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Engaging the Violent

A very practical application is a set of eight principles for engaging actually or potentially violent people. The main idea is to look at everything from their point of view.

If a gang insults me, and I take it personally, then they may jump at the chance to beat me up. But if I accept it as constructive criticism, if I say, "Yes, why is a fool like me wasting your time?" then they won't be mad at me, and they may let me speak further.

Seven principles explain how to apply this in practice. They match up with the counterquestions:

  • Be straightforward. (How does it seem to me?)
  • Don't skip steps. (What else should I be doing?)
  • Be vulnerable. (Would it make any difference?)
  • Let them win. (What do I have control over?)
  • Let them teach you. (Am I able to consider the question?)
  • Stick to your principles. (Is this the way things should be?)
  • Have something to share. (Am I doing anything about this?)

I developed these principles from 1993 to 1997, when I lived with my grandmother in Marquette Park, a neighborhood of Chicago, where drug gangs were establishing themselves. In hundreds of episodes, I would engage youth who were standing at street corners. In four years, I got punched in the head four times. With practice, I learned to engage one, two, three and ultimately, dozens of potentially menacing people.

Joe Damal helped me formulate my intuition with these principles. It is important to practice them so they become second nature. My mind could manage six principles, but seven is too many. They do feel familiar, like the rooms in a house, but I can't imagine all seven at once. They teach me to be flexible, to behave like a person-in-general, a good kid like Jesus, ready for the good to come from any direction. I look at everything from the other's point of view. Afterwards, I wonder, where was I? I was not there, but rather, Jesus lived through me.

Young men would stand on the corner as lookouts for the Gangster Disciples or the Black Disciples. When I walked up to them by myself, they would take me seriously because I was vulnerable. I would be straightforward as to who I was, where I lived and what my concern was. I could say that I didn't care so much if they sold drugs, but I didn't want old ladies to feel intimidated by them, and I would be willing to die for that.

I would patiently listen to them lie to me because it would help me learn how they think. Most importantly, I tried to always have something positive to share, such as useful information and a friendly attitude. All the while, I would plant seeds in their minds. I learned to "let them win" because often, as soon as I got home, they would leave the corner, but never before.

One evening, I heard a gang chanting as it went past our block. I followed them to their street. They ended up attacking me. Upon reflection, I realized, "Don't skip steps." It was fine to go out and see if anybody was in trouble, and to learn what block they were from. But I could have waited until the next day to talk with people from that block as to what kind of help they might appreciate.

I taught these principles in Nablus, Israeli-occupied Palestine. The Palestinians explained that nonviolence couldn't work because when they tried it, when they brought a mass of people to protest at the checkpoints, the Israeli soldiers had fired at them. But I explained that we must look at everything from the Israeli soldiers' point of view.

I wrote an invitation to the checkpoint commander and spoke with him about practicing nonviolence together. However, both sides were afraid. So I went by myself to the checkpoint one evening, where 100 frustrated Palestinians were stuck, unable to get home.

I started singing "Happy Birthday" and all manner of gospel songs. The Palestinians hushed and brought me to the front of the line. Then I led a teach-in on nonviolence. The Israeli soldiers opened the line, very grateful to me for the calm. The sing-in and teach-in suited the needs of both sides.

In 2008, post-election violence erupted in Kenya, where my laboratory Minciu Sodas had some members. We organized 100 independent peacemakers on-the-ground and 100 online assistants as a Pyramid of Peace to avert genocide. Rachel Wambui Kungu led our team to engage the youth who, armed with machetes, were blocking the road at Naivasha and keeping food, medicines and refugees from moving. From Lithuania, I coached her how to look at everything from their point of view.

When Rachel's team got to Naivasha, the elders said, you cannot wear jeans, you must wear dresses, and she remembered, "Let them teach you." Her team rode up to the youth in mopeds rather than a car so that they would "Be vulnerable". The youth voiced their demands and were so grateful to have us champion them that they decided to leave the road for one week.

Mahatma Gandhi taught that if your enemy beats you long enough, then he will have some empathy for you. But, frankly, if we have empathy for our enemy, then they won't beat us. We are too valuable to them. And if we look at everything from their point of view, then we can help them grow, we can influence them effectively. Love your enemy.


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