Mediation: A Gang Prevention Strategy

from Conciliation Quarterly

by David Oliver Mendelsohn

Mendelsohn coordinated a consumer mediation program in Boston, and continues to work as a private mediator and consultant there.

In the summer of 1989, I was coordinating the Face to Face Mediation Program for the Boston Office of Consumer Affairs. Although our mandate was limited primarily to consumer disputes, we had an opportunity to co-sponsor a Peer Leader Mediation Program for youth with the State Attorney General’s Office. Through this program we trained 50 youth and 15 staff. Several weeks later, one of the staff trainees contacted me about intervening in one of the gang-related conflicts happening in the city.

The youth worker called me on a Thursday afternoon. The cycle of feuding and violence between two budding gangs had reached a serious pace. In the month prior, four youth had been stabbed, and many more jumped and beaten. Now shots had been fired.

The situation between the two groups had been simmering throughout the summer. With school beginning, it became necessary for them to travel through the other’s turf. Each passing weekend in September brought further escalation of the conflict. What had started with name calling, graffiti, and an occasional fight was now bearing dangerous fruit. Twelve youth had already been arrested and were headed to court, including several who had wrongly, but conveniently, been accused of the shooting incident.

It should be noted that these were not hard-core business gangs, fighting over the drug trade. The groups were still in the early gang formation stages. Although they had no clearly defined leadership yet, one group had taken a name. No “colors” were being used, but other signs of gang-related behaviors were emerging. Tensions focused on neighborhood turf battles. The neighborhood had been primarily Black and Hispanic in recent years, but was undergoing significant White gentrification. The two groups, teens between the ages of 13–16, were from two area housing projects. They had divided primarily, although not exclusively, along racial/ethnic lines. While predominantly male, one group had significant female participation; the other did not.

One person had been jumped “over there,” so some of his friends went and “jumped back on them.” Unfortunately “them” were not necessarily the responsible individuals. Their reaction, in turn, was to band together and retaliate. The cross-cultural dynamics involved had made the lack of good communication between the groups more marked, and made it harder to find handles for stopping the quickly escalating cycle of violence. What was happening was the formation of two new gangs, created primarily for defending themselves from each other.

Within five days of the call, we were able to set up a mediation. With the lack of defined leadership for the two groups, the role of the area youth workers was key in getting the word out and getting the process launched.

It was with some apprehension that I headed for the meeting with an expected 15–20 youths. The site was a basement cafeteria in a local community center. Arriving early, the area youth workers and I rearranged the tables into a single large square and distributed pencils and paper.

The worker who first contacted me told me that someone had started a rumor in school that day that the mediation was being canceled. He had personally recontacted many of the youth and left messages for others. To include as many of the parties as possible, we delayed the meeting for 30 minutes. We ended up with 30–35 participants in this first session.

I introduced myself and explained the nature of my role. Nothing was said about weapons or searches. I later learned that police officers were in the area, but they supported us by “staying clear” from our immediate surroundings. From the start, the youth wanted to know if I was a police officer myself. I opened my coat — no badge, no gun. I responded that I was not a police officer. I also explained that state law and professional ethics prohibited me from revealing what I heard, unless it related to planning a future crime.

Although they did not appear to believe me at first, I continued on with a fairly standard introduction of mediation. I emphasized that this conflict was their problem, not mine. I was not going to tell them what to do. My job was to help them solve their own problem. I also told them that it was a voluntary process. They could walk out anytime they wanted, but I would stay as long as they desired.

The ball was then in their court. I moved quickly to give them something to do with it. After explaining that I usually mediated with only one or two people on each side, I asked them to break into their respective groups. They were asked to do two things. First, choose a spokesperson; second, identify and write down every issue that needed to be addressed. The lack of defined leadership made the choosing of spokespersons especially crucial to moving ahead with the mediation process.

I was surprised at the unabashed enthusiasm that was exhibited during this first stage. It took about twenty minutes. During this time, the adults present were available for assistance, but mostly stayed out of the way. This included the two youth workers, one parent, one teacher and myself.

When we reconvened, the two spokespersons read their respective lists of issues and concerns. People had not expected how similar the two lists were. Even so, there was need for a lot of emotional venting, and for clarification of who had done what. Our first meeting ended after two-and-a-half hours.

At one point during the session, I had to ask the meaning of one of the street terms they were using. While my question drew some snickers, my honesty with them did not go unnoticed. Both sides wanted to meet again, and felt the need to bring in additional individuals who had been involved in the problems. In the interim, they agreed on a single item: that it would be alright to walk through each other’s areas, as long as there were no provocations.

Four days later, we had our second mediation session. About 27 youth attended. Eight had not been in the first session, so we repeated the initial stage. This time, the lists were a little more detailed, but still almost identical. As in the first session, cross-cultural communication dynamics, although not overriding, needed to be worked at. Also, the male-dominated group showed some initial resistance when they realized that about one-third of the other group’s representatives were young women, in addition to their having a female spokesperson for the session.

The most significant problem occurred when several police officers attempted to enter the room. In mid-sentence, everyone got up to leave. The youth workers were able to convince the police that everything was under control, and to stay outside, so that we could complete the mediation. This session also lasted approximately two-and-a-half hours, and resulted in a fairly comprehensive agreement.

The gang members had no interest in putting their agreement in writing. However, it was stated in these terms:

  • the situation is squashed, the word will be put out
  • no jumping
  • no long stares
  • no trouble in school
  • if you get jumped, check out who really did it, deal with the cops, or retaliate on the individual only

All the issues brought to the table were resolved to mutual satisfaction, except one. This involved their weapons. An overwhelming number of youth considered it unrealistic to throw away their guns and knives, so this proposal was rejected.

After the mediation, the worker who had initiated the contact told me that simply setting the first mediation date had helped keep the lid on the escalating violence during the intervening weekend. Since then, the area youth workers have scheduled a number of joint events between the two groups, such as ball games, to continue to break down barriers between the two groups.

On one of these occasions, the mediation agreement had a chance to be strongly tested. Because of a scheduling conflict, the youth workers had to cancel a game. The two groups went ahead unsupervised with a sandlot tackle football game. There were some minor fights on the field, but they did not spill off the field or persist. To date, these youths have upheld their agreement for over 15 months. No further feuding or other incidents between the members of the two groups have been reported.

Because the Face to Face program has been discontinued through city budget cuts, there unfortunately are no longer any clear avenues for pursuing gang-related mediation such as this. The response to gang “problems” has largely been absorbed by law enforcement and other city departments. I feel particularly good about the one intervention opportunity which did arise, however. The use of mediation at that critical point seems to have had a clearly preventative impact — not only in stopping the escalation of violence, but also in stemming the formation of the gangs themselves by offering alternative methods of problem-solving.

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