The first time I call Aquil Basheer, his cell phone goes straight to voicemail.
The 61-year-old gang intervention specialist is in New Jersey to conduct a training, and, I’ll later find out, an emergency erupted nearby just as he wrapped for the day. “It was some things going on in one of the neighborhoods,” he says. “They were at a community meeting, and it kind of boiled over.”
He’s made it back to his hotel room, though, and with the earlier situation under control, he is getting ready to eat dinner and go to the gym. “Luckily,” he says, without going into detail, “no life was lost.”
Basheer, an L.A. native and a former member of the Black Panther Party, has been committed to reducing gang violence and healing communities since the 1960s. His work began as a loosely organized group that trained ex-gang members—as well as graduate students, social workers and psychologists—to become interventionists. Since then, he’s founded his own training company, worked as the executive director of Pete Carroll’s nonprofit A Better L.A., been awarded the California Peace Prize by The California Wellness Foundation, and seen his strategies adopted in cities across the world.
But Basheer’s tactics don’t include traditional, government-issued Band-aids; there’s no sweeping change imposed from the outside, no pouring money into untested programs. Instead, he burrows deep into the day-to-day minutia of gang relations that, if escalated, can be the match that ignites a wildfire of violence. Basheer’s students learn to control neighborhood rumors, mediate ceasefires, and provide support for kids affected by gang culture. Trainees must be fearless, compassionate, trustworthy, and—perhaps most importantly—imbued with the belief that things can get better.
“There are pockets of hope throughout the country that are creating some outstanding examples of what needs to be done,” says Basheer. “Examples of success.”
Being allowed to move freely through gang territory, as Basheer and his team do, requires what’s known as a license to operate, an unofficial but unquestionable trust within the community. That license is built from years of dedication, and it allows for no clocking out.
“Let me tell you that credibility is hard to gain, and is extremely easy to lose,” he says. “You can’t live on past reputation. [If] you don’t stay true and committed to the community, you don’t keep your integrity, you don’t keep your word, you pimp that community, you’re gonna lose that credibility. And once you do, it’s almost impossible to regain.”
When Basheer was approached by a team of documentarians from the Culver City-based creative company Omelet, then, he didn’t jump at the opportunity to be profiled. “Most [filmmakers] want to make documentaries about this because of personal benefit,” he says. “People are moved by the types of imagery that’s involved; they know that gore, that violence, these things sell. Even though people are against it personally, they love to see it on the screen.”
Mike Wallen, Omelet’s chief content officer and the producer of what would become the film License to Operate, learned about Basheer’s hesitation early on. “When we first approached these men and women,” Wallen says, “they expressed their concerns. They didn’t want to be exploited; they didn’t want their story to be sensationalized.”
Wallen took the concerns to heart, but his plan to steer clear of gratuitous imagery wasn’t received well from initial audiences. “We got a lot of feedback from people: ‘Where’s the shooting? Where’s the yellow tape?’,” he says. “But it’s so much less about the violence and so much more about community restoration and creating hope and opportunities for kids. It’s a story of redemption. They feel they have to try and create the opportunities for the next generation because it wasn’t there for them.”
The film puts Basheer, who calls his relationship with the police a “respectful coexistence,” in the spotlight at a time of peak conflict, when tension between police and black communities is at a combustible high. “When you tell the police department, ‘We are going to give you military rights, military equipment, military firepower, equip you to be a force that’s going to war,’ well, guess what? There has to be an adversary in that scenario,” he says. “The community has become that adversary, and that is felt.”
When it comes to working with interventionists who aren’t from the community, Basheer doesn’t count on miracles. “I don’t expect them to have the same understanding I have,” he says.
But he does expect complete commitment, complete immersion, and full-throttle compassion.
“I expect them to be what I call a ‘barefoot academician.’ Take off the shoes,” he says, “and feel what you’re walking on.”