Reducing Tensions

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office

[Full Interview]

Very recently, we were in this case where we worked together with the Kansas City Regional Office. We're in Pine Ridge [A Native American Reservation in South Dakota.] AIM and the Pine Ridge leadership wanted to march into White Plains to protest. There had been a couple of recent murders which had been unsolved. There were allegations of mistreatment of Indians in the town and that the town was using the sale of alcohol to the detriment of the Native American community. There had been a march the week before which had gone peacefully, but as the marchers got ready to return to the Pine Ridge reservation, others stayed behind. There was some burning and looting and destruction, so when plans were made for another march, there was a real concern that this might become violent. It was at that point that CRS got involved.

So, there was a potential for violence there. One of the key things that we try to do before an event which might lead to violence is that we get the key players, the leaders, together to talk about what expectations each one has about the coming event. We talk about what parameters each one has set, what are their absolutes, and what is negotiable, so that each side would know what to expect of the other. In this case, we arranged for a meeting between the march leadership and the Nebraska Law Enforcement, particularly the State Patrol. We tried to come up with an understanding of how far marchers would be able to go. The Nebraska Law Enforcement understood that there was no intent to create any violence or to destroy any property. They understood, in fact, that the marchers would be training self-marshals. CRS helped, to some extent, in doing that too. AIM has a very effective security staff themselves, so they served as marshals, to some exten,t in controlling their own group.

When we actually got to the border and the point at which Nebraska Law Enforcement said, "This is as far as you can go," there were a number of demonstrators who wanted to contest that restriction. They wanted to cross that boundary and be arrested, and some did just that. Other leaders worked very, very hard to draw attention off those marchers, away from that confrontational setting, to avoid actual physical violence. There were police lined up shoulder to shoulder in riot gear and it was like 95, 97 degrees outside. It's not where I would have wanted to be at that particular day! Yet the marchers said they were not leaving until those arrested were returned.

CRS tried, but was unable to negotiate an agreement whereby those arrested were released on their own recognizance because these marchers really wanted a court test of their first amendment rights, of where they could go and what they could say there. On the other hand, nobody really wanted violence. Eventually they were released, but they were not returned to the border, where there was still some tension, but they were transported back to Pine Ridge, away from the confrontation site, and released there. We had a debriefing with the law enforcement and march leaders later that day or the next day, and all of them were convinced that, had it not been for the meeting prior to the march, and the understanding that had been reached there, the trust that had been built up--there likely would have been violence. I remind you that they were not "best buddies," but there was a trust level established. Had that not been done, this probably would have ended up violently again .

So, I guess what I am saying, in probably way too many words, is that our primary response to a potentially violent situation is to try to get the key parties together beforehand to avoid that violence. Because once things have gotten out of control, it's difficult to use mediation skills to get it back on track. When you do this kind of preventive work. you can see where there might be actions that are exacerbating the violence, and try to deal with that. I know that the phrase, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is sort of a cliche and trite, but that really is true. Usually even the people who might be involved in violence don't go out wanting violence. They might want to make a particular statement, and they might want to get arrested, but there are ways of doing that in a controlled manner which gives everyone what they want.