Vision: 3 Ways to Be an 'Interrupter' and Curb Racism, Street Harassment and Animal Cruelty

Behavioral epidemics are strikingly similar to contagious infectious diseases. Much like stopping the spread of an infectious disease, stopping the spread of hate and violence is possible with the right treatments and interventions. By interrupting specific violent encounters and incidents, it is possible to effectively curb violence in a community.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a revolutionary idea, but when epidemiologist Gary Slutkin founded the CeaseFire project in Chicago over a decade ago, he hoped that his previously successful methods for treating diseases would change the landscape of communities most impacted by violence. Working with an infectious disease fellowship in the 1980s, Slutkin helped significantly increase the cure rate of tuberculosis in San Francisco. Later, he worked extensively in pre-war Somalia on effective treatments of cholera and TB. After bouncing between more than 20 other nations combating pervasive illness, Slutkin headed home, where it quickly became clear that his training to eradicating disease epidemics could be effectively applied to Chicago’s violence epidemic.

The new documentary film, The Interrupters, chronicles a year in the life of CeaseFire’s violence interrupters, who methodically interrupt violence on the micro level. By engaging with perpetrators and people known for their gang affiliation and working to educate the community and change learned behaviors, CeaseFire interrupters are able to stem the flow of violence in their communities. Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra are three of the courageous interrupters who work on the ground to combat the epidemic of violence in their Chicagoland communities. The film follows them during the same year Chicago gangs grabbed national headlines when the brutal beating of high school student Derrion Albert was caught on video and later went viral online.

Each interrupter is motivated by a unique blend of personal history, experience and commitment to interrupting the cycle of violence — compelling experiences and drive arguably worth a feature-length film about each individual. Ameena Matthews, the daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort and now a mother and wife to an Imam, takes young people under her wing and encourages them to stop fighting. In between mentoring, Matthews breaks up full-on street fights with rational words and by placing her hand on a flailing arm or raised shoulder.

Scarred by his father’s murder and inspired to prevent his own sons from living through the same, Cobe Williams, a former gang member, uses his street cred and persistent, playful humor to reach troubled youth in his neighborhood. And Eddie Bocanegra, haunted by a murder he committed as a young man, continues to do his work as penance for his own crimes and to set an example for his young children.

The film inspires on many levels. It can also serve as a reminder to activists that everyday action is attainable and not necessarily dangerous or ill advised. All sorts of hateful speech and action can be interrupted with the right attitude, tactics and community support. In addition to street violence, interrupting incidents as they occur can curb racist hate speech and action, street harassment, and even animal cruelty. Here are some of the ways bystanders can help build more supportive communities by interrupting everyday incidents that cause discord and create unrest.

1. Interrupting Racism

If you live in a progressive bubble, it can be easy to forget that hateful, racist speech remains a pervasive problem. Whether people are joking about stereotypes or using outright slurs, there are several non-confrontational ways to de-escalate situations when hateful language is being used. If a person making racist comments wonders why others are sensitive to their remarks, it creates an opportunity for dialogue. One tactic can be giving historical context when someone seems to genuinely misunderstand the hurt they can cause. Offer a bit of context to that person about how different people have been historically marginalized, and compare it to civil rights struggles to which they can relate. Most of us fall into some sort of non-privileged group. Any experience where someone felt like an outsider can be used to build empathy for others.

But what if immediate action doesn’t seem possible? Interrupting racism is part of a crucial struggle for social justice, but it can make people defensive and provoke violence. One of the underlying messages of The Interrupters is that without a reliably supportive community, being an everyday interrupter isn’t always feasible. Furthermore, knowing how and when to intervene can be a challenge.

