By Kandis Sargeant and Carl D. Smallwood
In 2020, as the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities in the U.S. were also grappling with conflicts caused by deep racial, religious, political, cultural and social divisions. After George Floyd was killed under the knee of a law enforcement officer on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, demonstrations for Black lives rippled from Minneapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta, to hundreds of cities and small towns across the country and even many communities abroad. In many communities, protests evolved into sustained demonstrations, naming other Black and Brown Americans killed by law enforcement officers (or vigilantes), including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and Jacob Blake.
We are still seeing divisions that erupt into unrest and leave communities to pick up the pieces without resolving the underlying issues that gave rise to the conflict. COVID-19 did not eliminate any existing conflicts. Instead, this pandemic spotlighted numerous disparities within our communities in wealth, access to jobs, health care, education and technology. Although the vaccines provide a light at the end of the tunnel, distrust by many in predominantly minority communities and distribution disparities take a disproportionate toll in illness and lives in those communities. COVID-19 has raised the stakes as communities navigate and clash with government control over public health, social distancing, economic opportunities, and now we see anti-Asian hate incidents—tensions that are likely to remain even when life returns to “normal.”
Last year, many communities believed that these divisions wouldn’t touch their residents, but as the summer wore on it was clear that these conflicts were universal; they visit communities of all shapes and sizes in every part of the country. Community leaders, including elected officials, neighborhood leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders will likely be drawn into these disputes in integral ways. These leaders can choose to become involved proactively to address the communities’ concerns, or they can become involved reactively when unaddressed concerns reach a flashpoint and tensions erupt. Community leaders should seek to be seen as a trusted resource within their community, and this trust is most effectively built and enhanced during times of tranquility, rather than in times of division.
The Divided Community Project (DCP) housed at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law was developed in 2015 with a commitment to the belief that dispute resolution practitioners, policy makers, and scholars can make a tangible, constructive contribution to the goal of helping leaders and citizens in communities seared by tensions, unrest, and civil discord. DCP has developed a virtual toolkit that local leaders can use to identify and address community division and its underlying causes. One of its reports, Planning in Advance of Community Unrest, contains lessons from communities who have recently experienced community unrest and reflects the conclusions of experienced intervenors, public officials, and advocacy group leaders that communities faced with division need not become polarized communities with groups that have stopped listening to opposing viewpoints, have demonized those who subscribe to them, and are prone to destructive community unrest.
Planning in Advance includes eight concrete planning steps for communities:
- First, a respected entity within the community should take the initiative to promote a planning process by creating a checklist of planning activities and identifying experts and resources.
- Next, the convening entity should begin by engaging other key individuals in conducting an assessment of the community’s ability to handle division; the potential cost, broadly construed, of community unrest; and the potential gains for the community when residents can handle their divisions constructively.
- Then the preliminary planning group should use the assessment as a basis to assemble a planning group that includes key public officials and also reflects the broader community to gain the input, commitment, and legitimacy needed to plan well and gain implementation. The group can be augmented as needed during the course of planning.
- This planning group should develop an early warning system that there are concerns among a segment of the community or that an event is occurring that might bring outside groups to the community to bring attention to national issues.
- Given likely areas of concern, the planning group should develop processes and opportunities for residents to raise problems and work with public officials.
- The planning group should help establish a pattern of using constructive practices to solve problems within the community, including holding regular meetings with spokespersons and key public officials to discuss hot button issues, enhancing relationships among diverse groups, training public officials to encourage these patterns, and more.
- The planning group should encourage public officials and others to develop concrete plans for their actions during the first hours and weeks of community unrest, should it occur. This would include ways to work with outside groups that want to take advantage of a local event to bring attention to national issues.
- The planning group should develop an overall implementation plan, including ways to maintain the training and protocols as public officials and other leaders change.
In late 2015, after sensing a need to take proactive measures, several community leaders in Columbus, Ohio, came together to develop a planning process to build trust and resilience against potential situations that could tear at the social fabric of the community. This group would soon become the Greater Columbus Community Trust (GCCT), a group of diverse stakeholders who bring together elected officials, community and social justice advocates, bar leaders, religious leaders, law enforcement and public safety officials, non-profit organizations and others. Several members of GCCT’s core leadership group have been appointed city officials within the mayor’s office, city attorney’s office, the City of Columbus Department of Neighborhoods, among other administrative divisions. Each member plays a distinct role in expanding the stakeholder group as well as generating new ways to engage with community members to build trust and increase resiliency. GCCT utilized DCP’s report, Planning in Advance for Community Unrest, in order to begin implementing proactive measures to prepare the community for potential unrest. GCCT worked quietly for a year identifying stakeholders and taking the steps outlined it the report.
GCCT hosts monthly meetings to allow participants to understand deep community concerns; build trust among residents and between leaders and residents; identify/deal justly with constituency group concerns; prepare the community to respond in resourceful and coordinated ways if an event occurs that challenges trust; and develop shared plans for acting in the midst of community unrest. The goal, again, is to proactively prepare the Columbus community to respond to the next problem and make the community more resilient.
