In 1968, several nights of protests by South Carolina State students in Orangeburg, against a bowling alley that refused to admit blacks, led to a mass shooting by white police. Three students were killed and dozens injured, all of them unarmed.
A year later, when 400 black hospital workers in Charleston went on strike, city and state authorities closed ranks against them. Police and National Guard troops were called in to maintain order.
Perhaps demonstrating that they had learned from experience, political leaders did not push too hard or overplay their hand. As the strike wore on for more than 100 days, they demonstrated a willingness to talk with strike leaders, including Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Young, an ordained minister, was able to discuss scripture with the white hospital and city leaders and thus help them find common ground and common humanity with the strikers.
The strike was eventually resolved, without bloodshed and with workers getting most of what they had sought.
Some of history’s greatest tragedies have been the result of one group misunderstanding the intentions of another. If they had been given the chance to sit down and discuss their differences, maybe — just maybe — the world would be different in many ways.
Greg Liotta is in the business of getting people to sit down and talk. The director of diversity initiatives at the College of Charleston, Liotta is a trained facilitator and negotiator, and I watched him put his skills to work recently.
Black students had complained to Liotta that campus and city police had been harassing and arresting them for partying on campus and on King Street. They said that they thought police were targeting them for their hip-hop music as much as their behavior.
The specific incident that sparked Liotta to action was a raid on Pluto Rocks, a King Street club, where black students were partying on Jan. 20. Nearby, whites were partying at another club, just as loudly, but police looked the other way, according to black students.
Liotta put out an invitation to students and police to meet in the student center ballroom on Feb. 22 for a dialogue. At the appointed time, about 90 black students and a dozen whites were there. They were disappointed to see only three representatives from the campus and city police departments, none of whom were involved in the January 20 incident.
The students (along with two college deans, four vice presidents and other staff and faculty) were seated in a large circle around the room. The three police officers were invited to join the circle.
The mood was tense. Liotta moved around inside the circle, talking to the students, setting the ground rules, providing the structure for an orderly exchange.
“We are here because you said you wanted to be here,” he told them. “Now what do you want to come out of this tonight?”
Hands shot up, as students offered their scenarios: equal opportunity, more peaceful environment, respect from police.
The rules for the exchange were simple: Students would ask one question at a time; police would not have to answer; police were free to ask questions of their own; no one would show disrespect to anyone else in the room.
And so the game began. Students asked Chief James Verricchia of the College of Charleston police why cops did not answer questions of black males when they were stopped on the street. Why don’t cops tell them why they are stopped? Verricchia said such behavior was against policy, and he would not tolerate it.
Another asked Sgt. Christine Middleton, of the Charleston PD, why police keep going after hip-hop music so aggressively. Were they trying to put hip-hop out of town?
Middleton answered that perception was not necessarily reality, and the time and place to argue the facts of the case was in court, not on the street. She handed out a thick stack of brochures explaining the department’s complaint procedure.
Many students were clearly frustrated that CPD had sent only a single officer to meet with them. They said it didn’t matter what procedures were if procedures were not followed. Liotta repeatedly enforced the rules when some students became hostile or argumentative. “Be open to the answers,” he told them, “even if you don’t like what you hear.”
And so it went for more than two hours, until Liotta said it was time to wrap it up. A number of students hung around after the meeting ended, to talk to Liotta and the police officers. They were still frustrated, but Liotta and Verricchia told me they were pleased that a dialogue had at least been opened.
“This is the first step of the process,” Liotta said. “We’ve got people talking to one another and we didn’t have any fights.”
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