South Central community meeting with elected Commissioners
Organized by City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission
Mark Ridley Thomas Center, June 3, 2015, 5:30-7:45PM
By Dorit Cypis
When I arrived at 6:30 the hall was crowded with 150 people. Most were community members seated in linear rows facing in one direction. People were also standing against the outer walls with one line of 5 folks holding up body size cardboard cutouts of coffins with drawings and names of local youth recently killed by police bullets. There were a few visible police officers in uniform standing and seated, and a row of 3 Human Relations officers seated at a side table. There was a podium with microphone in front of the first row of chairs, facing out.
What stood out and was most peculiar to me was the 15-20 foot cavernous space between the podium and a raised platform with a table of 4 seated Commissioners facing the community. Odd because of the adversarial proscenium perspective that this formal format evoked, a grid of seated and standing community members facing a single row of Commissioners and divided by an abyss of dead space. I wondered why this was the designated form of engagement and how this would affect the proceedings. I had no further information except that in the past year I had been to 2 previous community testimonials on police violence in this same hall, and had participated as a community facilitator in a nearby South Central community dialogue for Days of Dialogue on police violence. I was sure there had been many other community meetings on this subject before today. The difference today is that elected Commissioners were present.
A fellow standing next to me handed me an agenda. One by one community individuals came up to speak for up to 2 minutes at the podium addressing the Commissioners. Most spoke through grief, anger and frustration. To them nothing had shifted procedurally in their neighborhood to change their reality of oppression, victim hood, white supremacy, racism and a militarized police department. Few had concrete or pragmatic suggestions on how to transform this reality. One of the City Human Relations officers reiterated between speakers that this event was to gather suggestions towards change. It occurred to me that this group was not ready to answer this question and that the physical format was not conducive to generating the trust and safety needed to elicit constructive thinking. In an adversarial environment one tends to respond in retreat, accommodation or in an adversarial manner.
Soon enough, a young man got up to the podium, took the mic off the podium, spoke with an increasingly raised voice, asked why there was a podium and a seating format isolating the community from the Commissioners, and invited others from the community to remove the podium and occupy the space between the rows of chairs and the Commissioners’ platform. Can’t say I was surprised. Perceived aggression begets aggression, especially when people are invited to speak about the aggressions they have experienced daily in their communities.
The response was immediate. Several community members moved forward, Human Relations officers moved to stop the community, Commissioners threatened to stop the meeting immediately and within a few minutes did so and left the hall. My instinct was to gather the community that had remained into a circle with the Human Relations and Police who stayed behind and facilitate a continued dialogue. This was an opportunity and seemed essential not to act defeated but to adapt to the energy and re harness it to constructive action. I immediately followed the Police Chief out of the hall and stopped him to suggest that this would be an opportune time not to retreat but to adapt. He was ambivalent. When I re entered the hall I saw that many community members had left and the circle I had imagined was starting to take shape. Soon I recognized that some of the folks who remained and were taking the lead were from Occupy LA – the same people I had met and worked with during the 2011 Occupy months at LA City Hall where I came many days as a mediator to from-the-hip facilitate daily disputes amongst the occupiers. I recognized a woman who had managed the medical tent and the fellow who had been trained in Spain in protest and organizational skills. At Occupy LA, after 6 weeks on the ground living in tents, relations internally between Occupiers began to decline. Differences between people shifted from acceptance to tolerance. Several Occupiers were now here encouraging anyone remaining to form a dialogue circle. Two Human Relations officers stayed and joined the circle of maybe 20 others.
The dialogue techniques were familiar to me from Occupy – the stack: speakers in an order; fingers clicking: agreement; those who have not spoken to speak before others can speak again; a male giving his turn to a woman speaker; an ending where all stand in a circle holding hands, then a prayer, then clapping from slow to fast – all Occupy techniques, all techniques and ground rules to facilitate equity, expression, and connection, the very forms that were missing from the rigid and confrontational format of the earlier meeting. However, an undeniable problem took its place – a majority of community stakeholders were not present. Most of the South LA residents had left the premises, perhaps frightened by the commotion, alienated from the non-local strangers taking over dialogue. The Commissioners and Police officers had also left the premises. Most of the people remaining followed the Occupy dialogue techniques, but who were they?
- Expecting that a formal meeting format adapted to Commissioner protocol, where the community is separated and seated facing a row of Commissioners sitting on an elevated platform will be understood, accepted and adhered to by all stakeholders is a mistake.
- Expecting that each group recognizes the other, trusts and feels safe is a mistake.
- Authority is not trusted within communities that have been dispirited and lack trust
- Every group has unique cultural perceptions of their needs and interests
- Every group has unique challenges and capacities
- Every stakeholder holds cultural bias
- No stakeholder feels safe in an adversarial context, not the Commissioners, not the community, not the police, not the Human Relations officers
- Participants from outside the local community, are not the local community
- Dialogue takes time.
Establishing equity and reciprocity upstream to invite the potential of empathy downstream
- These points must be woven into the process to be recognized by all participants.
- Power differences and interests must be made transparent to everyone.
- Each group must recognize that each is vulnerable in a different way.