Like in so many communities across the country, advocates for Black lives engaged in sustained demonstrations in Columbus throughout the summer and fall of 2020. In addition to George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, demonstrators highlighted the lives lost of Tyree King and Henry Green (and others), two young African Americans in Columbus killed in police-involved shootings. Columbus was at the center of national headlines in late May 2020, when police pepper-sprayed local elected officials (U.S. Representative Joyce Beatty, County Commissioner Kevin Boyce and City Council President Shannon Hardin) marching peacefully in solidarity with organizers and activists.
The Summer of Advocacy strained the resources of community leaders, human-centered non-profit organizations, and advocates alike. In their individual capacity, GCCT members leveraged their own resources and privilege to support the community. One religious leader used their downtown church as a space to provide resources and first aid to anyone in need. One former US Attorney is now leading a local team to develop an after-action report, reviewing the Columbus Division of Police’s actions at demonstrations in late May and June 2020. Some GCCT members mentored young community activists and facilitated trauma-informed conversations.
In December 2020, tragedy twice struck the Columbus community and the work of GCCT was put to the test. On December 4, a young Black man named Casey Goodson, Jr., was shot and killed in the doorway to his home by a law enforcement officer. The circumstances surrounding the shooting, including confusion about who would handle the investigation, created outrage in the Columbus community sparking renewed protests. Within a few days, GCCT convened its core leadership group and penned an open letter calling for federal authorities to cooperate and coordinate the multiple investigations to ensure the investigation would be complete, transparent, and independent of the law enforcement agency involved in the shooting.
In addition, GCCT hosted a public webinar with a focus on educating the community about the process of a criminal investigation as well as providing resources to help process the trauma and grief. This two-hour webinar explained the components of a criminal investigation; highlighted the personal experiences of being a family member of someone killed by law enforcement; discussed community grief, trauma, and healing; and gave the US Attorney an opportunity to confirm his office was coordinating the investigation process. GCCT understands that while its goal is to be proactive, situations arise that require a community to respond quickly and helpfully to community conflict and trauma. The webinar garnered over three thousand views on Facebook and YouTube, and demonstrated GCCT’s dedication to education and transparency, seeking to enhance understanding of the formal legal processes that occur after a police-involved shooting.
Just three short weeks after the death of Casey Goodson Jr., another Black man, Andre Hill, was killed at the hands of a law enforcement officer in Columbus, Ohio. Understandably, the Columbus community was again outraged while still reeling from the grief and trauma of Casey Goodson Jr’s death. GCCT again called on authorities to conduct a full, independent, thorough and trustworthy investigation of Andre Hill’s death and promised to continue to educate the Columbus community around the administrative, civil, and criminal legal processes for holding individuals and law enforcement personnel accountable in these situations. GCCT believes that by increasing public understanding and transparency of these legal processes, trust amongst community leaders and residents will also be enhanced.
As 2020 came to a close, and political and racial tensions remained high, the New Year brought brand new challenges. COVID-19 was claiming a record number of lives and law enforcement shootings continued to occur. On January 6, 2021, the world watched as rioters stormed our nation’s Capitol. These riots caused tragic losses of life, physical injury to multiple people and property damage. We witnessed an attack on fundamental American ideals challenging the peaceful transition of power. Armed protests challenging the election, some associated with domestic violent extremists with white supremacist ideology, heightened anxiety in a number of local communities. GCCT convened again as this new era of political violence erupted. In a public statement, GCCT reinforced its intent in the coming months to advance efforts to convene community stakeholders to build trust among residents and between leaders and residents. GCCT recognizes the need for groups in the Columbus community to talk and listen to each other in non-confrontational settings which span racial, religious, political and social differences.
Heading into the summer, we cannot ignore community unrest related to the Derek Chauvin trial (the police officer who killed George Floyd), or the anticipated trial of the officer in Columbus for killing Andre Hill, or as we await the outcome of the investigation of Casey Goodson, Jr.’s killing. GCCT intends to host additional publicly accessible webinars with a focus on educating the public about the trial process. The series will begin with factors that go into the arrest, grand jury proceedings, the charging process and bail processes. As the trials proceed, GCCT will continue to provide educational opportunities featuring expert panelists to enhance public understanding of what can often be a very confusing process.
GCCT is committed to remaining a trusted voice in the Columbus community—a voice dedicated to convening safe spaces, to education, to transparency, and to accountability at all levels of leadership. GCCT recognizes that this trust is not built overnight but is the result of a sustained effort to connect with community members and listen to their concerns. The work of GCCT is methodical, collaborative, deliberative—and largely unfinished.
An important note for community leaders is that the process of engaging community stakeholders to bridge division at a local level is designed to be ongoing and to become part of the fabric of the community. Leaders must continuously work to engage with their community members so that when division happens there is a baseline of trust established that will make the community more resilient. Building trust and resiliency is possible so long as the community, particularly its leaders, is committed to the work.
Kandis Sargeant-is a Fellow at the Divided Community Project at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She is a 2019 graduate of the Moritz College of Law and received her LLM in Alternative Dispute Resolution from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in 2020.
Carl Smallwood is a Co-Director of the Divided Community Project at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. A former law firm partner with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, and former president of the Columbus Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Presidents, he chairs the Greater Columbus Community Trust.