When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested on July 16th at his house in an apparently over-zealous and possibly racially charged police decision, everyone involved quickly fell into the usual pattern of conflict for these kinds of incidents. Statements were released, lawyers were hired, accusations and implications were flung, and everyone prepared for to defend themselves in battle. The media did its usual thing, egging on the conflict and brinksmanship, interpreting every action and word in the worst possible light, and the parties involved in the fight used those channels to communicate their anger with each other indirectly. When President Obama first got involved, he only escalated the situation by first admitting that he didn't have all the facts, and then proceeding anyway to say that one of the parties involved had acted "stupidly." Awful and disturbing, but pretty much what everyone expected.
But then something curious and possibly amazing happened.
Someone, probably a White House aide who thinks a little differently than her or his colleagues, realized that there might be another way forward. Someone suggested that maybe if the parties involved in this escalating conflict sat down together and talked in person, a better outcome could prevail. And apparently that suggestion got whispered in the President's ear, because Gates, arresting officer Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and Obama are expected to sit down together this week. Over a beer.
It may seem like a small thing, but it really does represent a total departure from the cultural norm related to how we resolve conflicts. The idea of just sitting down to have a conversation instead of "lawyering up" is not the direction most of us take, and if you believe the evening news, we often go really far in the other direction of perpetrating further injustices on one another. But here we have the President of the United States suggesting an in-person conversation, and we have the other men involved responding positively. The lawyers are stepping back, the media circus is calming down, and there's going to be a conversation. Nice!
Of course, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, and a lot of pressures that make this a less than ideal conversation scenario. It probably would have been hard for either man to say "no thanks" to the President, and so both are somewhat compelled to participate. The White House isn't exactly the most neutral setting for any conversation, and talking through complex issues while slightly intoxicated is probably not ideal. Both men have ratcheted up the stakes involved - for Gates, it's about calling attention to racial profiling and for Crowley, it's about defending the integrity of his and his fellow officers` actions - so neither can easily walk away from the conversation and just say "it's all good now" without having hoards of special interest groups and supporters demanding further action. (And yes, there are legitimate and serious issues around racial profiling and law enforcement practices that need to be addressed here.)
But regardless of the outcome, it's heartening that a seed has been planted: there are other ways to resolve our conflicts. And the seed is there at the highest levels of a governmental system that generally eschews considering the humanity and complexity of any given person involved in any given dispute. Might we call that progress?
The forthcoming gathering at the White House may not follow its principles directly, but Restorative Justice is an approach to conflict resolution that tries to foster dialog between all of the parties involved in a wrong-doing - the victim, the offender, witnesses, family members and friends affected, etc. It tries to build up "mutual responsibility" for addressing wrong-doing in our communities, instead of perpetuating the notion that when a crime or wrong has been committed, accountability and punishment are handed down by some externalized and detached authority. And it's working in communities all over. Here in Richmond, the Conflict Resolution Center trains mediators to facilitate a similar kind of conversation that, while not strictly part of Restorative Justice practices, still encourages that kind of dialog and reconciliation.
What might these kinds of conflict resolution practices look like in your community? Are there conflicts in your life where a facilitated, face-to-face conversation might have made all the difference in resolving them?
Here's hoping that Crowley, Gates, and Obama make the best use of their time together, realizing that they may just be helping to model something transformative for, well, the rest of the world.