(When) Should We Escalate?

by Heidi Burgess 

July 31, 2020



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


One of the questions conflict resolution professionals have been discussing this summer is whether this is the time to work to de-escalate the several high-profile conflicts that are swirling around us (such as those over COVID response, race, policing, and politics in general) or whether now is actually the time to escalate one or more of these conflicts further.  

Bernie Mayer held a webinar on June 9, 2020, just about two weeks after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and at a time when protests about that event were raging world-wide.  Building off ideas in his book Staying with Conflict, Bernie observed that over the many years he has been practicing in the field of conflict resolution, most of his peers have focused on finding the elements of a conflict that could be resolved and focusing on them, leaving the "harder" (we would say more "intractable") elements on the table.  This, he argued, tends to lead to much more shallow and less "important" resolutions and also tends to reinforce the status quo.  

This has happened repeatedly, he suggested, in conflicts over police-community relations, where simple solutions were found that brought immediate "peace," but left the underlying, deeper issues of systemic racism unaddressed.  Deep change, he argued, requires "disruption."  "Ideally," he said, it will be what he calls "strategic disruption." 

But it often has to start with what is a more chaotic and frightening disruption.  Or to put it differently, to engage conflict at the most important level, we often have to start by escalating. Now, hopefully we can do this without making long-term progress more difficult, but that really is a very fine line. [1]

Bernie Mayer asserts that deep change requires disruption.  Were the protests which were happening over George Floyd's death useful disruption, or harmful disruption?

Bernie's assertion raised two questions in my mind.  The first was whether the protests which were happening over George Floyd's death were a useful disruption, or harmful.  Were they, indeed, escalating the conflict constructively, so that this time, it would actually be dealt with? Or were they further hardening the opposition and emboldening white supremacists? 

Certain positive steps did, indeed, occur very quickly.  The involved officers were fired, and charged—the one who did the killing was charged with second and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter.  The other three officers who were involved were charged with "aiding and abetting second-degree murder." [2] Calls to "defund the police" are being seriously considered in Minneapolis and elsewhere.  Now what that means, exactly, and whether that is positive or not is a matter of debate.  Initial indications suggest to me that such actions are more likely to be harmful, based on two reports I read about efforts to disempower (to some extent at least) the police in Baltimore between 2016 and 2020 [3]  and reports coming in from Minneapolis in late July 2020.  [4] Also good, however, is the newfound attention being given the problem of systemic racism.  But the notion that the problem can be fixed by tearing down some statues, changing names and mascots, or even putting a few more Blacks on boards or on the payroll is misleading.  So far, few people or organizations seem to really be looking at how deep these problems go, and hence how widespread and deep the changes need to be if "justice" is, indeed, to be obtained. [5]

It also appears that these protests have inflamed the far right, including President Trump, who recently tried to reignite protests and violence by sending federal officers into Portland and other liberal cities, ostensibly to "protect" Federal facilities, but actually to stoke a "culture war" between the Right and the Left. [6] White supremacists have been happy to join in, adding to the chaos and violence.  Now of course, Trump might have done this regardless, as his poll numbers pre-election are dropping, and he apparently sees this as a way of bolstering his support among his base.  But the clash between anti-racism protestors and white supremacists looks to be particularly incendiary.  

So bottom line, it isn't entirely clear whether the continuing protests are doing more good than harm.  They are bringing attention to a serious problem, but that goal was accomplished awhile ago.  Now they are providing a platform for the far right to stand on, and are providing some credibility to their claims. For instance, recurring violence in Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago and other cities lends credence to Trump's assertion that these cities are  "out of control," which perfectly plays into his "law and order" platform.  Some (maybe much) of that violence is likely being perpetrated by the outsiders (and insiders, probably) on the right and even by the Federal agents being sent in by Trump. [6]  But if the Left hadn't been there protesting as well, there would have been no draw for the Right.  Also worrying is the strong opposition that has arisen on the left to even making the argument that protesters who engage in various forms of vandalism and violence might be undermining, rather than advancing, their goals (as the widespread condemnation that David Shor received for merely tweeting a citation to a study of 1960s-era civil rights demonstrations that concluded that nonviolence worked better than violence). [7]

My second question is what should conflict professionals, politicians, business leaders, the media and the general public do now in response. 

