To confront racial violence in the U.S., we can learn from other countries

by Shamil Idriss

When facing problems at home, Americans sometimes hesitate to look abroad for inspiration. We feel that we have the solutions, or else that our national story is too unique to benefit from foreign experience. We assume that Sri Lanka, Nepal, or South Africa have nothing to teach us.

In reality, we can learn a lot by looking past our borders.

Take current debates about policing.

Structural racism is not just an American problem. In many countries, oppression of ethnic, religious, or cultural minorities has persisted for centuries. And the relationship between citizens and state security forces is often an explosive flashpoint.

Debates about police, identity, and violence are happening in Jakarta, Paris, and Addis Ababa just as they are happening in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and cities across the U.S.

As the U.S. reckons with injustices, lessons from other countries can help us move toward racial equality, dignity, and justice for all. Search for Common Ground — the global peacebuilding organization that I lead — has witnessed and supported this process time and again. We work on the frontlines of conflict in over 30 countries, often brokering relations between security forces and marginalized groups.

Across decades, we have seen the power of community engagement to transform the relationship between police and ordinary people.

This is what happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2003, the end of the Second Congo War left the country in a state of chaos and corruption. In the 2000s, the DRC was dubbed “the rape capital of the world,” with over 50 percent of sexual assaults committed by the military and police.

For the past 19 years, our Congolese team has worked to transform this violence in the eastern DRC, where abuses have been most prevalent and ongoing instability makes security sector reform as challenging as it is anywhere in the world.

Our approach is to lead a collaborative process built on the needs of people across society. Young activists, religious leaders, police and military officers, artists, women leaders, and shop owners: everyone has a stake in the solution.

We use tactics like facilitated dialogue, participatory theater, comic books, and TV police dramas to shift attitudes. When people are being assaulted on a regular basis, these programs may seem trivial; actually, they open pathways for dialogue and generate a base level of mutual trust between citizens and police that is the essential precondition for radical change.

When injustice is so ingrained in the system, nothing less than a tidal wave will move it. But a tidal wave that tears down the old system is not the same as a tidal wave that leaves a better one in its place.

In 2006, in the regions where our teams set to work, 25 percent of civilians said that the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) contributed to their safety; by 2018, this number had grown to 88 percent.

In areas we targeted, perceived rates of arbitrary arrest fell from 70 percent to 40 percent, and 94 percent of civilians reported that the FARDC were better able to keep people safe following training that we co-developed and implemented through the armed forces.

Congolese citizens, police, and soldiers succeeded in transforming their relationship because they took an approach built on the dignity of both citizens and security forces alike.

In Nepal, our local team discovered similar lessons. Deep changes in policing started with something as seemingly irrelevant, and irreverent, as a soccer tournament.

The games were not just a feel-good activity. For years, activist leaders had complained that police officers mistreated poor citizens, moved slowly on cases of domestic abuse, and hid wrongdoing. Meanwhile, police officers felt attacked by communities — never appreciated, always blamed.

Our Nepalese staff identified soccer as something, maybe the only thing, to get police officers and citizens spending time together. Soccer clinics would create basic trust, which would enable honest relationships and discussions.

This is exactly what happened. Two years into the program — after soccer games, dialogue, and community engagement — 40 percent more participants said that they would report a crime to the police. And 74 percent said that their perception of police had improved.

Trust opened space for hard conversations and change. With more people engaging with formal institutions, there was a 17-percent drop in cases brought before community elders — an alternative justice system that often advantaged the powerful. Police stations reported a significant increase in women willing to report domestic abuse.

These examples from the DRC and Nepal demonstrate that police-community relations do not improve when police are better-armed against citizens. They improve when police become allies with citizens in enhancing public safety.

In Nepal and the parts of the DRC where we have worked, citizens and police meet regularly — not just when a crime has been committed — and citizens call on police proactively. Police love it because their jobs are made easier and they enjoy the esteem of their communities. People love it because they feel safer and better-served.

This is entirely doable. The pathways to get there will look different in every context because every community and culture is different. Soccer tournaments may not be the best starting point in Minneapolis. But any good process will share key features:

First, we must recognize that citizens and police alike have deep human needs. All people want to live in dignity and without fear. And police officers want to feel supported by citizens. All interventions must start from this foundation: an honest appraisal of core needs and a mutual commitment to work together toward meeting all of them.

Second, the place to build healthy relationships is within communities. What we need now is creative thinking and action at the neighborhood level where trust actually forms. We must support and listen to the community leaders and police officers who belong to our communities. They can speak authentically about dynamics of fear, distrust, and pain, as well as the yearning for safety, respect, and dignity. And they can generate effective solutions. In today’s climate especially, the more we look strictly to nation-wide solutions, the more likely we are to run aground on our polarized politics. Local communities will always be better at solving problems that require trust and cooperation because they cannot function without it.

Third, the currency of every relationship — including that between police and citizens — is trust. Trust emerges over time, through patient and persistent effort; safe venues for regular communication; realistic and well-aligned expectations of what police are best equipped to handle and what would be better left to others in the community; joint problem-solving; and agreed-upon systems for community feedback and accountability for any police misconduct. Where none of this already exists and the relationship is truly broken, persistence on this path is essential, and efforts to fast-track the process — or to impose solutions from outside communities — are likely to set back any hard-won progress.

On the other side of this historic reckoning — past the polarization and ever-mounting weight of racial violence — lies the potential for a better world for us all. Americans need not be exceptional to get there. Indeed, we can take inspiration from the DRC, Nepal, and any number of other countries that have walked a similar path.

Shamil Idriss is the CEO of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization.

We are the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, working to build safe, healthy, and just societies worldwide.

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