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How A Former Black Panther Is Working To Stop Gang Violence In South L.A.

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'The Black Jacket' (Photo via Facebook)
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Aquil Basheer has come up with a "hardcore gang intervention" program that isn't just making an impact in his neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, but the world. He's the subject of a new film from director Ryan Simon that just launched on numerous streaming platforms. The Black Jacket isn't one of those highly stylized documentaries. It's a frank look at the work of Aquil Basheer, a former Black Panther who now, via his nonprofit Maximum Force Enterprises, leads the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, a 16-week peacemaking course for ex-gang and community members. Through Basheer's work—something he's been at diligently since 1969—he's been able to make peace among rival gang members and decrease violence in at-risk communities. He's also managed to standardize his methods, which have been adopted by the L.A. City Council, and take them on the road to help other communities facing similar struggles.

The title of the film comes from the black jacket that successful program participants receive when they're ready to restore peace to their neighborhoods.

Simon tells LAist he was introduced to Basheer when he was doing work for a nonprofit that was looking for programs in South Central Los Angeles that were "creating actual solutions." He highlighted Basheer's work then in a short documentary, but decided to go back and shadow his class.

"Aquil's class is the kind of thing that people show up to. It's not court-mandated. People rearrange their schedules to make it work," Simons says. "And it was already amazing to me that there was no reason to attend his class unless you were passionate about it, and every orientation night, it was chock full of people that were vying to get into the class…There's just an electricity in his way of teaching, and he is truly tying to professionalize the work that people are doing there."

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While other organizations have their participants play games like two-truths-and-a-lie to break the ice, Basheer ups the ante immediately. Early on, you see a fresh group of students dive to the floor as gunshots erupt just outside the door. It's a drill, but an important test, too. Basheer shows them they must be ready for anything, even the things that happen in a split second. Basheer says the shooting is one of just 40 scenarios they go over in the class, and each one is a "real word [scenario] from the street [that] has happened in our 40 years of work."

"One thing we had to do in the class, we had to humble people," Basheer says. "We had to do a variety of things to put people under simulated pressure so they can see who they are in the moment. And, it allows my people to see what type of expertise we have on board. People think they're a lot sharper than they actually are, and they operate so much on emotional reaction as opposed to planning. Now people say, I need to sit here and listen because there are a few things I can learn from this."

Basheer started his work 40 years ago because he felt as though he had a mandated responsibility to give back. For years, he says the police answer to gang violence was suppression. Suppression is largely conducted by law enforcement and may involve surveillance, patrols, investigation and arrest, whereas intervention is preventative, and often works to stop youth from joining gangs in the first place. Basheer found that intervention could work in ways that suppression alone couldn't, and he's not alone in that idea. According to the U.S. Department of Justice report, Gang Suppression and Intervention: Problem and Response:

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Although it is possible that relying solely on suppression may stop gang
violence in smaller cities or those with emerging gang problems (usually accompanied
by an increase in gang-related drug trafficking), researchers have
discovered little evidence that relying primarily on suppression has reduced the
gang problem in large cities such as Los Angeles.

But even that was not the ultimate solution, as Basheer regards actual gang violence as "only one arm of a nexus."

"Gang intervention had to mature itself into comprehensive community intervention," he says. "Gang intervention is because you have to eradicate violence if a community gong to create any degree of self-reliance. But once that violence has stopped, that only starts the process. So many in the pass though the violence would decrease and then we were done. That's totally incorrect. You stop the violence, then you have to be able to create some degree of sustainability."

To that end, some of the issues tackled in the film at first seem small, as Basheer notes that the documentary does not show the full, broader picture of their work, but rather focuses on the methodology. For instance, you see Basheer and his team removing graffiti, which will in turn prevent retaliation from rival gangs. In one scene, they discuss the importance of stopping rumors that stir up conflict, and in another, they practice deescalation in dramatic situations, including one domestic scenario they role-play in the class.

"[The documentary] shows that this work is a science…it personalizes and shows the challenges and the hardships, and really gets down and dirty in showing the transformative process of the people getting empowered enough to give back."

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And not just in their own communities. These "certified peacekeepers," as Basheer calls them, will often be able to implement this same work in other communities, and are building a template that can work outside of Southern California.

Basheer was given a $25,000 California Peace Prize for his work by The California Wellness Foundation in 2010. The L.A. City Council has adopted his methodology, and he is soon visiting the United Nations in order to assist them on laying out a "global template for urban communities" to do the work he's doing here in L.A. At the time we spoke, he had just gotten back from San Francisco and has plan to also return to help efforts in New Jersey.

The Black Jacket is available iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu and Cinema Now.