What should conflict professionals, politicians, business leaders, the media and the general public do now in response to Floyd's killing and the responses to it? 

Let's consider conflict professionals first.  In early June, Bernie and Susan Terry (who joined him in authoring the related Statement about Conflict Engagement and Strategic Disruption) called for more escalation. [8] I remember thinking at the time I participated in the webinar that the conflict was "escalated enough," and now was the time to try to divert all that energy into creative problem solving, which has to include all sides of the conflict, not just the Left.  At the time, that was certainly a debatable point, and I don't mean to disparage Bernie, Susan or others who supported the notion then that escalation was still needed at that time. 

But I feel more confident in my assertion now that escalation is no longer working to the benefit of Blacks, other minority groups, women, or progressives more broadly. For what it is worth, I don't think it is working for conservatives either.  Rather than laying the groundwork for careful analysis of the problems uncovered, the sober identification and evaluation of options and moving forward as a united community toward action, we are just driving the Left and the Right farther and farther apart.  Hatred and distrust are being intensified on both sides, which will make taking any effective action very difficult, perhaps even impossible, if we end up with divided executive and legislative power after the November 2020 elections. [9]

Most people—of all races and political "colors"—are willing to listen and learn about other people's views if they are encouraged to do so and are given the chance.  And once they do, they almost always discover that there are a lot of similarities between them and the "other side."

If we are going to be able to successfully address the problem of bias in the criminal justice system or more broadly (in terms of housing, jobs, education, health care, etc.) we are going to have to develop plans that are supported by people on all sides of our political divides.  This is done by developing relationships, empathy, and respect for people on all political sides including those who believe very differently than we do.  Now, I don't believe we should have empathy and respect for actively hateful and destructive people—for people who are intentionally trying to fan the flames of hatred for their own gain.  But polls and the experience of conflict resolution professionals all show that most people are not like that. Certainly most Whites are not like that, even though some are saying that all Whites are racist, whether they know it or not. All the mediators and facilitators I know say that almost all of the people they work with of all races and political "colors" are willing to listen and learn about other views if they are encouraged to do so and are given the chance.  And once they do, they almost always discover that there are a lot of similarities in the experiences and the beliefs of people on all sides. This discovery paves the way to mutual respect, and an ability to and interest in working with the other side to develop solutions to problems that will benefit everyone.

What should politicians be doing now?  They should be doing everything they can to calm things down.  Certainly mayors and governors were justified in complaining about the federal agents who were sent unrequested into cities to "establish law and order and were doing so in inflammatory ways that violated long-established norms and laws governing the way in which the police should behave. Certainly, Federal agents should not be operating in full combat gear, without any uniforms or identifying information, from unmarked vehicles, and without regard for rules of probable cause or proper arrest procedures.[10]

Local and state politicians should also form bi-partisan task forces and study groups and dialogue processes to examine the ins and outs of systemic racism and other kinds of distributive and procedural injustice that are occurring within their jurisdiction, and then work with those bodies and their political colleagues (on both sides of the aisle) in their cities and states to begin to craft programs to being to address some of these issues.  This, of course, is going to be difficult in the age of COVID-19, when little is happening face-to-face, but virtual work can begin, and can be followed by face-to-face meetings whenever the public health situation permits.

Business leaders, too, should work to investigate how systemic bias (not just racism, but bias against other groups such as women and religious and sexual-orientation minorities) might be operating in their organizations and consider with all parties involved in discussions what can be done about that. Changes must go deeper than changing the organization name or mascot or even hiring a few more people of color.  They also need to do more than having bias training, which, according to what I have read and what I know about attitude change in general, probably doesn't work. [11]  In addition, solutions can't just take from the Whites to give to the non-Whites. Some of that can, and probably should happen, but changes need to be more nuanced and the fair treatment of Whites is necessary if their support is to be obtained and maintained.  And if such support is lost, the programs themselves will probably not succeed.

Media's bottom-line goal is usually to get enough readers/listeners/watchers to garner enough ad revenue to make a good profit.  And that, generally, means exacerbating conflict.  Stories that "draw"—that get and keep attention—tend to be ones that make us angry or fearful. But instead of making us fearful of "the other," what about making us fearful of the escalation that is tearing us apart and preventing us from solving any of our pressing problems?

