Lessons from Ferguson

In just a few days, the town of Ferguson, Missouri went from relatively quiet to exploding with violence back to relatively quiet. It is an amazing demonstration of how not to manage conflict and then how to save the day.

Let’s start at the beginning. A police officer shot an unarmed young man. This should never have happened, of course. More striking, however, is that the police officer may have been influenced by the fact that the young man was black. More striking still is that the black community believes that this is just the latest evidence of a long standing bias against them. We are now at stage one of exploding conflict – us versus them. In stage one, dialogue is frozen. Nicht gut.

It is a bit peculiar that the police seemed to be oblivious to the precise nature of the threat that being in stage one poses. But as far as we can tell, they were. They might argue that they were aware of the problem and this is why they bought heavy equipment and weaponry to deal with violent crowds. Which of course, they had done. But they did not get it that the equipment will not solve the underlying reason for being in stage one. Ooops

We then go to stage two. After the shooting the community wanted to protest. They wanted to express their outrage. This is a normal human reaction. The police, however, saw this as a threat and they pulled out their heavy equipment to throttle the protest. Ooops. Stage two is direct conflict of the face to face type. It is a crisis situation that is either defused or not. depending on the skills and attitudes of those involved. Failure to resolve a stage two conflict is a sure recipe for moving the conflict to stage three.

What is stage three? Stage three is kill or be killed. In a stage three setting, dialogue is no longer possible. Trust has been destroyed. And this is what we saw in Ferguson. An explosion of violence directed at the police.It was in part directed at the police because of the shooting. But the crowds were equally incensed by the fact that the police seemed not to understand the dynamic at work.

The truly amazing end of the story is that the authorities pulled back. The governor replaced the police leadership. And the new police leadership said to the protesters “We are with you – not against you.” And on the very next day, protesters and police marched together.The problem is not solved, but we are at last back to stage one where dialogue is possible again.

It was a close call. This conflict could have gone viral with confrontations between communities and police across the nation. At that moment, many probably would have complained that the protestors were not being logical. This ignores, however, that conflict introduces a special kind of logic. And to manage conflict, we need to respect the logic of conflict.

FOLLOW  — I spoke too soon. While the initial signs that the conflict could be managed were positive, the underlying story was in fact far from over. New information came out about how the young man was killed that confirmed beliefs of extreme over reaction on the part of police. This sparked a new wave of protests and violence. Now we have a more severe test for authorities.

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