Getting People to Talk

 

Richard Salem

Former CRS Mediator, Chicago Office; Private Mediator; President of Conflict Management Initiatives

Answer:
Where you could, you brought the parties together and facilitated their communicated. But very often, you found that you couldn't, or that in the interim you had to help explain to one side or the other what was happening and why. It often lacked credibility coming from a third party, so that was not the preferred way to work. What you would try to convey to parties was the importance of sitting down with the other side. You needed to communicate that to them without saying how they should then proceed. We never told somebody you shouldn't stop demonstrating. We never told somebody you shouldn't stop enforcing the law, but we did say you ought to sit down and talk.

Question:
So you urged people to sit down at the same time that they were demonstrating?

Answer:
I wouldn't even say sit down; I would say communicate, open communications. You could never place conditions. Someone can demand, "I'll only negotiate when they stop demonstrating," and you can carry that message. "They say they will only negotiate if you stop demonstrating," and the answer usually will be, "Hell no." So you go back and forth this way, but you would never tell someone what they should or shouldn't be doing. Someone might advise, "You can always start demonstrating again tomorrow. You're options are still open." And they would decide what the risks were or weren't. They would know that. Usually people would know. More importantly, you would advise the group if they didn't have the background to make sound choices. You had to be very careful that you weren't telling them to stop building their power base, but as I mentioned in the case in Minneapolis, the group was very wise and they knew what they should or shouldn't be doing. Typically, community groups would know what was in their best interests, whether to stop or not. We would not advise them. We would just help them understand their options and also sometimes encourage them to bring in resources from their own community who could advise them. So we might point to people in their community they might want to be talking to, or even from another community, to help them make sound decisions. But our goal was to get people talking.

Question:
You said a minute ago you could not always get people to talk. What would stop you from getting people talking?

Answer:
At times you could not get people talking. Someone was adamant. "I won't talk to them. And again I come in, a mediator comes in, and doesn't know the whole history. "I will not talk to them. Those people don't listen," or, "He doesn't listen." Sometimes it was a matter of timing. I mentioned Kent State, where a new president came in and his contract had just been signed, the ink was still wet. He was not about to engage in a losing situation, which it would have been, had he met with the protesters. They requested the meeting; I forwarded that message; he agreed; and then withdrew his agreement. Sometimes a group can't get its act together and isn't ready to meet. Sometimes, if you're dealing with coalitions, you've got many views within a coalition and they're not going to tell you about that. When I first started this job in 1969, there was a union building trades conflict in Chicago. There was a lot of discrimination against racial minorities trying to break into the construction trades. There was a major building trades confrontation in Chicago, major protests. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was there. At that time, it was Operation Push. Push was blocking construction sites using the Black P-Stone Nation, an infamous street gang, to provide the bodies for demonstrations at major construction sites. During the incipient stages of this conflict, I went directly to Art Fletcher by phone. He was the assistant Secretary of State for Labor under Nixon and he was black. I talked to him and he said, "I'll make available to you Horace Menasco who is my deputy. He will come out and meet with the black coalition and tell them what their rights are under the law and what they can do. It was a very generous contribution he was ready to make. I felt great and so I took this back to Clark Roberts who was my deputy then and asked him to arrange a meeting for us with the black leadership. The meeting that he arranged was with C.T. Vivian who was a prominent civil rights leader in Chicago at the time and chief spokesperson in the building trades protest. Clark sent a message over that we wanted to meet with the leadership to proffer this offer from Washington and it took a full two weeks to get a response. Finally, we got the meeting and it was in a church basement and there were CT Vivian and about five guys with red berets sitting there from the Black P-Stone Nation. None of them uttered a word, and I told him all of these things that Menasco was offering; documents and a presentation and the law, and they listened and said thank you, and it took another two weeks until they said yes. This was related to levels of trust, their own strategies, what they wanted to do. They were not ready to meet with anybody at that time. Ultimately, they said yes. Menasco came in and held a very large meeting, almost a public meeting. He made his presentation and the conflict went on and ultimately was resolved. It was very political. But there, people would not meet except on their terms, when they were ready.

Question:
Did you ever slow parties down who did want to meet? Did you ever decide that they were not ready yet and you didn't want to bring them together yet?

Answer:
I don't think so. I'm thinking of the Skokie-Nazi conflict where parties would not meet. They would not meet; they would not acknowledge each other. It was so bad that the ACLU could not get a response to a request from the village of Skokie for a parade permit for their client the neo-Nazis. And we had to serve as the intermediary and go to Skokie because the city officials were told not to communicate with the neo-Nazis in any way. So we all of a sudden became this intermediary and the only ones who were talking to all the parties. They would not meet and we knew that. We would never ask them to meet.