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A virus of violence

Posted: February 16, 2012 7:33 a.m.
Updated: February 17, 2012 5:00 a.m.

As a fan of Stephen Colbert's satirical skills on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," I didn't know what to expect when he sat down to interview the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago's most notorious gang leaders since Al Capone.

From the late 1960s until he was convicted in the 1980s, Fort ran the super-sized Black P Stone Nation and the later El Rukn faction. His daughter Ameena Matthews, after some gang-affiliated years of her own, went straight. She became a Muslim and now works with other former gang members as a "violence interrupter" for a Chicago-based organization called CeaseFire.

That's not much of a laughing matter, either. Murder is second only to accidental injuries as the biggest killer of youths aged 15 to 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

But it also is the subject of a riveting documentary "The Interrupters," which Matthews came to talk about. After a successful run in theaters and film festivals, the documentary has its television premiere on PBS' "Frontline" -- ironically on Valentine's Day.

Could Colbert maintain his usual seamless goofy-right-winger character? Would she get the joke? Would Colbert's studio audience even have a clue of what kind of world Matthews is talking about?

No problem. She proved to be as quick in her seat as she is on Chicago streets.

"Violence interrupter?" Colbert asks. "I'm an interrupter myself. That sounds like a very dangerous thing to do to."

"Yes, you're an interrupter in a rude way," she says, flashing a smile. "I'm a violence interrupter in saving lives." So there, Colbert.

In fact, being a violence interrupter is a dangerous thing to do, as illustrated by one whom we meet in a hospital, where he is recovering from bullet wounds. Fortunately, we are told, he is only the first to be so injured on the job.

If you haven't seen the film yet, I recommend it as a rare, courageously close-up look at the people and situations behind some of today's most tragic headlines. The documentary captures a year in the lives of Matthews and two other interrupters, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who have served enough time in prison and the streets to have credibility with the young hard-core offenders they're trying to reach.

Producer-director Steve James, who also made the award-winning "Hoop Dreams," learned about CeaseFire from a 2008 New York Times magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, who became the film's coproducer. Like "Hoop Dreams," which follows the long-shot quest of two low-income Chicago high school basketball players for the brass ring of professional stardom, "The Interrupters" tells a larger story about the struggle to survive amid limited choices and often-dangerous conditions.

Think of violence as a virus and you'll understand the theory behind CeaseFire, the creation of Dr. Gary Slutkin, a University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist. Ten years of battling the spread of cholera and AIDS in Africa gave Slutkin the idea that maybe violence erupts and spreads like an infectious disease, too. If so, he reasoned, why not apply a disease-fighting strategy to stop the contagion at its source before the violence feeds more violence?

"Violence is a two-step process," he says in the film. "The first step is, 'I've got a grievance' ... 'He looked at my girl' ... 'He disrespected me' ... 'He owes me money' ... 'He's Sunni' ... 'He's a Palestinian' ... 'He's an Israeli' .... " The second step is to violence. That's where the interrupters, most of whom have histories in gang leadership, step in, Slutkin says, "to interrupt the initial transmission."

CeaseFire works, according to two Department of Justice studies that found a significant reduction in violent episodes in communities where it operates in Chicago and Baltimore. It also has similar projects in five other states. CeaseFire is hardly the only antiviolence program in the country, but it works. In the battle against youth violence, we need all the allies we can get.

Colbert caught on. "You're like an antibody," he said. "You're like, if you'll pardon the expression, like a white blood cell."

As the audience chuckled at the pun, the African American woman responded proudly, "You know what? I'm like a paper-sack-brown blood cell." Either way, she offers something that a lot of our young people need.

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