A former gang leader’s advice for defusing political violence


At least 80% of people heavily involved in conflict want to get out of it. But nobody asked them: do they want to go out? Are they ready to discuss how to get out? And then what happens when they go out?

Getting everyone on board is going to be really difficult. But sometimes you can get the majority of people on board.

Ripley: What are some of the things you could say to someone who is most influential, to engage them?

Tolerance : The sales pitch really asks the question: Do you want to continue this cycle? And sometimes they will say yes. Then the next question is: Do you want your family members to experience what you are going through? Sometimes it helps to remind them of the effect of conflict on others, beyond themselves.

Ripley: Is this what happened in your case? I mean, you were once the person no one thought would come to the table.

Tolerance : Yeah. I had to have something better to identify with. Being a father and a husband, you know, replaced me as a gang leader.

I think that would be the same thing I would work on with the parties in Congress. “Do you both agree that you all want to be safe? And you want your family to be safe? Let’s start there.

Ripley: You remember when we met with the Senate chiefs of staff, one reaction was, “Well, you’re talking to the wrong chiefs. And they were right. The people who work for the biggest flamethrowers in Congress, the people who raise the threat level every day on Twitter and in fundraising emails, they weren’t there. How about that?

Tolerance : Most of the time you [start with] the person who feels like they have no control. They feel helpless. But it has to start somewhere. You know, usually once they start getting people on their side, they have one or two people that we need at the table.

Ripley: So that doesn’t sound like a good excuse, that’s what I hear.

Tolerance : No no. That’s not a good excuse at all.

Ripley: OK, so you have both groups around the table. Now we start working on the non-aggression agreement?

Tolerance : Yes, and we use that term. Because it’s something that both parties have agreed to.

So we’re trying to get back to some rules of engagement. When faced with a conflict that has been going on for decades, the first thing I want to accomplish is to see if we can stop the disrespect and humiliation, first and foremost. As long as the disrespect and humiliation continue, it only adds fuel to the fire.

Ripley: Why?

Tolerance : One of the hardest things to get people to understand is that violence usually emerges when there is a threat – or a perception of a threat. And the threat doesn’t always have to be physical. The threat can be the threat of losing something, anything – my manhood, my territory, whatever.

Ripley: My country, my way of life, my vote. I see what you mean. So any language that leads to this heightened perception of a threat creates the conditions for violence.

Tolerance : Yes.

Ripley: You told me that something like 70% of gang violence in Chicago today is instigated on social media. This is where disrespect and humiliation occur, triggering violence. So is social media involved in this first-round deal?

Tolerance : You know, it’s unfortunate, but it’s the hardest thing for them to get along.

Ripley: What does it look like once you’ve agreed them?

Tolerance : This is not saying that they will stay completely off social media, because we know that would be next to impossible. But they agree not to agitate those involved in the dispute by posting a disrespectful message.

Ripley: I see. So in politics, that might mean a politician agreeing not to post a disrespectful or dehumanizing message — the kind that might incite one of their less stable supporters to resort to violence.

Are non-aggression pacts ever broken?

Tolerance : They do. They do. But the good thing is that we’ve already formed these committees, if you will, that have agreed to come to the table when something like this happens.

Ripley: When violence happens, then what?

Tolerance : If God forbid, someone gets shot, then we’re immediately on it. Because we don’t want it to escalate into a bunch of people getting shot. So we say, how can we put out this fire quickly, before it starts to spread?

Ripley: So with political violence, like the Paul Pelosi assault, what might that look like?

Tolerance : Both sides need to come out and speak out against this. They must. Because no response is a response in a violent conflict.

You have these thugs [followers] over which the group has no control. But the band has to say something [even] against the thugs Language. They can’t let it happen.

We also need to dispel rumours. We need to check what happened. That’s where it’s useful to have these non-aggression pacts.

Ripley: I see. So the agreement helps ensure everyone speaks out against the violence – and it’s also a way to help everyone on all sides get the facts as soon as possible, so there’s less room for rumors and conspiracy theories?


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