former CRS Mediator, Houston Office
Question: Okay, maybe I should change the question, what was your role [in the Jasper, TX situation after a black man was dragged to death]?
Answer: First I wanted to see how the community was reacting to it, and estimate if something was going to happen in reaction to the killing. And I found out all kinds of things, all points of view. I tried to talk to everybody that wanted to talk to me. Persons were calling me, or I would ask them to talk to me. I found that the community was really working together in the beginning, and following the lead of the family-- Mr. and Mrs. Berg. They didn't want any demonstrations, no picketing, and no rallies. They wanted to handle this in a dignified manner, in a Christian manner. So for the most part the leadership followed that lead.
It was unique, more than I've seen anywhere, the different elements in the community were working together--the religious community, political leaders, the community organization,s they all saw that it was to their benefit to come and work together.
I did have them analyze some of the circumstances. I had them look at other communities with a similar situation, what was relevant to Jasper that they could be doing. And what they could expect, since there was a stage set, media, and worldwide attention, that they could expect other people from the outside, or maybe inside, coming in to use that stage. When that happened, they were prepared for that. When I mentioned other communities, when the Klan was coming or somebody else was coming, they had counter demonstrations, and some communities didn't have anything, so they chose for themselves after analysis, that it was best for them not to do anything. Just maintain a calm and not react to the people coming in. So we followed their lead, we really tried to maintain that cooperation.
One of the issues that they mentioned were problems that had been there historically. Then we helped analyze with them what some of those things were that they could be doing to address that. Which was the better path? After many meetings everybody had a role to play in the creation of the Mayor's Task Force 2000, and we gave them technical assistance in that.
We also discussed with them that if they were to focus on the future, that they could be better able to handle the present. They would then have a plan how they're going to reach that future and then they could withstand whoever came in and out, and whoever had other agendas and the city was not focusing on where they wanted to be. And they would decide where that place was, and how they're going to get there. It would be essential that before they decided where they wanted to be that they should discover where they were. And once they discovered where they were, and everybody understood where they were, then they could shed more light on where they needed to be and how they're going to get there.
Through a lot of meetings and a lot of private discussions they did that and formed the Mayor's Task Force 2000, formed of all the elements in the community. It included the mayor, who was African American, and the head of the chamber of commerce is African American, the board president who had been there twenty years is African American, or he just resigned, the head of one of the major employers, the hospital. Two of the city council members are African American. A lot of people--they themselves credit that as to why the town was able to cope with a lot of things. Other communities are not composed like that, and may not have been able to handle it as well. Fifty percent of the population is black or about that much out of 8,000. This incident happened in the county.
When we were discussing and I asked him what area are you going to cover because it was in Jasper, and we talked about creating a vehicle to take them into the future, but this vehicle would be Jasper-owned and operated, they would decide where they would go, who was going to be in it, how the vehicle is going to be shaped, and how they were going to get there. The mayor and others felt that although it may be a Jasper vehicle that it would be inclusive of the areas outside of Jasper too, like the creek area where the killing occurred. Critics on both sides said that it wasn't going to work, it would be a white wash, they were going to hide things, and there's no problem. Yeah we've got problems, we're not perfect, but things are okay. Things have happened here, and there have been other incidents that have just been kept covered up and we have longstanding issues.
We kind of agreed with them that the creating of a vehicle in a public manner through community dialogues and small town hall meetings they could discover where they were. All of those meetings were public and the way they organized the task force is it's composed of different committees. The task was to do a self examination of the law enforcement, of the education system, and of the business community. These committees are composed of representatives of the whole, but with representatives of those entities.
I had sketched out a skeleton of an organization but they even did me better. They got really sophisticated and came back with an official organization structure that really was great because it covered everybody. And everybody participating in the process of this self look. That's recommendable to any community, to take a self look of all facets of the community, and based on that self look come up with a plan. It's not like me looking at you and pointing out your faults, but together let's see what we can do better here. That was published in the newspaper, the results and the finding of all those meetings. So they proved wrong those that felt it was going to be covered up, because it was very obvious what happened right there in the paper.
Question: Did each of these task forces come up with their own one year plan or was it coordinated?
Answer: Each came up with their own because they were looking at different things, so they each came up with their own, but combined as part of a whole.
This all was patterned, to some extent, over our work in Houston. We were working with another group in Houston, the Asian-African-American task force, and we followed that model when we worked in Jasper. The incident that triggered off this thing in Houston happened in September of 97 when a Vietnamese store owner shot a black youth. He claimed he shot in the air as a warning because rowdy kids had come to the store. For safety or security reasons they had a limit of no more than three kids in the store at the same time. A bunch of kids came in and somebody broke the window and he thought he was being shot at so he fired and hit a kid in the leg. The kid was far away, and the community couldn't understand how shooting in the air could hit the kid. There's was picketing and all kinds of things.
We brought the community together, and had the elements work together, the store owners, the Vietnamese, the black community representatives, and law enforcement. Determining what are the issues out there, what are the potential problems and what could work, what's doable. We got it set in stone, and we sat down and worked out a plan to take care of all the problems and issues. It involved training and educating. It was difficult for the store operators of mom and pop stores to take time off and go to the meetings so we decided the meetings would be held in the stores. We were sitting on top of crates and things, and the police did security survey's for all the stores. We analyzed the friction points, what were potential friction points and then developed plans to deal with them.
Question: Give an example of a friction point.
Answer: When a customer comes into a store, the store owners follow them around, and if you're an upstanding citizen, when you go into a store, you don't want to be followed around, already judged as a crook or a thief, so that creates friction. A solution to that, based on a survey by the police, was the community recommended two things, cameras which were expensive, or put mirrors up, so the cashier could follow everybody around just by looking at the mirrors. The people didn't feel like they were being followed, but yet it met the concern that the store owner had. Also, we developed a good neighbor program to tell the community that not all Vietnamese store owners were bad, that there was a lot of good ones there. A value statement was based on all those friction points, and it was very basic. Every corporation and every police department has a mission statement, a statement of values, this is what we value, so we came up with a value statement that the store would sign. First of all we value our customers, we welcome them with a smile. Another friction point was speaking Vietnamese when others are there. We want to curb that as much as possible. Be cognizant of the effects it might have. We will agree not to limit that. Keep, especially when they were selling bad foods, and not wanting to offer returns, money back guarantees. These would be posted very prominently. The task force was a resource to everybody, any store could call the task force members rather than going out there and arguing it out, there are volunteers available to respond.
Question: Any store within the seven or any store at all?
Answer: Just the seven because that's do-able. There was a request by city council for them to go help in another part of town. So we worked on a second plan, a new year's plan for the task force. A lot of things in the process we suggested in Jasper that they also go through this, and it's useful anyway, and a lot of communities have done that maybe in one form or another.
Question: Can this be done without a crisis to start it?
Answer: That's a good question. It would be better to do this on an ongoing basis, and communities setting up a process to do this, and a lot of them have done that. We have a booklet that we come out with, and it offers a lot of ways of doing things. Best practices, what communities are doing that others can be doing. So it's not necessary to have an incident. Hopefully communities can do this before they have an incident, so they won't have any.