When we think of Americans at war, we usually associate that with some far away place. We see mental images of Humvees, attack helicopters, desert camouflage, heavy backpacks and polarized sunglasses.
Perhaps we also remember the gardens of stone at Arlington National Cemetery, the place where my dad is buried to honor his military service in WWII Europe, a war he rarely talked about and which caused to him to hate war with a passion that exceeded most pacifists I know.
Perhaps we also have images of people, young and old, marching with signs that cried out for peace in places like Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan. We might even have mental images of a stern looking Martin Luther King, of a very young John Kerry, of Cindy Sheehan with her mother's grief or Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin being carried off for shouting "Peace!" in a crowded room.
The new film by Chicago's award winning Kartemquin Films does not take us to a faraway battlefield. It takes us to a war right here in the USA. It is a war on the streets of South Side Chicago and a peace movement led by people like Ameena Matthews, daughter of one of most feared gang leaders in Chicago history and Eddie Bocanegra who is still conscience stricken about a murder he had committed when he was 17 years old. The film is "The Interrupters" by Chicago's own Kartemquin Films and the peace group is called CeaseFire.
CeaseFire works tirelessly in the Chicago neighborhoods where gang violence and personal disputes easily escalate into the pop…pop…pop… of gunfire, to be followed by people bringing heaps of flowers and small offerings to serve as a memorial to another victim of gun violence. Ameena Mathews, the former drug ring enforcer and Eddie Bocanegra the former murderer, along with their colleagues, hit the streets of South Side Chicago to try and stop the carnage.
They huddle with moms, dads, grandparents, aunties and young people: They negotiate, console, confront, and put their own lives on the line, whatever it takes to make peace. They have successes and they have failures, but they understand that peace on the streets of a dysfunctional US society will not come easily or without sacrifice.
I taught on the South Side of Chicago for 20 years. Some of my own students had gang affiliations or lived in communities where they feared for their own safety. I taught world history and introduced my freshmen students to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were already familiar with the idea of picture writing. They knew it in the form of gang graffiti. I had learned the symbols for Anubis and Orsiris to prepare for class, I came to know the symbols for the Latin Kings and the Two-Sixers as well.
It was was life during wartime. The war at home.
Seeing the trailer for "The Interrupters" (the film has not yet opened at my neighborhood theater) also caused me to think about my own relationship to gun violence. During the wave of social and political revolt that claimed the lives of hundreds of people during the 1960's and 1970's, I had purchased several weapons thinking I might need them for self defense because of my political activities. That wave of death and injury eventually subsided, taking with it the lives of several people whom I had associated with personally.
I came to a realization. I would always hate guns. Passionately. Intensely. For as long as I lived.
I gave my guns away one day and promised myself to never to touch one of the ugly things again. I wish we could melt down all of the guns in the USA tomorrow and turn them into something useful. It would be the greatest day of my life.
But of course that won't happen. We're a violent people with a gun culture that goes back to the earliest days of the European conquest. In addition to our habit of shooting people in far off places, we shoot each other with great regularity. Truth be told, Americans really don't get along with one another very well. So a lot of us keep guns around in case that escalates into something more dangerous and potentially lethal.
Some of us keep guns around for hunting deer and other wildlife. Well, that's better than hunting people I suppose. But unless we are living a subsistence economy life in a remote wilderness, that only shows how poorly we get along with animals..
Given how integral guns are to American culture, I see little hope that gun control will do anything more than drive up the price of weapons. That's why I don't lift a finger to promote gun control. It's a waste of time and I prefer to put my energy into reforms that might actually be winnable.
However I do dream of a society where Americans come to respect one another more and put their guns away. Forever. Perhaps someday American culture really will mature and we will grow out of our gun fixation. If that happens, I hope that the volunteers of CeaseFire are honored for their courageous efforts.