ward, and that's when I realized that, hey, I need to stop doing this. And then - I mean, it's been a struggle ever since, to sort of be more aware of those feelings and exercise my feelings and emotions in healthy ways. But, yeah, my turning point was when I tried to kill myself.

CONAN: And we're glad you did not succeed, it's needless to say. As you - have you reconnected with those old friends and re-established bonds?

MOHAMMAD: Yeah. You know, it was hard talking to them and stuff, but, yeah. I mean, most of my older friends and I, we're still real good friends.

CONAN: Good. Stay with it, as we told the previous caller. Stay with it. I know it's not easy, but stay with it. Thanks for very much for the call.

MOHAMMAD: Thank you. Have a nice day.

CONAN: And Alex Kotlowitz, I wanted to ask you, there's a powerful scene in the film. Eddie was talking about the number of troops in the trenches. One gets shot in the course of trying to make an intervention. A sort of on-the-fly intervention, as it happens. And Tio, the head of the group, goes to visit him in the hospital.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. One of the interrupters, during the course of the filming, he was actually visiting his father and a dispute erupted on a porch nearby and he went - just, he wasn't working at the time - he went and tried to interrupt. He realized that he wasn't making any progress and he did the right thing, which is to turn and leave. And he was leaving, he got shot in the leg. And Tio Hardiman, who founded the Interrupters, came up with the idea, goes to visit him in the hospital. And it's a moment - Tio is this kind of very blustery, confident guy and he gets very emotional there. I mean, he begins to think about his own children.

And I will tell you that it wasn't the only interrupter. There's another interrupter as well during the course of the filming that also got shot in the midst of a dispute. It is dangerous work. And, in fact, when we were filming, we had a very clear understanding with Eddie and the others that, if we were out there and we in any way compromised their situation or it became dangerous or people didn't want to be filmed, we'd turn and leave. And there were moments when, in fact, we did just that.

CONAN: What was it like being trailed around by a film crew, Eddie?

BOCANEGRA: It was a little weird, to be honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOCANEGRA: A lot of questions, really, with the people in the neighborhood, like, who are these guys, you know? What are they doing? What are they filming, you know? What do they want to know? It's - you're bringing an outsider into the community and, you know, they don't - there's certain things they don't necessarily want to expose. But the good thing that, you know, Alex and Steve knew what they could film and what they couldn't, and I was really upfront about that. And they were very understanding and they were very ethical with that too.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. Well, I was going to say, it was because of Eddie and Amina and Cobe that we were able to get the kind of access that we did. In fact, Cobe, one of the interrupters, he would refer to people - he would just tell people, this is my film crew and that was kind of enough, and we'd go on filming.

CONAN: As you look at this project, Alex Kotlowitz - we talked to Eddie about it a moment ago, but there are a lot of failures along with successes. It is an extremely difficult work. As you mentioned, it's dangerous work. Is it necessary work?

KOTLOWITZ: It's absolutely necessary. I mean, I think, in many of these neighborhoods, the violence has come to define their character. It's created an enormous amount of fear.

In fact, there's one part in the film where we just - you happen to notice some block signs in these neighborhoods. And instead of celebrating these block clubs, they're all about what's prohibited. I mean, these are communities that are on their heels. And so, absolutely, we've got to figure out a way to target and grapple with the violence.

And I will tell you that, for Steve and myself - I know it's a rather grim landscape - but for us, it was - in the end we were inspired by the likes of Eddie and I hope, you know, people who watch the film will be inspired as well.

CONAN: The film is called "The Interrupters." Alex Kotlowitz, thanks very much for your time today.

KOTLOWITZ: Thanks for having us.

CONAN: And Eddie Bocanegra, movie star, thanks very much for being with us.

BOCANEGRA: I don't know about that. I thank you.

CONAN: Eddie Bocanegra, is a violence interrupter for CeaseFire. We'd like to thank Aspen Public Radio, especially Andrew Todd, who helped make this event happened here in Colorado. You can listen to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News on Aspen Public Radio every day at noon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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