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Key Considerations for Community Leaders Facing Civil Unrest

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What begins as a normal day in a local community can erupt in protests and demonstrations by evening; looting and violence may follow as the evening progresses.

The spark may be an incident that illuminates a deep divide among residents and touches emotional nerves. Media coverage can spread the news quickly, and social media can both feed emotions and lead to gatherings to express opinion or foment disorder. Local public officials and other community leaders have little time to react when faced with divisive issues and events.

Many recent incidents triggering unrest have galvanized concerns about racial profiling in law enforcement though this document offers strategies more broadly.

For example, imagine the following: Several members of a non-majority religious group announce plans and funding for a high profile center celebrating its tenets. Within hours, the community faces conflict. Or another community learns that buses full of refugees will be brought to their community for temporary care, and a mob forms to stop the buses.

Though leaders in these situations have little time to act, their early decisions influence the course of events for months to come. In one recent situation, for example, the decisions that left a body of a young man shot by a police officer uncovered for hours and that moved military-type tanks into position near a protest, conveyed to some members of the public a deep lack of respect and an “us versus them” attitude.

Those decisions shaped the form, tone, and content of subsequent interactions between public officials and community stakeholders as they acted to promote order, sustain dialogue, address issues, and advance the general welfare.

 This document grows out of an April 9, 2015, meeting of leaders (city officials, police chiefs, civil rights organization leaders, and mediators) from throughout the country who came together and shared their experiences, knowledge, and insights about dealing with civil unrest in communities.

The meeting was so productive in terms of coming up with “lessons learned” that participants urged the organizers to compile, organize, and transmit those lessons to leaders in government, business, the faith community, and others with an opportunity to contribute.

This document identifies for local leaders some considerations for actions that they might take to deal with such conflicts in those critical early moments as well as in the weeks that follow. The primary intended audience is these local leaders who will take charge in the event of unrest, as well as the staff they charge with various tasks.

But we also hope to make it useful to business, bar, faith community, and advocacy group leaders who play crucial roles in these situations. We invite and encourage those serving particular sectors of this audience – mayors, law enforcement, advocacy groups, for example – to draw from and tailor this document for each constituency.

In fact, The Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike International License (see page 2) authorizes this collaboration, seeking only attribution as other groups publish this or an adapted text for nonprofit and nonexclusive purposes.

The Divided Community Project has also written Planning in Advance of Civil Unrest (2016), a document to guide communities that seek to improve the resilience of a community, to identify issues and create ways to address them before they cause an eruption, and to be prepared to deal constructively with unrest if it occurs. The Divided Community Project’s goal is to continue to develop and distill materials for public officials and other community leaders in communities facing volatile conflict as new insights are developed by those who work with or study divided communities.

It is an iterative project; as the Project learns of new information, it will add to and modify this document and other project materials to reflect new insights. Download the full document here


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