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By Steve Davis, EFC Board Member & Founder and CEO of the Institute for Human Relations, Inc.

June 5, 2020

Watching on television as another person of color dies unnecessarily at the hands of people who have taken an oath to “Serve and Protect” American citizens floods me with emotions. They first hit me all at once and then rise separately in a vicious cycle until I am almost paralyzed. Flashbacks of my own encounters with “the law” make me realize how fortunate I am to not have suffered a similar fate. I give thanks to my parents and grandparents for teaching me how to respond to police officers: “Yes, sir; no, sir”; move slowly; and never try to run away.

My emotions are compounded when I think of how the parents of those victims must feel, having taught their children the same lessons, and yet having to watch their children’s lives taken away on television as the children practice what they were taught! I can’t imagine the depth of pain, conflict, anguish and confusion they must feel as all the television networks replay the event in a cruel cycle of “breaking news.”

Unfortunately, this is not new to black Americans, and it is not new to white Americans. Just in the last few weeks, similar situations that did not make the breaking news have occurred in Georgia, in Kentucky and in other areas of America. Take a look at the USA Today article Police Killings of Black Men in the US and What Has Happened to the Officers.

I do not make this reference to vilify police. They are people who have taken a solemn oath to “Serve and Protect” us. They are people who put their lives on the line, every day. Many of us have family members who serve in law enforcement, and we are so thankful when they come home each day after their shift — and terrified by some of their accounts of their day.

However, something is wrong! Some individuals believe they are above the law, there are systems in place that support that attitude and behavior, and systems are repetitive.

In 1971, Dr. Robert Carkhuff performed an in-depth analysis of a report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, which was formed after the riots of the summer of 1967. One outcome the report revealed was that the disorders were not the result of isolated incidents but a Cycle of Social Failure; a cycle that began before the founding of this country.

In his book The Development of Human Resources, Dr. Carkhuff outlines key principles of social failure. In summary, they are:

  1. Create a situation in which one group is systematically conditioned to experience itself as “superior” over another group that is conditioned to experience itself as “inferior.”
  2. Create and sustain the exploitation of the oppressed group by the “superior” group to create a state of frustration.
  3. Periodically raise up, then dash, the hopes, opportunities and initiatives of the oppressed group to create a state of aggression. This phase depends upon whether the power holders act or do not act to address the grievances of the oppressed group. No action is an action. It means that they choose not to care.
  4. Make the exploited group explode in uncontained fury by providing the conditions that enable the “superior” group not to act upon the grievances of the oppressed group.
  5. Perpetuate the cycle of social failure by providing the conditions that enable the “superior” group to engage in repressive behavior toward the first group. These are the same repressive activities that led to the original exploitation and privation.

In recent history, this cycle has repeated itself in situations like Watts; Newark, New Jersey; South Central Los Angeles; Little Rock; and Ferguson, Missouri, and now we are watching it once more play out “live” on television. However, one thing we do know about cycles and systems is that they are repetitive. If they are repetitive, then they can be anticipated. if they can be anticipated, then interventions can be planned. The question for our leaders is “What is your plan?” Surely, after so many iterations of the cycle, one would expect there would be a plan. However, there are no signs that a plan exists or, if one does, that there is any initiative to implement that plan.

On the opposite end of the same page are the protesters. The definition of protest includes organizing as a way of publicly making opinions heard as an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy, or of undertaking direct action and attempting to enact desired changes themselves. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Protest is the language of the unheard.” The first step in his strategy of organized protest was to bring those in power to the negotiating table. There can be no resolution without conversation. The last act before going to war is to cut the lines of communication! Even in my day of college sit-ins, the goal was to bring the administrators and leaders out to discuss our demands. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference provided intense training of their activists at places such as Highlander Folk School and on many college campuses. Protesting was a skill, with standards geared to achieving mutually beneficial results.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing today, aside from those with the deliberate intent to be destructive, is a result of untrained, impulsive, highly frustrated individuals without a plan or standards. If the goal is to resolve the problem, keeping in mind that the events that initiated the protest are only a symptom of a deeper problem, there must be a process that leads to a dialogue about the root cause of the problem. There must be ownership of the source of the problem, and an action plan implemented that is monitored, evaluated and continuously improved until the problem is resolved or turned into a mutual benefit.

