Working with “America’s Peacemaker” During Riots

Jennifer John
Jennifer John ’15

Over the past several months, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of law enforcement have sparked movements across the country, bringing to the surface deeply embedded systems of privilege and oppression. Although these events were not unique, they are serving as a catalyst for change, with effects rippling throughout communities who have had enough. Individuals are becoming activists and taking up the simple–but powerful–message that black lives matter.

As these events unfolded, we delved into our clinical work with the Community Relations Service (CRS) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the agency tasked with serving as “America’s Peacemaker” for the DOJ. CRS is mandated with helping local communities address conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, and national origin and preventing and responding to violent hate crimes as defined by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Our project consisted of helping CRS determine the conflict resolution needs for the nation over the next 50 years.

Caroline Sacerdote
Caroline Sacerdote ’15

As recent participants in the Harvard Law School Negotiation Workshop, we see interest-based negotiation as an effective manner of reaching solutions and settling disputes. This type of negotiation focuses on the interests of the parties rather than their positions. Essentially, interest-based negotiation not only asks what a party wants from a negotiation, but also delves into why the party wants it.

As we worked with CRS and witnessed the protests occurring across the country and on our campus, our perceptions of interest-based negotiation were challenged. A successful third-party neutral addressing the recent conflict regarding law enforcement around the nation would likely aim to diffuse tensions in order to foster a negotiation or dialogue. Successfully diffusing tensions may result in preventing protests, calming police-citizen interactions, and decreasing instances of vandalism.

While there are obvious benefits to diffusing tensions, this tension has made the nation address important, prevalent issues about race and law enforcement relations. In an interview, Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “I think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard and what is it that America has failed to hear?” If protestors were not in the streets shouting and marching, would major news organizations be covering the state of law enforcement relations? Would the nation’s citizens be reminded that “black lives matter?” Interest-based negotiation allows parties to discover and address their underlying interests and needs while also decreasing tensions. We wonder whether encouraging parties involved in recent conflicts and protests acts to diminish communities’ leverage points. If these unheard communities cease non-peaceful protests and diffuse tensions, will change occur?

We sought to understand how interest-based negotiation fits within our fundamental beliefs in racial justice in this context. As we worked, we realized that our conceptions of social justice are not actually at odds with the ideas of interest-based negotiation. Rather, tension can still be used as a tool to draw attention to existing inequalities, bring marginalized communities to the table, and shift power inequalities. Once at the table, parties will then be able to utilize interest-based negotiation to create options that actually address underlying problems. In this way, our activism away from the table can complement our work at the negotiation table.

Caroline Sacerdote and Jennifer John are 3Ls at Harvard Law School, and worked with HNMCP in Fall 2014.
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