By Scott Rasmussen
From the moment the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, burst upon the national consciousness, people all across the nation have tried to fit the storyline into their own preconceived notions.
Broadly speaking, most black Americans see a story of racism and overly aggressive policing. "The Whole Damn System is Guilty," read a sign carried by a young woman and reported on by "USA Today." Most white people see a law-and-order story along with opportunistic race-baiting adding fuel to the fire. Many fear that the police officer will not get a fair hearing.
At the moment, people on all sides are battling to claim that their preconceived notion is the right one, the real truth. A better approach would be to look at the situation from multiple perspectives and find ways forward based upon common ground and constructive engagement. Sadly, almost everyone involved misperceives the motives of others involved in the process. That makes common ground impossible to find.
This dangerous dynamic was laid out dramatically in a 2011 book by criminologist David Kennedy, "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America." Working in the field dealing with gang violence in urban settings, Kennedy identified competing communities that "see each other as toxic and malevolent" and "cannot imagine working together for a common purpose."
He describes black communities that believe the dysfunction around them exists because the police and government want it that way. At the same time, law enforcement agencies have adopted an attitude that the black communities don't mind the crime or care about their kids. He also describes gang members as belonging to their own unique community in terms that most suburban people could not even begin to fathom. It's a world where being arrested is more like losing the lottery rather than in response to any particular crime.
The underlying problem is that everybody involved is behaving rationally according to their world view. But all of their world views are wrong, at least when it comes to understanding the motives of others. As Kennedy puts it, "The government is not conspiring to destroy the community; the police are not uncaring, oppressive, racist. The community does not like the drugs and violence. Gang members and drug dealers don't want to die, don't want to go to prison don't want -- nearly any of them -- to shoot people."
What happened in Ferguson over the past two weeks did not start with the shooting of Michael Brown. It has been building for a long time as competing communities built larger and larger levels of misunderstanding. Once the story broke into the national news media, the problems compounded as outsiders flocked to the spotlight to promote their view. The Associated Press reports, only seven of the first 163 people arrested were actually from Ferguson.
When the spotlight leaves, so will the outsiders. Ferguson residents and officials will then be left on their own to deal with the challenge of healing and rebuilding. The key to success will be finding forums for constructive engagement, platforms where people can safely consider multiple perspectives and begin a search for common ground.