What a remarkable turnaround we witnessed today in Ferguson, Missouri, where five days of protests in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown this past weekend, had been met with police armed to the teeth with military weapons and tactics. But when Governor Nixon finally decided to replace the local police force with state highway patrol officers, the situation changed almost immediately. Today the new representatives of law enforcement started marching with the protesters, and a much different atmosphere returned to the streets.
Yesterday law enforcement viewed the protesters as the enemy, and felt they had to meet them with force to preserve order. All that did was inflame the situation, and exacerbate the conflict.
Today, law enforcement took the opposite approach. First the new commander, Ron Johnson, renounced violence, saying his officers would not be carrying and using tear gas, as the local police had. He apologized for the prior use of tear gas, even though he had had nothing to do with that decision. Second, Captain Johnson emphasized the need to listen: “Sometimes you just have to let people speak and make yourself listen. I used to tell my kids when they were small, open up your listening ears.” Third, Johnson identified common interests with the protesters, saying that "we all want justice. We all want answers." Finally, Johnson marched alongside the protesters.
In one day, this new approach achieved what peacemakers dream of, turning a confrontation where both sides distrust the other, and respond to each other's provocations with forceful opposition, into a joint effort where both sides now appear to be working together to solve a problem.
Once we drop the war mentality, once we stop treating our opponents as the "other," once we identify common goals between ourselves and the opposition, we find ourselves no longer needing to fight our opponents, but instead marching alongside them toward resolution. Note that the parties haven't yet resolved the underlying problems, and haven't suddenly decided they agree with each other. Far from it. But they are approaching this conflict with a much different attitude. Let's hope this new spirit holds.