In Ryan Simon’s new documentary, The Black Jacket, radical peace practitioner and former Black Panther Aquil Basheer takes students through a 16-week course in South L.A., training them to anticipate and diffuse even the most dangerous situations. During their first session, women and men on white folding chairs are listening intently to Basheer’s words of wisdom when an altercation seems to break out offscreen. It escalates. Some students turn around, but others ignore the ruckus. Seconds later, shots are heard.
This is just a test, but the students don’t know that.
“When you put people under pressure, you see their real character,” Basheer says. “You see their skill sets. You have a lot of people who have a sense of pride and arrogance. But what this scenario does is humble people. We saw you jump over that chair! We saw you push that woman over to save yourself when you heard those shots! And we say, ‘OK, maybe you ain’t as bad as you thought you was, so you’re going to sit here and learn.’”
Basheer employs 30 to 40 proven scenarios to build skills in his students, many of whom are former gang members looking to have a positive effect on their communities. After the sessions, students are certified to do this intervention work on a national level. A few don’t make it through. In the film, Basheer says that the people who can’t hack it in the course are the ones he doesn’t want doing this work. But most graduates stay within their Los Angeles communities, and are all the more effective working with people who already trust them.
In the past five years, gang crime in L.A. has experienced a sudden 47.9 percent drop. According to director Simon, Mayor Eric Garcetti attributes that drop to the LAPD “work[ing] with communities, not against them,” with programs such as Basheer’s PCITI (Professional Community Intervention Training Institute). Simon found that even police chief Charlie Beck credits these efforts with decreasing crime, and LAPD sergeant Curtis Woodle says, “PCITI has brought together law enforcement and the community to solve violence in a way that has never been done before.” To get a specific look at PCITI’s impact, Simon also looked at the neighborhood of Reynaldo, a graduate of the program, and found that assaults there fell 53 percent and homicides decreased by 60 percent, with a near-complete halt on gang recruiting. On the whole, Simon found that in every area where PCITI graduates are working as interventionists, homicide rates fell drastically.
“Graduates from the program walk away with a broad set of universal skills to reduce violence and rebuild communities,” Simon says. “But they also learn something unique and specific about themselves that turns them into agents for change in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods and cities.”
In L.A., where a single gang murder costs taxpayers $1.67 million to process, you might think that a program demonstrating these results would be somewhat financially supported by the city, but it’s not. Even though Basheer’s program is internationally recognized as the leading template in violence prevention and intervention — he’s even been invited to consult for the United Nations — he feels his own city doesn’t support his work as it should. The documentary tiptoes around the cordial but pat relationship the LAPD maintains with Basheer. But he also trains the LAFD, social services workers, domestic violence advocates, anyone who’s out in the streets and potentially facing danger. Simon says he chose to drive the documentary in a more positive direction, but all this tension with the city is right there on the surface.
“We have close relationships with the city,” Basheer says, “but when it comes to our actual support, we haven’t been supported like we should be. The old City Council gave us our credit, but we have moved this whole mission through private funders. Most of my team are there because of the passion and drive, but at the end of the day, you can’t survive out there. You’re out saving the world, and then you come home to your wife or husband, and your family is falling apart. There’s a lot of sacrifice.”
This sacrifice is rarely portrayed in struggling communities, primarily communities of color. While a film about gang violence isn’t new territory, a movie that tells the story of how we’re going to solve the crisis is rare.
“When Stacy Peralta’s Made in America came out,” Simon says, “I thought the documentary was strong on so many levels, but it bugged me that the film only spent five minutes on potential solutions to the cyclical problem of gang violence. We’ve seen plenty of historical films about gangs in America, but now it’s time to focus on people like Aquil, who were working tirelessly to change lives for the better amidst storied gang communities.”
What Basheer wants to instill in people about this group, which you see in the film, is that this is dangerous work taken on by people who would offer up their lives in service of their community.
Of the dangerous work his trainees do, Basheer says, “When we talk about the possibility of losing life, there’s no massive medical coverage on my people. We don’t have insurance. We can’t pay for the funeral. I’ve lost members in this work. I’ve lost lots of members. And so I want to be real clear that there are certain areas where the city could easily support our work on that level. They’ve supported our intervention, and they’re more advanced in seeing the need for this work, but they’re only comfortable with certain affiliations.”
When it comes down to it, the city may not be ready for a full embrace of a former Black Panther, with all the latent feelings that seems to dredge up. Still, most of the techniques Basheer employs have more to do with mental toughness than physical toughness — how to survive mentally when your world is full of danger. Basheer often finds himself instructing children on how to stand to remove yourself from conflict, what to say to de-escalate anger. He says 99.9 percent of his conversations with young people are about defense.
“It’s a bold number,” Basheer says. "But you’ve got to remember that when I have to talk to a community, especially a community of color, the top of that list of needs is the ability to survive the environment. Every day, a kid is sitting there saying, ‘I’ve gotta navigate how to deal with the police, or when my mother sends me to the store, how am I going to avoid getting shot, how am I going to deal with the people who want me to do A, B and C for them.' Their basic survival needs are not being dealt with. We have to teach them how to preserve their life first and build on top of that.”
Basheer knows that something like 60 percent of gang members join because they need protection, so they pick a side — any side — to have some semblance of safety. He also focuses on domestic violence, giving kids the tools to survive their home lives.
“What we’re talking about is an octopus of violence, aggression, hostility, trauma,” he says. “We can deal with gang violence, but what happens when the other things come up?”
It’s clear in the film that Basheer is the expert, a calm and determined source of strength. He’s a black belt in several forms of martial arts and loves the old Kung Fu films that prize honor above all else. But The Black Jacket also depicts something more difficult than the work itself — the quiet anxiety of finding a replacement to carry on Basheer’s life’s work.
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“Leadership is temporary,” Basheer insists. “When somebody is reading my bio, the first thing I want to do is tell them to stop, because it doesn’t mean anything unless there are 200 or 2,000 people’s bios that are similar. That means I did my job. The sign of a real leader is when that person realizes it’s not about them, that they have to train others to replace them.”
The Black Jacket is available now on VOD through iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu and CinemaNow.