As conflict emerges, community leaders will be focused on providing safe avenues for expression of concerns and on de-escalating or reducing the intensity of the conflict in order to preserve peace and protect the community. It may not be until the immediate impact of the incident has been handled that they will think of moving toward achieving outcomes that will deal with the heart of the problems and create a more resilient community, the topic of the next section, but there is reason to work on both objectives together as soon as feasible. This section aims to synthesize and consolidate the collective wisdom of community leaders and professionals with experience in dealing with the most pressing early issues.
Bring in intervenors with experience in volatile community conflicts and conflict resolution expertise to advise your leadership team and begin discussions with stakeholders on a process for solving problems.
Bringing in an intervenor who has worked in other volatile community conflicts allows the community to benefit from first-hand knowledge developed in other communities. The intervenor can draw on this experience to help leaders shape the crucial first responses to the conflict.
The intervenor can help local leaders develop a process to deal with the threat of violence or actual violence that has occurred, develop safe avenues for people to express their views and emotions, and begin to address the issues that are at the heart of residents’ concerns. Organizing these processes immediately is important, but feasible in that short timeframe only with the engagement of intervenors. Once this happens, people may feel less need to escalate their actions in order to gain the community’s attention. In the context of a conflict regarding racial disparities, Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy, NAACP, advises leaders, “Lay out a strategy for de-escalation that demonstrates a way forward (a pathway to better conditions). For example, [local officials] need to demonstrate an understanding of the racial disparities, historic context and a way to address those issues.”
Local intervenors may effectively assist with de-escalating a volatile community conflict and brokering a durable solution. However, some of those involved in the conflicts may only speak to outsiders from agencies like the Community Relations Service (CRS). Congress created CRS to assist communities when community conflicts or tensions arise from differences of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability. “Third parties can make difficult conversations safe,” explains Grande Lum, Director of the Community Relations Service, a U.S. Department of Justice agency that has statutory protection for its confidential mediations.
TWO GREAT RESOURCES FOR INTERVENORS
- Bertram J. Levine, Resolving Racial Conflict: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights, 1964-1989 (2005).
- Community Relations Service, The United States Department of Justice.
- Call the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice. Even if CRS does not intervene directly, it can provide confidential counsel. CRS uses a neutral, behind-the-scenes approach of assisting in conflict situations. CRS is not an investigatory or prosecutorial agency, and it does not have any law enforcement authority nor does it forward confidential information to law enforcement agencies within or outside the Department. For more on CRS, see the Resources section at the end of this document.
- When possible, engage local intervenors/mediators who have experience in volatile community conflicts. This strategy makes sense even if CRS intervenes. CRS can partner with local intervenors, who can stay in the community longer to create a sustainable solution and construct a process that can adapt to address subsequent community conflict. To identify these persons, contact CRS, city officials in communities like Sanford, Florida that have recently dealt with community conflict, or nonprofit organizations such as Everyday Democracy and Public Conversations (see Appendix).
- Look for conflict experts within and outside your communities who can supplement the work of these individuals. Bar associations, businesses, and faith communities, for example, may suggest people whose mediation training allows them to be a positive force as demonstrations unfold or as people need an opportunity to discuss emotional issues. They may have the background to arrange events that will be helpful in expressing emotions and identifying underlying concerns. In addition, conflict experts from within your community may be able to provide context and insight regarding the origins of the conflict or the culture of the local community to aid the other intervenors in their work.
“In 2012 George Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, [an African-American teenager]…. When the Sanford Police Department did not immediately arrest George Zimmerman, a group of African-American residents issued demands related both to the arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman and to their concerns about broader racial injustice within Sanford. Once the state appointed a special prosecutor, and the prosecution of Zimmerman began, the legal system’s response to the shooting moved to the prosecutor’s and court’s domains.
“Some city officials spoke optimistically about resolving the concerns about and moving past what they viewed as a single incident, but Andrew Thomas [a city official who had spent his career [as a mediator] dealing with community conflict in New York] had a different view. Thomas had been talking with African-American residents broadly. The issues would have to be shaped over time, and they would be broader than Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. Moreover, having worked in polarized situations before, Thomas predicted that national groups of various kinds and media would arrive within days and would assert additional demands and viewpoints. These groups would sometimes attract crowds and sometimes seek confrontation….
“Because many African-American residents distrusted the city officials, city officials asked the Community Relations Service at the U.S. Department of Justice to send mediators to improve relationships across the communities within Sanford. If CRS mediators succeeded, that would give some resilience to the community in Key Considerations for Community Leaders Facing Civil Unrest | 11 the coming months as national media and national groups arrived and might ultimately make it possible to have a cross-community dialogue about the issues that divided the city’s residents. CRS recognized the potential for serious consequences in Sanford and sent mediators from a number of regional offices. Sanford and CRS officials agreed that CRS would first build relationships among the clergy in Sanford; the clergy after all cared about a peaceful resolution, and people from [across] Sanford’s communities trusted their pastors…. In time, Thomas helped facilitate conversations about changes in Sanford….
“No violence occurred in Sanford during these demonstrations. Sanford’s police made no arrests. Local talks continue, and Thomas sees people talking with each other who would not have done so a few years ago. The police continue to change. Residents remain engaged. Thomas expects that it will take more time, though he says that, increasingly, people are proud to be Sanford residents.” – Andrew Thomas in N. Rogers, When Conflicts Polarize Communities, 30 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 173 (2015).