In the months that followed the riots, however, O’Connell realized he needed to focus on those efforts if the community was ever to heal. He and other local faith leaders held meetings with sheriffs and members of the LAPD in people’s homes. At those meetings, police and civilians practiced talking to each another about their concerns and finding ways to disagree civilly.
“That was part of our work as a Church, to try to provide spaces for conversations,” he said. “And we thought we really had achieved a lot of progress. Killings were way down in south Los Angeles. There was a trust built up between LAPD and residents. This level of trust has helped us over many different crises over the last almost 30 years to be able to talk things through.”
Today, O’Connell fears that the killing of George Floyd and other recent incidents of police brutality have eroded much of the trust that had been established.
“This [Floyd’s killing] is so egregious, it’s just heartbreaking. It’s like the work that the community leaders have tried to do over the years is falling apart,” he said.
“For all those years we were doing this in the ‘90s, the early 2000s, we kept trying to convince people that we have to trust each other, you have to trust the police department, and convince the police how to deal with problems, de-escalate, respect people, build relationships so that when conflicts happen, they don’t result in violence, and you can deal with things in a more humane way, a decent way, a civil way,” he said.
“It’s harder now to go back and say, ‘Ok, we broke that trust, and now we want you to trust us again… it didn’t work last time, but trust us again next time’.”
O’Connell said he understands the anger of many communities in the wake of police brutality. Their suffering is real, and their anger justifiable, he said.
“People [in 1992] felt – and the African American population in particular felt – very grieved that they were able to do this and there were no repercussions for the officers involved,” the bishop said, adding that he sees similar sentiments today.
However, he said, if he could share one message with people rioting, it would be that dialogue, not violence, is the best way to solve underlying problems.
“I know it’s hard for them to hear right now, but violence is never the answer,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem so right now, but if we can do the work of negotiation and politics and building trust, we can achieve a lot more good out of that than we can out of any violence.”
(Story continues below)
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The process of reconciliation in communities will undoubtedly be a long and difficult one, the bishop acknowledged.
“But we have to do it. It has to be done,” he said. “There’s no other way forward than to try again as best we can…to try to build these conversations and maybe even this time, take it as a national project, not just a local project.”