The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

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The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

The Forum

The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

The Forum

Why the Interruption?

Michael Gross


[caption id="attachment_3419" align="alignnone" width="166"]Ceasefire sticker spotted in Wicker Park. Photo by Nour Hatoum. Ceasefire sticker spotted in Wicker Park. Photo by Nour Hatoum.[/caption]

“This following clip contains some profanity, but I think you high school students can handle it.”


Alex Kotlowitz prefaced a scene of his award-winning documentary The Interrupters with this disclaimer last week at Assembly. The Interrupters chronicles the story of three Violence Interrupters who attempt to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they were once a part of. These “Interrupters” of violence are former criminals who understand the anger, hurt, and frustration that can instigate such actions; their mission is to stop this horrible cycle. They do not try to disband gangs, but rather physically interrupt conflicts and persuade people not to kill, or commit other crimes. These Interrupters are amazing, real-life examples of how drastically people can change. Alex Kotlowitz was invited by LIFE (Latin’s Initiative For Ethics) to promulgate his inspirational journey in filming the documentary. The clip he decided to share with the entire Latin student body was a scene between three African-American men, two of which were Violence Interrupters, and a gang member, referred to as “Flamo.” Flamo had called the Violence Interrupters to come over and discuss how Flamo and his family had recently been victims of the same racial prejudice that exists all over Chicago; the police had stormed into his house and brutally arrested his mother and brother. No one in his or her right mind would find this description humorous. But, the majority of Latin students broke out in laughter while watching this scene. What caused this arguably inappropriate reaction?


Unfortunately, at Latin, since a number of students grow up in well-off, wealthy environments, many are accused of being trapped in a bubble and acting oblivious to what is happening in other, less well-off parts of Chicago. That is the stereotype at least, and this assembly only perpetuated the theory further.  Junior Tanya Calvin thought, “This reaction was completely disrespectful to Alex Kotlowitz and the people that live through violence and unfair treatment everyday.” I also had an opportunity to speak with Ms. Maajid, one of the Librarians, and she believes “their laughter at his behavior diminished the seriousness of the issue at hand.” While she was very understanding when I talked with her—recognizing that the scene could have been taken out of context—Ms. Maajid said she “realized that it wasn’t necessarily the students’ fault, but was disappointed that they misunderstood the point.” Mr. Woods, an English teacher, also understood that the scene was given to the audience with little context. When asked if he was disillusioned by the laughter, he sighed and responded that he was “more disappointed with Kotlowitz and how he introduced the scene than he was with the actual laughter of the students.” These various responses prompted the question: were people laughing at Flamo’s unfortunate situation or, rather, were they uncomfortable with the content in the film and did not know what else to do?


In this instance, the Latin students were presented with a humorless issue – one that they had no control of. While most students at Latin are certainly aware of severe problems in Chicago outside the sector they live in, they are not faced with these issues on a daily basis as they try to avoid it as best they can; so, was the response to the Flamo scene nothing more than a defense mechanism? There are many reasons for laughter beyond just discomfort and something being funny. People laugh out of nervousness and avoidance, or because their friend next to them is laughing and laughter is a bonding experience. With this questionable reaction, many wonder whether or not Alex Kotlowitz and co-director Steve James intended for the Flamo scene, and possibly other parts of the movie, to be funny.


Steve James can understand why many students laughed at the film, as he recognizes that “humor is always a way for people to cope with the world, no matter where you’re from.” While undeniably realizing the intensity and tragedy of the movie, James emphasizes, “you don’t want to just focus on the tragedy of it all. Life includes humor.” Taking James’s statement into consideration, was the laughter an act of disrespect or simply an easier way to deal with the difficult issue at hand?

Apparently, the Latin students were not the only community that found Flamo humorous.   The work of the “Interrupters” has been effective in changing the trajectory of Flamo’s life, as he recently embarked on a new career as a stand-up comedian in Minneapolis.  He is staying out of trouble and speaks of his journey at juvenile detention homes and schools in the area.]]>

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    idorerNov 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    For what it’s worth, there’s interesting new neuroscience research on the phenomenon of seemingly inappropriate laughter. I would not read too much into that reaction, especially after listening to students engage Cobe Williams about the Flamo episode. I am reminded, however, that the first time I visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz with students, the dead silence in our bus was broken by seemingly inappropriate laughter. Of course, there was nothing funny about what we had just seen, and the laughter was not about disrespect, even though it was hard to put into perspective at the moment.

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