The 2015 gang intervention documentary License to Operate, directed by James Lipetzky, held its Baltimore premiere in Hodson Hall on Thursday, Feb. 4. The film premiered at the Seattle Film Festival and screened at a number of universities across the country. The film was opened by an introduction by Beverly Wendland, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School, and Don Kurz, an alumni of Hopkins and one of the film’s executive producers.
What followed these introductions was a film of incredible impact, at once visually dynamic, emotionally devastating and ultimately enlightening. The story at the forefront is that of gang violence in Los Angeles and the former gang members who, with their respected “License to Operate” status, return to the neighborhoods they once dominated, using their influence to prevent gang actions and rebuild communities. We follow these local heroes through their own stories of gang membership and incarceration, their hours of training, their heartbreaking discussions with community members and their hopes for future change.
Countering the media’s cold, sensationalist portrayal of gang members and their communities, the film is profoundly emotional, depicting the seemingly endless pain of individuals on all sides of the violence and devastation. One of the main emotional narratives surrounds Jazmin and Carissa Falls, twin sisters who face the death of school friends as a result of gang violence as well abandonment by their mother. While their story does not involve gang intervention, it weaves perfectly into the overall film in that it portrays the struggle of young people in targeted, disenfranchised communities who are forced to face certain hardships in addition to those of simply growing up and finding one’s place in the world.
Another moment that produced deep empathy from audience members was the parallel sequence of LAPD officer Stinson Brown and a former gang member as they both visit the graves of their young sons. Their accounts of their sons’ lives and deaths, though different, portray the connecting human element of violence and death as well as the drive for change on both sides.
Leading the LTO movement is Aquil Basheer, one of the top specialists in gang intervention in the nation, the founder of the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute and the 2010 California Wellness Foundation's Peace Prize recipient. Basheer, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, explained that he was able to form this type of connection with targeted neighborhoods because of his own experiences.
“I feel that it is probably the only thing that could have put me in this work. I wouldn’t never be able to do this work because I wouldn’t understand the dynamics of the work,” he said. “I wouldn’t understand the challenges of people in targeted communities that go through this […] Everything you saw in the film, all the challenges, that’s what prepared me to be able to do the work.”
Basheer and his colleagues first became involved in the film after meeting with Kurz, whose company, Omelet, happened to be on the board of one of the organizations that supports the program. While the film was first conceived as a shorter, commercial-type trailer, it soon morphed into a full feature length film, the first for the production company.
At the same time, Omelet also had to be wary of the sensitive nature of the issues they were portraying on screen. However, Basheer explained that he had confidence in their relationship with the filmmakers and in the initial boundaries set before production.
“Normally when you deal with people in film, especially in this type of work, you have to make clear what will be allowed and what won’t be allowed,” he said. “Luckily, with the relationship that we had with Dom — and him knowing the work — and his film company, we were able to articulate our points, let them know what they could and could not do. There were boundaries put in place before the process even started and they respected that fully.”
Throughout the film, it is evident that filmmakers strove to respect these boundaries while also providing an intimate portrayal of all sides of the situation and breaking down preconceptions about gang violence and all those trapped in its vicious cycle.
Following the screening of the film, there was a panel discussion titled “Interrupting Gun Violence from the Ground Up,” which included Basheer, Linda DeLibero, the director of the JHU Film and Media Studies Program, Dedra Layne, the director of Safe Streets Baltimore, Daniel Webster, a researcher at the JHU Center for Gun Policy & Research, and Hollis Robbins, director of the Center for Africana Studies, who served as the moderator. Each panelist brought their own unique perspectives to issues surrounding the film and helped to spark a discussion amongst audience members.
While the title of the discussion leaned towards the topic of weapons and violence, the panel encompassed a range of elements including the evolution of weaponry used by gang members, the tentative, yet necessary relationship between interventionists and the police, the significance of direct groundwork and the role of local governments. Additionally, each member of the panel agreed on the importance of allowing the communities themselves to drive the process of change and development rather than lawmakers and policy researchers who implement their decisions from a distance.
In discussing these factors, it was made apparent that there are concrete methods of supporting impoverished, marginalized communities and creating systems that will drive fundamental change. While much of the film portrays a deeply distressing, utterly complex situation that has been built on decades of poverty and racial discrimination, it also produces an undeniable sense of hope; A call to action. In their tireless work, the interventionists, who understand the needs and desires of their communities, show tangible solutions to the oppression of urban communities and the subsequent cycles of death and retaliation.
Basheer echoed this sentiment of hope and understanding that he expects audience members will come away with after seeing the film.
“What I would hope that they would understand is that, first and foremost, there are answers and solutions,” he said. “There are, within the community, individuals that have committed themselves to providing hope and to affording the ability for others in the dysfunctionality to see a degree of greatness within themselves and for them to realize that they can achieve higher levels.”
Panelists also highlighted the importance of film and the arts as a way of providing a voice for those who are often systematically dehumanized and ignored. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of the film is that it creates a conduit for those involved to take charge of their own narratives and share them with a larger audience. Rather than relaying the story through a celebrity narrator, someone who would be detached from the situations depicted, the film allows those directly impacted by the issues to tell their own stories from their own perspectives.
Basheer later commented on the importance of the film bringing a voice of humanity to politicized issues.
“I think one of the things that the film does is create a state of humanity. People can relate from a human perspective to what they see,” he said. “So, in being able to create this relationship, people automatically want to know if they can do something, if they can they be a part of this process of change.”
Expanding on this subject of generating change through creating a deeper understanding of one another, Basheer hopes that audiences will recognize their own false preconceptions about dysfunctional communities and become more aware of the actual social and economic dynamics at play. He also seeks to break down the distance between people from different societal backgrounds and neighborhoods, thus creating a sense of interconnectedness.
“For audiences, especially those who don’t come from these types of communities, [I would hope] that they have a better understanding, that they have a better vision and that they realize that community after community are all interdependent,” Basheer said. “The quicker you are able to work with others outside of your comfort zone, the better it is going to be for society in general.”