There are key elements to an effective protest:

  1. Define the issue, who it affects, what those effects are, and the consequences of those effects (upon both those directly and secondarily affected).
  2. Identify who is directly producing the effects, who is encouraging those people producing the effects, and who has responsibility for the initiators and their supporters.
  3. Create a protest strategy that should include goals, objectives and tactics.
  4. Design methods to implement the tactics.
  5. Select the people to implement the tactics.
  6. Train those people in the strategy, goals, objectives, tactics and implementation methods, and the possible personal consequences of their action. If they don’t know the why along with the what, and if they don’t know the risks along with the how, they won’t be properly prepared.
  7. Select the right people to lead the protests, and teach them how to:
    1. Select and train protesters.
    2. Identify, remove or neutralize those who want to use destructive methods, or who want to disrupt the protest.
    3. Collect information and observe protest opponents to understand their motivation and the probable methods they will use to stop and/or eliminate the protest.
    4. Develop counter measures to their opponent’s methods.
  8. Teach them the interpersonal skills to engage with their protest targets so they can lay the groundwork for change and how to:
    1. Motivate and coordinate large groups of people to keep them on task and path.

Problem-solve and adapt to meet changing conditions and opportunities.

  1. Continuously improve what they do by studying and reflecting upon past events.
  2. Transition from protester to change implementer and help those who have been protesting make the transition to being change implementers.
  3. Involve the opposition in making and supporting change.

Ideally, this will provide protesters with a “Hip Pocket” and Guide to Constructive Protesting.

Once the protesters have a plan, we have to again ask our leaders, “What is your constructive plan for a mutually beneficial resolution to a crisis?” Leadership makes all the difference! Out of a crisis comes the opportunity for true leadership. During a crisis, you find out who you really are. A leader’s responsibility to respond reveals their ability to respond! Is the response constructive or destructive? An effective leader would have a plan to respond to each level of protest. The plan should include what you need to do before, during and after each level of protest so we don’t repeat the same behaviors that got us here in the first place.

Dr. Carkhuff’s analysis of community and government leaders in 1968 found that they had no plan to:

  1. Prevent the crisis.
  2. Anticipate the crisis
  3. Alleviate the crisis — only have a plan to suppress the crisis; only a plan for


Now, 50 years later, we have to ask how much better our national and community governments have become at leadership, in equal opportunity and at social justice. If repression is still their only response, then we have to protest, but if destruction is our only method of protest, then there’s little hope we will ever address the root cause of this crisis of opportunity and justice. We will continue to wonder who will be the next family to watch their loved ones lose their lives needlessly on television … again.

Dr. Carkhuff concluded his analysis with this sobering prediction: that the price of continuing to do what we have been doing is staggering. “There can be no victory. This is a conflict which the Black American cannot survive. This is a conflict from which the white American cannot recover.”

We are staring squarely in the face of a choice between continued Inaction or action for social change that can reverse the Cycle of Social Failure. What is our plan? Without a plan, the outcome is predictable. I strongly suggest that we all read or reread Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. There is no guarantee we will have another chance.

Steve Davis is a member of the Encampment for Citizenship board. He is founder and CEO of The Institute for Human Relations, Inc. During his forty years in Secondary and Higher Education, he has impacted thousands of lives as an Educational Administrator, Diversity Practitioner, and Athletic Coach. Mr. Davis also played in the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl Football Classics for Penn State University.

He can be reached at

DSC_0644 steve davis with pomfret youth 70th

Steve Davis with Encampers (K.C. O’Hara, Talibah Alexander, Angel Kermah, Wade Atkinson) at the 70th Anniversary Celebration, 2016.