Most of us know from experience that groups of people can encourage violence.
- We remember being drawn into a knot of kids gathered around to watch a fight on the playground and know how the excitement of the spectators egged the fighters on.
- We have been in community meetings that got ugly and have felt our hearts race and our faces flush as we listened to speakers confront a principal or a policy-maker with demands.
- We may have even found ourselves caught up with a group of sports fans who, with the help of alcohol, decide to destroy the symbols or the property of an opposing team.
We look back on those experiences and shudder. We know we got “caught up” in something. There was an energy those groups which was greater than the anger or frustration of any one individual.
Groups can encourage violence. Can they also encourage peace? When we feel ourselves getting worked up, when simmering discontentment starts to rise to the boil of rage, the smart people in the room usually take a step back. They go for a walk, get some distance, and come back to the conflict once everyone has cooled down. De-escalation seems to mostly involved de-grouping.
But then there is the witness of the Civil Rights movement. One person may not have been able to endure the abuse that came with a lunch counter sit-it without retaliation, but twelve people could hold strong. Every march, every protest was preceded by intensive training in non-violent resistance. At the heart of that training was instruction on how to stay connected to the group. Protesters linked arms as they walked. They chanted together and they sang and sang and sang.
I’ve been thinking a lot these past couple of weeks about how groups can promote violence. National and international news has been filled with stories of people who seem bound together with violent energy, intent on spreading it. Often, the response to violence seems violent as well, from drone attacks to name-calling. Mostly I despair, but there are moments when I find myself agitated enough to want to take some action.
Last weekend, I finally had a chance to do something. I participated in a weekend-long training in the Alternatives to Violence Program at the Patuxent Correctional Institution, a state prison for men near my home. I’ve wanted for several years to become trained as a facilitator of this program so that I could help lead trainings in prisons, juvenile facilities and elsewhere. This weekend’s experience was my first step towards that goal.
AVP, as it is called, was first developed in 1975 when a group of inmates in New York’s Green Haven prison sought assistance from local Quakers in developing a non-violence curriculum that they could share with incarcerated youth. From the beginning, the program has been led by volunteers. “Outside facilitators”, volunteers from the community work in partnership with “inside facilitators”, inmates who had been through advanced training in the practices the program is designed to teach. One of the inside facilitators who helped lead my weekend training told us he had been leading AVP workshops since 1992.
Together, the facilitators lead a group through a variety of highly interactive experiences—one-on-one conversations, role plays and small group discussions interspersed with a number of “light and lively” games of the sort that we’ve played in my youth groups over the years.
In a way, this was surprising to me. In the midst of an energetic round of a familiar circle game called “Zip, Zap, Zoom” I found myself wondering. What are we doing here? How does promote an alternative to violence?
There was very little direct instruction throughout the weekend. No power points, no worksheets, no “three keys” or “five simple steps” to memorize. Instead, we spent a lot of time getting to know each other, taking turns listening and being heard, building trust. Laughter was a part of that and so were tears. In short, we built a sense of community among each other, a community that held out the possibility of an alternative to violence.
That was all. That was the beginning. And maybe, that was enough.