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East: Scholars Should Analyze When Violence Does Not Occur

  • Don Hill

A U.S. expert says that some scholars studying how best to alleviate ethnic violence in the world may be missing a central point. Author and professor Vincent Parrillo says experts who study what causes such violence should investigate what is special about situations where violence does not occur. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill questions Parrillo on his unusual approach to ethnic peace.

Prague, 27 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vincent Parrillo writes books and articles and travels the world discussing an academic specialty called "negotiated order theory."

That is a fancy name for analyzing -- among other things -- ways to promote intergroup tolerance and to prevent what he calls "ethno-violence."

But Parrillo, a professor at William Paterson University in the United States, has an unusually practical approach to the analysis. In addition to studying why violence erupts under the right conditions, he asks, why not study also why it fails to break out in other places under similar conditions?

In the United States in the 1960s, for example, ethnic riots began locally and, fanned by television coverage, spread across the country. In 1992, also in the United States, an onlooker secretly videotaped four white police officers severely beating a black man named Rodney King. When a court found the police innocent and freed them, riots broke out in Los Angeles, where the incident occurred, and in some other cities. But in New York and Chicago, where conditions seemed just as delicate, there was no such outbreak.

Parrillo investigates why not. In an interview, he describes an occasion in East Germany that especially captured his attention.

"In 1992 and 93, there was a great deal of violence occurring in many German cities. It was a time, because of unification, the economy was faltering. There was a large influx. Germany was absorbing more foreigners, more asylum seekers than all the other countries of Europe combined, and a reactionary movement against them [developed]. But, interestingly, in Dresden, there was a hostel for asylum seekers, and no violence occurred there."

This home, Parrillo says, housed mostly Turkish asylum seekers. It was operated by a Pakistani director, who had no training in negotiated order theory or any other applicable discipline. But he had and he clung to an idea.

The director somehow acquired the names and addresses of a number of members of Dresden's large and frightening skinhead community. Against police advice, he invited the skinheads to visit the group home. The police asked to be present when the skinheads arrived. The director refused. Eleven skinheads came.

Parrillo says there were 50 residents in the home. Some of them were children who had drawn greeting cards to give to their visitors. The director introduced the residents and the skinheads to each other. He showed the skinheads the simple rooms they lived in and the meager meals they ate, certainly nothing to envy. As Parrillo puts it, "That home director put a human face on his residents. He established contact, communication. His home never was attacked."

Parrillo says that the Dresden group home director knew intuitively what to do. He used people-to-people communication, the essential factor in building tolerance.

Parrillo was in Prague recently as keynote speaker and leading participant in an International Seminar on Tolerance and Human Rights, organized by an organization named Globea. Parrillo says people with the kind of insight, courage and vision demonstrated by the Dresden director are not always available, and that is why seminars like Globea's are needed. In his words:

"What this conference that I am participating in -- what this Globea conference is all about and what many people are trying to do throughout Europe, in fact -- is to raise levels of understanding and awareness, to show what has worked in other locations that can perhaps be adapted, that can be applied elsewhere."

Globea convened scholars, students, human rights advocates and minority leaders for the seminar, to discuss the problems of intolerance and ethnic violence and possible solutions. Other topics included the plight of Romany minorities, the role of humor in police work, and how news organizations contribute to and counter stereotypes and intolerance.