82 relevant issues and the media better suited to bringing to public attention the need to do so. Citizens’ panels—comprised of local community members, government and law enforcement representatives, and civil society members—could be useful to this end. Similar panels have been employed to defuse tensions between law enforcement and the communities they patrol, most often following the controversial use of deadly force by police. In this case, panels might be adopted to defuse tensions over everything from domestic or foreign policy legislation to counter-terror measures. In addition to more overt means such as the aforementioned panels, members of community and faith organizations and pressure groups can also serve an important function as a backchannel for government and security practitioners. This is not to suggest the latter should attempt to co-opt the former. Precautions must be taken to avoid even the appearance of this, since many civil society groups and individuals are successful precisely because they are known to be fiercely independent from the government. However, just as governments use Track 2 diplomacy when dealing with one another, especially in times of tense public exchanges, civil society can present a framework for Track 2 diplomacy between governments and internal communities.15
A framework for intervention There are instances where civil society must intervene rather than play a preventative or even ameliorative role. Civil society provides the framework for political, religious, and civic leaders to reconcile countervailing ideas and values in an acceptable human rights framework. By extension, civil society groups are often best suited to confronting extremist movements at the local level when they seek to arrogate and instrumentalize tangible grievances. For example, when financially distressed farmers were joining the Christian Identity movement and associated paramilitary groups in the U.S. farm belt in the 1980s, the strongest antidote came from farm organizations and rural community leaders themselves. To date, such interventions have generally been ad hoc. This is understandable, especially considering local groups will likely be more aware of what is happening in their backyard and how to best address the issue. Again, networking and information sharing can help alert local civil society to an approaching threat as well as equip community leaders with best practices for how to address it. At this point, local civil society must be prepared to use their capital to close
down areas of operation for extremist movements and provide an alternative for the citizenry. By way of explanation, several experts related the following examples to EWI. The first example pertains to the mobilization of communities to block operational infiltration by extremist groups and the second to the provision of an alternative “good.” The first example regards grassroots efforts to shut out attempts by extremist movements to organize. Reverend Dave Ostendorff leads a grassroots organization that has sought to educate people about extremism and to mobilize communities to oppose it. His organization puts people on the ground in communities to educate local congregations about extremist movements. In one instance, when a Christian Identity minister was attempting to organize a meeting in an Illinois community, Reverend Ostendorff’s organization went to the community ahead of time. There they met with the pastors and lay leaders in the community and educated them about the nature of the Christian Identity movement. They also alerted the hotel where the meeting was to be held, which then refused the group meeting space. As a gesture of support the local pastors organized their own meeting so they could pay the hotel to host it for them.16 The second example was relayed by one of the participants at EWI’s conference, and concerns the Ku Klux Klan when it was still violently active. At that time, in Georgia, there was a lot of Klan activity in the Northwest. They were attempting to organize and recruit members from a local manufacturing plant. While law enforcement was either unwilling or unable to offer a solution, the community was. They recognized that the need being fulfilled by the KKK was not ideological or race-based. It was a socioeconomic good that was sought, in this case labor organization. The workers wanted to organize and the Klan was, at that time, the only game in town. The solution was to create an alternative trade union. Once this was offered to the employees, KKK recruitment dropped precipitously in that area. These are but two examples of the myriad ways in which civil society must sometimes actively intercede at the local level. These may appear to be small victories in the wider battle against Identity extremism, but ultimate victory against an extremist movement is often gained one community at a time.
The idea of developing citizens’ panels and the manner in which they might be employed resulted from an EWI working group on the Role of Civil Society in Countering Extremism, with members of European NGOs and EU officials on Friday, September 29, 2006 in Brussels.
For more about Reverend Ostendorf’s organization, see http://www.newcomm.org/.
Published on Jul 23, 2010