I am they are you – breaking down the distinction between us and them

Last week I wrote about violence in inner-city Chicago. I repeatedly posed the question: “Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence plagued communities?”  This question plagued me back in March after seeing segments from The Interrupters for the first time. In May, I watched the film in its entirety – just over a month after a really intense therapeutic eight day workshop (The Hoffman Process). I watched it in a fairly awakened state – very aware of my own vulnerabilities and the behavior patterns that have created struggle throughout my life. The first time I watched the film, I was nudged to wonder about how people in surrounding areas reacted and responded (or not) to the violence.  The second time, by the end of the film, I was completely absorbed by a powerful sense that reduces down to: I am they.

 I mentioned last week that I imagine the majority of people like me  – meaning people not living in an inner-city violence-plagued community – think of the people that do live in such communities as ‘them’ or ‘they’ over there. The violence problem is ‘their’s’ taking place in their community. After seeing the film the first time, sensing this is probably how things are, I was frustrated. The second time, it’s like I went deeper. It’s what I think of as the difference between having intellectual understanding and experiential knowing. That is, the first time round, I was intellectually playing with the significance of breaking down ‘us and them’ ways of living together in the world. The second time I saw the film,  I viscerally – dare I say, soulfully –  felt the breaking down of the ‘us and them’ divide. 

I watched and listened to the emotions and beliefs being expressed and manifest by various people in the film. I repeatedly kept noticing that – despite our radically different lives – I had a lot in common with the people in the film – I felt it. I understand it in my heart, for example, when the CeaseFire staffer Ameena says there was “always something inside me that was constantly saying that I have to do better…I just knew.” I understand it in my heart when Ameena asks a young woman (whose name I don’t want to spell incorrectly, so I’m not using it) “Do you deserved to be loved?” and the young woman says “No.” 

I understand that ‘No.”  

I know I have not come even close to experiencing what residents of Englewood (the neighborhood depicted in the film) have experienced in terms of violence. I have never been close to living in a war zone type environment. Yet, in listening to these people talk about the emotions and beliefs alive within them, I empathize. I feel connection.

I feel compassion.

When I watched The Interrupters a second time, I felt a slightly sick in my stomach while I thought “This can’t be right. I have been to a place of deep pain and to a place of ferocious rage – both of which I can simply describe as hell. The pain I saw inklings of in the film is no doubt stronger, the rage more ferocious than what I’ve experienced – a deeper hell – and it just isn’t right that anyone should live through this or if they live through it that they have to struggle alone and isolated, as individuals or as a group.”

I’m no expert on urban violence or gun crime or policing or gangs. The only thing I truly feel I have expertise in is my own life.  I am wondering if ending cycles of violence in a community is similar to ending it a single individual – and actually it is done individual by individual, isn’t it? Based on my own experience, I’m thinking we address violence by working with changing behavior patterns rooted in beliefs, attitudes assumptions about self and the world around us. We work with the present and past. We work with intellect, emotions and body. We work to help one another to reclaim what I think of as the Spirit of who we are – loving, compassionate, wise and creative. We work with all sorts of tools, e.g., sport, meditation, talking therapy, movement, art, to support each other with awareness, expression, release, forgiveness and inner change. We work with love.

For anyone reading this in the UK, this might sound like the beginnings of a  ‘Hug-a- Hoodie’ agenda –  you may remember that this was political soundbite used by Labour to deride David Cameron back in 2006.  I’m certainly not advocating a ‘Hug a gang member’ campaign. What Cameron was trying to point to was the human being underneath the ‘hoodie’ and behind the label of ‘gang member.’ Similarly, the Chicago CeaseFire team seems clear on the idea that violence comes down to relationships between people (inter-personal) and the relationships people have with their selves (intra-personal).  The violence we see in urban areas ultimately is people being people – it is one way of expressing anger, pain and rage, responding to feeling vulnerable and threatened.

We are talking about relationships people have with their selves and with each other – intra and inter.

As ever, I’ve got questions – which apply to both inter and intra-personal dynamics: What kind of relationships support people to leave gangs? What kind of relationships keep people from joining gangs them in the first place? What kind of relationships support people to respond consciously to anger and pain, rather than compulsively react. 

As said before, I am in awe of the work CeaseFire is doing in Chicago and glad the model is spreading to other cities. I value Dr Gary Slutkin’s influence in getting policymakers to think of violence as a public health issue – a disease – and his ongoing scientific work in this area. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think violence is the symptom. The disease is disconnect from our own humanity. I’ve experienced that disconnect in my own life – and in that disconnected state when I felt pain, when I felt anger and rage – I reacted over and over again in destructive ways. 

Which brings me back to my main point. In my anger did I pick up a gun or any sort of physical weapon to harm other people? No. I tended to stick to harmful words and emotionally malicious behaviors against myself and others – though once (I’ll be honest) I was in a situation where I came very close to getting seriously physically violent towards another human being – for a split second I had that urge to lash out and do physical harm (I’ll never forget it). I’m inclined to think that if had grown up in a different environment with the same emotional issues that have plagued me and these were combined with my innate people and organizing abilities – I would have joined a gang or even set one up myself. I would have become a gang leader – if not the leader (I am often a behinds the scenes kind of person), the deputy.

I am they.

I don’t know what concretely follows from what seems like a big shift in the way I look at urban violence: I am the same as the people who are committing the acts of violence. We are similar in ways that are core to our shared humanity.  

My first instinct is to share the experience of going through the shift – which is what I’m doing in conversations and in this post. What happens next, I don’t know. Though, today I came across the work of Jorja Leap and I now feel a little less alone with this experience. A little less kooky for thinking and feeling what I’m thinking and feeling – and now sharing.  I’m very excited to read her book that came out in the Spring: Jumped In. I’ve seen two different video clips of her speaking about her experiences of working closely with gangs for three decades and it seems – much more deeply, no doubt – she has had a similar experience to me, has jumped and landed in a similar place: I am they. 

When I first talked about this shift with a colleague and friend, his response was: “So what? It’s like when a preacher goes to a country full of starving people and says to them ‘We are all one.’ What does that wisdom or recognition have to do with ending their starvation?”

He’s got a point. 

What do you think is the significance of this breaking down of the ‘us and them’ way of experiencing the world? In what ways have you experienced such a breaking down? How does it help us create a better world? Specifically, how might it helps us eradicate violence in our communities? 








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