The media, particularly, have a big role to play here, and it is not one they are used to playing.  Since almost all media organizations are for-profit businesses (and even nonprofits such as NPR have to make ends meet).  So media's bottom-line goal is usually to get enough readers/listeners/watchers to garner enough ad revenue to make a good profit.  And that, generally, means exacerbating conflict.  Stories that "draw"—that get and keep attention—tend to be ones that make us angry or fearful.  ("If it bleeds, it leads," the old saying goes.) But instead of making us fearful of "the other," what about making us fearful of the escalation that is tearing us apart and preventing us from solving any of our pressing problems? What about making people angry about the dirty tricks their politicians are playing to trick them into supporting them and policies that are against their own best interest?  What about showing how science can bring us better outcomes, but is being discredited by unscrupulous players who are trying to make a buck for themselves selling various scams?  What about showing how we can all live better, more prosperous, happier lives if we cooperate with each other, but malicious actors in and out of government are trying to prevent us from doing that so they, themselves, can get richer.  That ought to get people's attention, and once people start learning and understanding these facts, we'll all be better off. 

Might it be time to move from protests into problem analysis and cooperative problem solving?  

Lastly, what should individuals do?  This is debatable—of course all of this is debatable.  I strongly believe in the power of nonviolent direct action, and generally support its use.  But as I write this in late August 2020 I tend to think it is time to move from protests into problem analysis and cooperative problem solving, just as Gandhi and King moved to negotiation after they improved their negotiating positions with nonviolent direct action. [12] That, it seems to me, is likely to yield much better results than continuing to march in the streets, giving the federal agents people to attack and an excuse to be there.  Private citizens should go home and let the Federal agents be the ones who (as we used to say in the Vietnam era) "declared a war, but nobody came."


[1] "Staying with Conflict" in Leaning in to Conflict: Creative Conflict Engagement for Learning and Cooperationhttp://leaningin.life/leaning-in-to-uncertainty/. See also, http://www.adrhub.com/profiles/blogs/4905899:BlogPost:87049

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd. I should note that the firings were almost immediate—it did not take protests to bring those about.

[3] Bret Stephens. "American Crime and the Baltimore Model" New York Times. July 17, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/opinion/policing-crime-baltimore.html and Alec MacGillis. "The Tragedy of Baltimore." New York Times Magazine, March 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/magazine/baltimore-tragedy-crime.html

[4] Holly Bailey "Violence rises in Minneapolis, as debate over role of police rages." The Washington Post. June 26, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/violence-rises-in-minneapolis-as-debate-over-role-of-police-rages/2020/06/26/12fd6020-b7c6-11ea-aca5-ebb63d27e1ff_story.html

[5] See the BI essay on Types of Justice, as well as they essays on Retributive Justice, Procedural Justice, Distributive Justice, and Restorative Justice to see how all four of these need attention if "justice" is to be obtained. 

[6] Mark Guarino. "Divisions over Chicago protests highlight challenges for activists and police" The Washington Post. August 15, 2020.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/chicago-protests-saturday/2020/08/15/92dd5c1c-df32-11ea-809e-b8be57ba616e_story.html

[7] Yascha Mounk "Stop Firing the Innocent" The Atlantic. June 27, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/stop-firing-innocent/613615/

[8] Bernie Mayer and Susan Terry "Statement by Conflict Engagement Specialists about Conflict Engagement and Strategic Disruption" ADRHub.com. June 20, 2020 http://www.adrhub.com/profiles/blogs/4905899:BlogPost:87049

[9] Eric Levitz. "Trump Wanted His Portland Policy to Backfire — But Not Like This" Intelligencer. July 27, 2020. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/trump-portland-protests-federal-agents-polls.html

[10] Charlie Warzel "50 Nights of Unrest in Portland" New York Times.  July 17, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/opinion/portland-protests-federal-agents.html

[11] See for instance,Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.  "Science explains why unconscious bias training won't reduce worksplace racism.  Here's what will.  (https://www.fastcompany.com/90515678/science-explains-why-unconscious-bias-training-wont-reduce-workplace-racism-heres-what-will

[12] For more on how they did that, see Paul Wehr's description of Gandhi's "step-wise" escalation and my description of that along with Martin Luther King's actions in the description of Constructive Confrontation. (Search for the words "A good example of how all three forms of power can be used together" and start reading there.