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"Streetbeefs": A Different Kind of Mediation

Courtesy Chris Wilmore

A new documentary called “Guns to Gloves” has been making the rounds on social media, and getting a lot of buzz in the Shenandoah Valley.  It was posted by the New York Times earlier this month.  In that video, we meet a man in Harrisonburg who is engaging in a unique, but perhaps time-honored – method of dispute resolution, staging fistfights in his backyard. And as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports, the organizers of these fights have had to get used to LOTS of attention.

CHRIS WILMORE: “Be careful. About two weeks after that article drops, we're probably going to get some attention.” It was one hour.

That’s Harrisonburg City resident Chris Wilmore; he also goes by “Scarface.” Earlier this month an eighteen-minute documentary about him called “Guns to Gloves” by two freelance video journalists was posted online by The New York Times, and now Wilmore is getting lots of media attention.

WILMORE: Listen, I did not expect none of this. So it's overwhelming. It's even a little scary, It's fun, but the one thing that both of us talked about is we don't want our message to get lost in all the hubbub.

The film shows Wilmore and his associate Wes Ray as they bring together angry individuals to settle disputes once and for all--with fistfights, not guns.

[Sound from a YouTube video of a Streetbeefs fight]

They call their work “Streetbeefs.” It started with a fight between mutual friends, and in the subsequent six years they’ve held about fifty fights in Wilmore’s Washington Street backyard. The fights are timed and refereed, with rules. And many are posted to the Streetbeefs YouTube channel, which now has over 27,000 subscribers. He and Ray try talking it out with people with beefs, but if that isn’t successful, they make arrangements for a fight day.

WILMORE: You'd be surprised, there's guys that despised each other in the yard and then they fight and it's out of their system and they're friends again. It's hard to believe. And I heard people last night saying, "There's no way this works, the loser will be mad forever," but that's not always true. I promise you. It's a strange phenomenon. A lot of these guys shake hands and they feel like, cause both men going into the fight are afraid. Everybody getting ready to fight somebody, believe it or not, unless it's spur of the moment, it's scary, even for me. I've fought a lot, and it's scary. So you feel like you got through it together even though it's against each other.

The documentary depicts a violent Harrisonburg, and Wilmore, who works as a personal trainer, has heard the response that “Harrisonburg is not like that.” He disagrees:

WILMORE: Any time that I know four individuals that have died violently, of course I'm going to take that seriously, and of course I'm going to feel it's an issue.

For more than two decades, Ron Copeland has lived and worked in northern Harrisonburg, where he has owned a restaurant, pastored a church, and founded--and is executive director of--a community center. He can hear the Streetbeefs fights from his house, but thinks the video was “a little overstated.”

RON COPELAND:  I walk my dog every single night. As a regular citizen as I walk down the street, I don’t feel unsafe.

Harrisonburg Police Department Crime Prevention Officer Brooke Wetherell said that while the city is not crime free, the “Guns to Gloves” video is inaccurate in its portrayal of Harrisonburg, as violent crime has been “severely decreased” in the past few years. There were no homicides in the city in all of 2014 and 2015; there was one during each of the previous four years.

BROOKE WETHERELL: The Harrisonburg Police Department does not condone the method which Mr. Wilmore is hosting. While we have not responded to the area for any criminal mischief, it's still not something that the police department endorses or partners with at this time.

Copeland calls Wilmore a “good friend” who is “conscientious,” “sweet hearted, and very neighbor minded.” 

COPELAND: The thing hit me watching the video: I was like "Wow. Maybe I help people mediate so they won't fight, and Chris helps people mediate so they won't kill each other."

Copeland says that Wilmore, with some training, has the gifts to be “a really good mediator” and who is doing what he does “for the right reasons.”

COPELAND: If all this attention could be leveraged into helping Chris build a nice gym on the north end where he can teach boxing and athletic training to young kids, he would be in heaven. You should see him when he does this football thing with kids in the neighborhood. He's like the Pied Piper. He carries a football up to the park and literally twenty or thirty kids will follow him up there and play whenever he wants to.

Wilmore says that since the documentary aired he has received calls from Hollywood, including about doing a reality show. While he doesn’t know yet what he’ll do next with Streetbeefs, Eastern Mennonite University has offered Wilmore free enrollment in a conflict resolution class. Will he take it?

WILMORE: Sure. I might as well.