“Being an anti-hate activist can be an intimidating, lonely and dangerous prospect for many people,” explains Dr. Jeb Middlebrook. director of the Solidarity Institute. Middlebrook, a white anti-racist organizer and speaker, says that interrupting specific situations may require supportive community. “If one’s goal is to intervene in hateful speech or aggressive acts, building a local collective or group with other similarly minded and similarly committed people is the best way to feel empowered, stay safe, and make an impactful difference,” he explains. “This may mean that one cannot intervene in every act of hate or aggression one witnesses individually; however, the key is to contribute to building a larger social movement beyond oneself that can shift the very culture of violence and aggression in society.”

Echoing the message of the film, Middlebrook says, “Community organizing can be an invaluable asset to anyone passionate about stopping hate and spreading social justice.” Much like the interrupters in the film, being able to act in the moment may first require some self-reflection and community support.

2. Interrupting Street Harassment

When you witness a woman being catcalled or groped in public, is the first impulse to intervene? Or do you fear for your own safety as well? Holly Kearl, the author of Stop Street Harassment! Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women and founder of the blog of the same name, says that gender-based harassment in public space continues to be acceptable largely because bystanders and victims are taught to ignore it. “Harassers and abusers continue to harass and abuse when they know they can get away with it, and bystanders can do a lot to stop them from getting away with it,” Kearl explains.

On her Web site, Kearl lists a number of tips for individual bystanders looking for assertive, non-threatening, non-confrontational ways to interrupt public space harassment. If bystanders feel that they can assertively respond, either on their own behalf or on behalf of someone else, speaking directly to and looking a harasser directly in the eye can help deter unwanted behavior. If it feels uncomfortable or unsafe to speak directly to a harasser, speaking to the person being harassed and offering support can be crucial. “If you are unsure if harassment is actually happening or are worried about becoming the target, only addressing the harassed person and asking if they are okay and if you can help is a good tactic. You can also provide a distraction or interruption without being directly confrontational,” Kearl explains. “In a lot of the stories I receive about street harassment, not only are people upset by the harassment but the fact that people around them did nothing adds insult to injury.”

While public space harassment is generally viewed as an unlegislated area, there are certain methods of recourse. On public transit, harassers can be reported to the transit authority. If a harasser is on the job, their actions can be reported to their company.

3. Interrupting Animal Cruelty

Directly intervening in animal cruelty cases is a tricky proposition for some animal welfare and animal rights organizers. Many animal welfare and animal rights organizations suggest calling the proper authorities — either animal control, law enforcement or another agency trained in animal rescue. Some organizations go so far as to insist that bystanders not take immediate action lest they put themselves in harm’s way. But there are always exceptions: If you witness a case of cruelty or abuse that can’t wait for a visit from law enforcement; if you don’t want to write down the details and walk away, even temporarily; if you’re not comfortable calling law enforcement but still want to help.

Standing by until the incident is interrupted by law enforcement or animal control is one effective way to witness abuse and demand resolution. Bruce G. Friedrich, spokesperson for the animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary, says that certain situations are especially crucial for animals and can be handled on the spot.

“One form of accidental abuse that kills thousands of animals every year is leaving them in hot cars,” he explains. “Even cars on 80-degree days can become lethal very quickly, especially if they’re sitting in the sun. We will save lives if we take these situations seriously by immediately calling 911 (or if there is a police officer nearby, reporting the situation) and forcefully explaining — with cruelty calls, you sometimes have to be ready to say, ‘This is against the law; this dog might die.’”

Farm Sanctuary began when founder Gene Bauer rescued a sheep he later named Hilda from a pile of dead animals in a stockyard. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to see why Farm Sanctuary take incidents of obvious, visible abuse seriously. “In cases where your direct intervention can be helpful, it’s important that you give it — for the same reason we would not be silent regarding abuse of humans, we should not be silent when other animals are abused,” Friedrich says.

He also points out that not all animals are treated alike, in society or by the law. “Farmed animals have no legal protection from standard cruelties that would warrant felony charges were dogs or cats similarly abused,” he notes. The innumerable ways that many animals are abused for human consumption and use can be hard to avoid, let alone interrupt in the moment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all start somewhere.


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