In search of a common ground
By Yilma Bekele / August 21, 2011
How to manage and resolve conflict has always been our Achilles Heel. That is part of the reason why we stumble from one crisis to another. Last week was a perfect example of an attempt to try to find out a reasonable solution to a problem that arose in our region here in Northern California. I hope it will give us an insight into an exercise in positive behavior that will probably end up in a win-win situation. It made me realize that the scorched earth policy we seem to favor when it comes to resolving differences between us is not a winning strategy and it has not brought us any positive results.
The public transit system serving our area (BART) has been facing mounting criticism from the public due to the strong arm tactics used by the Transit Police. A few weeks ago BART police fatally shot an individual during an arrest. People were not happy about that. A public demonstration was held, a BART station was temporarily closed, and rail service disrupted. The organizers who were using social media as a tool to come together vowed to return the following Friday to continue their public demonstration.
How BART responded to the imminent gathering of angry people is what brought this important discussion into the forefront. BART management decided to meet the threat by pulling the plug on cell phone service for a portion of its stations to disrupt electronic communication. That act completely changed the nature of the problem. Folks wanted to know under whose authority those in charge are allowed to shut down a communications system. It opened a lively constitutional discussion regarding the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment.
Public discussions were held to define the problem. Experts in Constitutional Law were called to clarify the issue. BART board of Directors called a hearing to discuss the ramifications. The people demanded clarity. The core issue became how the First Amendment of the US Constitution was interpreted in action. I will present you the text of the First Amendment as well as two opinions by experts on the Constitution.
Here is the text of the First Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Professor Eugene Volokh of University of California at Los Angles (UCLA) response was “As to the federal constitution, based on press accounts of what the facts are, it seems to be that BART was acting within its constitutional power. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea… but the important thing is that BART was turning off cell phone hardware that was on its property that it either owned or had control over. That’s very different from the government shutting down private networks or interfering with communications on private property or for that matter on streets and parks, which are treated similar to private property in this respect under the First Amendment.”
Watching the discussion and trying to digest the information to make a reasonable assessment has been a teachable moment for me. I noticed the language that the participants used to make their respective points were measured and non-provocative. There were no good guys and bad guys, but people trying to resolve a common problem. There was no anger and none questioned the motives of their opponent. The task at hand was to try to find a lasting solution and avoid future problems. BART directors were not vilified while their decision making process was brought under public scrutiny. This type of environment creates a fertile ground for good ideas to blossom. It brings out the best in all of us and enhances possibility of a positive resolution of the problem. Might I add that the existence of a free and equal environment is what made it all this possible?
I believe that is what is lacking in our social discourse. A civilized way of handling conflicting ideas to be able to reach a reasonable and common ground. Why do I think we suffer from this disease of rigidness and lack of respect for other people’s ideas and opinions? I have two examples of the weakness of our system when it comes to dealing with ideas different than our own.
I wrote an opinion regarding the wisdom of our independent Web sites disseminating interviews with Shaleka Mengistu. I was not dealing with the individual’s right to grant an interview. I believe that is a different issue. Here in California the law does not allow a criminal to profit from his misdeeds. I understand the Shaleka has written a book and part of the interview was to market the product. My issue was the fact of our inability to say enough! That was what I questioned. On the other hand, the discussion that ensued was full of insults, hatred and unreasonable diatribe. I found out folks just don’t disagree and let it go but they take the extra step of questioning my lineage, my integrity and everything associated with me. Unfortunately, the original issue gets lost in this acrimonious festival.
The next example is the discussion that has been going around the question of creating a united front against the common enemy and whom to include in this tent. I am assuming we all believe that our country is being mis-governed by the TPLF mafia and that we all want to change that. Please bear in mind the current abusers have been in power for twenty years and we have tried different methods to get rid of them. No one can accuse us of not trying. Failing yes, but definitely most have been doing their best to get rid of this cancer. Reasonable people will look at this situation and try to find out why a very tiny minority of criminals have succeeded in routing the many freedom seekers.
True to our character a few organizations are contorting into knots and showing signs of hysteria beyond reason. Some claim to love Ethiopia more than others and are willing to destroy it to save it. A few are purity police and are constantly on guard to avoid pollution by others whoever they are. The Amhara super Nationalists and the Oromo steroid enhanced separatists are the two interesting groups to watch. When you consider it is these two groups that will greatly benefit from the demise of the mafia system, it is sort of difficult to rationally understand their respective hysteria.
For some of us without any ethnic identity other than being an Ethiopian the whole exercise is a little difficult to digest. For a Nation that is as old as the universe, it is a disconcerting to think today’s arrivals who are questioning the work of their forefathers. When you consider the fact that our country was there before others and by all acceptable standards have a set of internationally recognized boundary; why its own citizens are trying to tear that apart is not clear to many. When the current rulers are in the process of holding a garage sale of our fertile land, and when millions of our people are facing the scourge of famine, is this a good time to come together and avoid catastrophe or revert back into drawing imaginary lines on imaginary Oromia, Tigrai or Amhara enclave?
The lesson I learned from the BART incident in our area is that reasonable people do disagree, but reasonable people hold a quiet and balanced discussion to come up with a solution that might not satisfy all, but that has a reasonable chance of being accepted by many. The point of the exercise was not to win at any cost but find a solution that will bring peace and harmony in the community. All the parties were willing to listen to each other’s concerns and addressed the issue in an even handed manner. There were no losers or winners in this equation. Why couldn’t we do that? Why do we allow the nay Sayers and the belligerent amongst us to hijack the issue and define it in such a way that states that either I am for or against it. Can I be left alone to find a common ground where I can work with all Ethiopians to bring peace, harmony and love to all her children? That is not too much to ask, is it?
Please note that this discussion for good or bad is held on a free Diaspora Media. Here we are free to discuss any issue in a respectful and reasonable manner. Here ideas are not feared or censored. Just because I disagree with some, the sky is not going to fall. I believe we all are intelligent enough to decide what is good for ourselves without undermining others. Our people in Ethiopia cannot do that. There is a communications department that decides what people should view or hear. The Ethiopian government spends millions to block, jam or interfere with free flow of ideas. When our children are hungry the government spends money on technology to keep them dead or alive in the dark. A few decide for eighty million people. Being silent about that is acceptance of abuse. It is wrong. Encouraging our independent Web sites, giving what we could to ESAT and keeping an open mind and a positive outlook on the discussion for unity is what our country demands. That is if you care.