How storytelling can help address police violence

Performers appear on stage next to CommuniTalks founder Ryan Stroud (second from left) while sharing their true, personal stories in a show designed to help dissolve stereotypes and create pathways toward positive change in their community. (WNV/Sarah Garland)

Performers, including CommuniTalks founder Ryan Stroud (second from left), share their true, personal stories in a show to help dissolve stereotypes and create pathways toward positive change in their community. (WNV/Sarah Garland)

On the same evening that three police officers were killed and three more were wounded in Baton Rouge in July, media outlets around the country reported that police officers and members of a local Black Lives Matter group met for a peaceful cookout in Wichita, Kansas. A nation fatigued by police violence was quick to pick up on the story, and social media posts about the gathering were soon trending, signaling peoples’ overwhelming desire to affirm that “all is well.”

Except that all is not well. As an Oakland member of Black Lives Matter stated the following week when asked to respond to the offer of a cookout with police, “I eat pigs, I don’t eat with them.” Many people are obviously dissatisfied with such piecemeal displays of collaboration, and are seeking something much more substantial.

So what’s gone wrong?  After all, police departments all around the country have been working to implement Department of Justice recommendations intended to reduce incidents of violence.  Why have these recommendations, which focus on policing policies and practices, failed to result in meaningful reform?

As the nation struggles to find a path forward, storytelling, one of the oldest human traditions, could help pave the way. In 2013, I began my own process of leveraging this ancient human tradition to begin building a restorative bridge in my community. I attempted to get law enforcement officers and members of the non-law enforcement community to publicly tell stories about their true, personal stories about police violence.

I was living in Portland, Oregon, where I was halfway through a graduate program in conflict resolution. For the previous three years, I had been teaching and performing personal narrative, and I had seen first-hand the deeply transformative and empowering potential of storytelling.

Tamir Rice was still alive. So was Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and thousands of other names that we will never hear. But Trayvon Martin had been recently murdered, and #BlackLivesMatter had just been tweeted for the first time. I decided that I wanted to leverage the power of storytelling to address what was already becoming an increasingly divisive, and potentially explosive situation. My intention was to help my community dissolve stereotypes, work past “othering,” and come together to create a culture of collaboration where we might have the opportunity to create some meaningful systemic change, if only on the local level.

My proposal was simple: I would facilitate a five-week workshop process during which three law enforcement officers and three people of color would come together to craft true stories about their personal experiences with police violence, which they would then perform in a live stage show. I acknowledge that in the broad scheme of things, this proposal was a paltry offering. But I saw an opportunity to leverage my white male privilege, and wanted to do my part.

Police violence disproportionally affects people of color. In my community, the Portland Police Bureau, or PPB, has an infamous history of violence perpetrated against members of various marginalized communities. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a 15-month investigation that found numerous constitutional violations committed by PPB officers. In 2012, the Portland City Council approved a settlement agreement between the City of Portland and federal investigators. However, to this date, the PPB continues to struggle to fully implement the recommended reforms.

As we’ve seen in this and other examples around the country today, facts and policies are often inadequate in fully resolving conflict. Stories, however, have the power to engage areas of the brain beyond those that simply process information. Stories can facilitate empathy, and can serve as a non-threatening form of negotiation. Storytelling can even facilitate emotional and mental healing, creating coherence and meaning out of traumatic experience. And there is the powerfully symbolic message that I was hoping the participants would be able to convey. By coming together in a safe yet vulnerable way, they had the opportunity to create bridges that could lead to further collaboration.

At first I encountered a great deal of mistrust. Potential participants from outside the law enforcement community, having experienced police violence directly, wanted to know how I was planning to ensure their safety in the workshops. Ironically, potential participants from within the law enforcement community, knowing full well the level of resentment brewing in the community, expressed the same concerns. One prominent and respected leader in the black activist community told me that she would never “participate in programs which bring police officers/administrators into the same room with community members for dialogue or discussion.” For me, these expressions of anger, fear and division were exactly why I believed that this project needed to happen.

There are many examples throughout history of people from opposing sides meeting together during times of violent conflict. During World War I, on and around Christmas in 1914, enemies in a number of places along the Western Front laid down their arms and celebrated together in a remarkable gesture of shared humanity and goodwill. It was people engaging in peace talks in Northern Ireland that led to the Belfast Agreement. And today, projects like Jerusalem Stories bring people from Palestine and Israel together across one of the most intractable conflicts in the world to build pathways to peace. If people could engage in dialogue in South Africa during the heart of apartheid, then we could (and should) engage in meaningful dialogue about police violence in the United States right now.

Because of the particularly strong ingroup narrative of the law enforcement community, it can be difficult for outsiders to engage policing in collaboration, so I leveraged my status as a military veteran to gain access to a former police chief, who was at the time the special advisor to Portland’s mayor. That relationship helped to build credibility with a law enforcement officer from a neighboring community who has been recognized for teaching mindfulness meditation to other law enforcement officers. With the support of these boundary partners, I was able to approach the PPB. And to the surprise of many, I was able to gain their official participation in my project. The PPB assigned a liaison to help recruit participants within the bureau. I identified several community members who were willing to participate as well. My project was finally getting off the ground.

The stories that I heard along the way were fascinating. This included the person who had been randomly targeted by law enforcement officers while marching on a sidewalk alongside a peaceful protest. The attack had occurred without warning, and resulted in permanent injury. And it also included the story from the law enforcement officer who, at great risk to himself, had tackled a sword-wielding man in the midst of a mental health crisis who was preventing firefighters from saving a home. The officer described the sense of disenchantment and mistrust that he experienced when he picked up the newspaper the next day, only to discover two very different headlines next to each other on the front page. Once heralded the firefighters as heroes for having saved a neighborhood from destruction. The other maligned the officer for having tackled a mentally ill man.

Then, after working on the project for nine months, I received an email from my law enforcement liaison informing me that the Department of Justice had gotten wind of my project, and was “shutting it down” — ordering the PPB to no longer participate. In a way, I was not surprised. Who gets to tell stories, and what stories are told, and where they are told are expressions of power. True, personal stories can shine a light on underlying complexities, helping influence the decisions of policy-makers. These stories can also reveal unjust practices and help inform the development of better systems of accountability. In that way, this project was threatening to the status quo. But that’s also precisely why they need to be told. If heard by a large audience, I truly believe these stories have the power to shift the narrative away from divisiveness and toward a shared sense of community, while also inspiring people to work together to create mutually beneficial solutions.

Why do I believe this? For starters, I’ve seen it happen. In the last two years, through my organization, CommuniTalks, I’ve facilitated six similar projects giving voice to women, people of color, members of the disabilities community and military veterans. The effect has been nothing less than transformational. As more than one participant has stated, “this experience was life changing.” Audience members have also shared similar feedback, consistently stating that hearing other people’s true, personal stories has significantly deepened their sense of community.

Nevertheless, my original goal of bringing people together from across the thin blue line remains unfulfilled. To me, this speaks to the level of escalation that police violence has reached. It’s time for brave people to make a bold leap. If it can be done in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Palestine, then we can do it here. And if we can’t, then we need to take that as a strong warning of what’s ahead.

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