The Two Fuse Theory

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office

[Full Interview]


You mentioned earlier the "two tap root theory?"


I heard this from Gil Pompa, so I refer to it as "Gil Pompa's theory" [Gil Pompa was a former director of CRS]. In essence, what he says is that in racial conflicts, there are two taproots growing simultaneously. One is a perception or belief of unfair treatment or discrimination. The other is a lack of confidence in any redress system. There is the belief that, "Even if I complain, it is not going to make a difference." And those two beliefs (or taproots) are growing in force, side- by-side.

Then there is a triggering incident. Rodney King was a classic example. And that triggering incident then results in these roots really exploding. Now the reason that I said I have changed it slightly is because I can't really see roots exploding. So I have changed it to say that there are two fuses leading to a bomb, and those two fuses are constantly strengthening and growing in intensity.

But even though these two fuses leading to the bomb are there, and are becoming more dangerous, it's not until that triggering incident that the bomb explodes and you have violence. If you could have disconnected or defused either of those fuses, the triggering incident wouldn't have done anything. If people who feel they are facing despair had an effective redress system, you wouldn't get that tension. If you didn't have a perception of disparity in the first place, you wouldn't need that redress system. But with both of those growing in intensity, that triggering incident--and it could be almost anything--will then set it off.

And then once you have that triggering incident, I think one of the mistakes that we often make in responding to that, is that all we look at is the triggering incident. We try to resolve the triggering incident, and we totally miss all of the pieces of those two fuses. We don't even look at those fuses! But the fuses are still there, so unless they are dealt with, they are going to regroup after a while, even when people don't even remember the triggering incident anymore. So part of our job, if you are really trying to deal with and respond to a violent conflict, is to recognize what those two fuses look like. Because if you can't deal with them, another triggering incident is going to set it off again.

With the Rodney King situation, if you remember the disturbances--or "civil disobedience" or "riots" or "revolution" -- the semantics of what you called it became a very big issue -- those events occurred, not when Rodney King was beaten, even though you would think that the beating would have generated anger. But rather, the incidents occurred when the redress system didn't work. When the police officers were found "not guilty", that is when all hell broke loose. The anger was about much more than the Rodney King incident, it was about these two fuses that had been growing. Rodney King was just a triggering incident that set that off.

And you can look at other examples of that as well. But it's an illustration which makes sense, even when you present it to institutional heads; they understand the importance of addressing perceptions of inequality. Even if they think they are doing everything fairly, they realize that it is in their best interests to not have those fuses growing in their community.

So, I say, "Maybe what is needed here isn't labeling you as racist. Maybe what's needed is for you to have a better opportunity to explain to the community what you are doing. Maybe the community just doesn't understand all of the positive things. I can help you with that, too."


I am assuming that most of the time when CRS gets involved, it is because there has been a triggering incident...?


Certainly if there has been a triggering incident we will get involved, but we also get involved before a triggering incident takes place. It is just as likely that there is, for instance, a community that's just frustrated and has nowhere else to go. Maybe that's because they can see that the lack of equity and the perception of discrimination is there, and they have tried some avenue of redress that hasn't worked, so they come to CRS and say, "What can you do for us?"

... And especially in the case of people who already know us, maybe from a previous triggering incident, maybe they will call us and say, "Silke, we are facing such-and-such and so-and-so, and she won't listen to us, and this has been going on and something is going to happen if you don't come." I remember my very first time in a particular reservation -- I hadn't been in the region that long yet, and to this day I don't know where they got my name -- but they called me and basically said, "If you don't come" -- and this was a police relations issue -- "we are going to start marching in the streets, so you'd better get down here." And it sounded urgent enough so that I did, indeed, get down there. We ended up having a fairly lengthy mediation session that ended with a good agreement.

So, ultimately, in this case, they were trying to avoid a triggering incident, but they were concerned with what they saw as ongoing physical abuse by the local police of Indian citizens. In their mind, anytime there was an Indian apprehended, they had to take him to the hospital before they could take him to the prison because he was so badly beaten up; they always resisted arrest, so they just said, "If something doesn't happen here, we are going to have a triggering incident and we don't want that to happen. So Silke, it is all up to you." And I thought, "Gee thanks, I appreciate that."