We’ve been here before – again and again. Possibly the most potent symbol of police racism and brutality in America is Watts, a district in southern Los Angeles. Several decades ago, the street gangs of Watts formed the epicenter of America’s crack cocaine business. Such was the rivalry between the main gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, that the wars between them and their offshoots claimed five times as many lives as did all the years of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The white establishment’s solution, the creation of the special CRASH division (the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) within the Los Angeles Police Department, resulted in the largest internal affairs investigation of what turned out to be the largest incidence of police misconduct in America’s history — for unprovoked shootings and beatings, framing suspects, planting evidence, and the department’s own share of drug dealing and bank robbery.
In fact, the very name of the district has become synonymous with the most extreme face of racial discrimination in America. During the riots of 1965, set off by the arrest of a black youth and his family on a trumped-up drunk-driving charge, black residents burned and looted nearly 1000 mostly white-owned businesses.
Some 15,000 troops of National Guardsmen and Armored Calvary — more than had ever been deployed on the nation’s own soil — were called in, ostensibly to prevent Watts from burning itself to the ground.
“Monkeys in a zoo,” is how LAPD’s police chief William Parker publicly dealt with the situation, sparking off another round of looting and arson only contained when Guardsmen cordoned off all of Watts from the rest of Los Angeles like an epidemic requiring quarantine.
Thirty years later, Watts rose again as the symbol of the uneven hand of American justice after a tourist’s video captured policemen brutally beating black motorist Rodney King, and the officers involved were acquitted of all charges. This latest incident set off a six-day riot of arson, assault and murder, leaving 53 dead, thousands injured, and more than one billion dollars in damages.
In the ongoing dialogue between the races in America, Watts stands as a symbol of the fact that no one is doing much listening.
Nevertheless, it is in Watts that we can learn something of where to go from here, in terms of overcoming racism in America and elsewhere, from a guy called Orland Bishop, founder and director of ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, which has pioneered new methods of creating urban truces and youth mentorship. Orland Bishop’s extraordinary work is all about teaching rival black gang members how to relate to each other and to move beyond “I” and “you” – or, more commonly, “us” and “them.”
Shifting past sameness
In his seminal work I and Thou, Martin Buber claims that, in the main, we relate to other people as “I-It” – as objects utterly separate from — and hence subordinate to — ourselves. That is largely because, in any situation and in any relationship, we consider “I” to be separate and primary.
If I were to ask you to describe the first meeting of most of your friends, you would probably recount how you first cast about for points of mutual contact — evidence that you share the same economic level, spiritual beliefs, hobbies, family structure or personal tastes. Most likely, you have chosen to connect exclusively with people who share something of you in them. We think of this superficial connection as providing us with a sense of shared identity.
We like people who are just like us —who share our own values, our attitudes, our personalities and even our emotional dispositions — and we tend to conflict most with people who are not like us.
All of the leisure groups we join – from the Rotary club to the Parents and Teachers Association – are based on a shared passion, whether a community, game, God or children. Our idea of connection is constantly seeking sameness.
We look always to recreate ourselves in another, which has as its basis a desire to reinforce that our way is the best – in fact, the only way.
In Bishop’s work with his young gang members, he shifts from a search for sameness to a deep dive into the deepest aspects of each other. Bishop invites the young men to engage in deep sharing, moving past superficial differences to the deepest truth of who they are and what they dream for.
During unstructured discussions, he asks groups of young men provocative questions to spur the young men to share their personal histories. Most are shocking, and the young people still very raw from them.
Bishop coaches the young men in the art of speaking and listening deeply and from the heart — without the audience being critical or judgmental. During this type of deep sharing, a person’s honesty and vulnerability aren’t seen as weakness, but has the opposite effect, building trust and loosening everyone else’s attachments to entrenched positions.
In this kind of deep truth telling, individuals agree to be honest and transparent about areas of greatest importance to themselves, no matter how controversial or contentious their positions, and never to use their views to make another person wrong.
All the others agree to be fully present and listen respectfully with both heart and mind, without judging each other.
Where our ideas came from
Bishop focuses on communication that reveals the deeper narrative of each person’s life — how we come to believe what we believe and who we really are — and the connection that always exists at that deeper level of being.
With this kind of communication you begin to commune in ways that enable you to connect directly from your soul to the soul of the other, in order to find the common humanity and connection beneath superficial differences. You discover the common ground that is always there, even when worldviews collide.
A single deep connection like this can be remarkably healing. “Once you have this relationship dedicated to that greater good,” says Bishop, “it can hold the space for it to just keep forming, no matter what the current reality is.”
Within its large network, Bishop’s organization ShadeTree includes a number of young men who were in rival gangs now working together. Similarly, in Guayaguil, Ecuador, peace worker Nelsa Cora has taught young people in street gangs to transform their desire for connection into “the power of service, life and love” to a struggling community.
Gang members have learned to channel their impulses for creativity and need for recognition away from violence and into small businesses: printing businesses, music studios, pizzerias.
The Barrio is now known as Barrio de Paz — Peace Town. This kind of deep sharing is so powerful that even the most ruthless of gang members have laid down their guns.
It's time for all of us – black and white, protesters and police – to make a start by speaking deeply from the heart, while all the rest of us begin to finally listen.