Smokejumper Logic & Civil Unrest
In June 2000, Fast Company magazine published a short article of mine discussing crisis management strategies. In that piece, I discussed interviews I had conducted with “smokejumpers,” wildfire fighters who parachute into forest fires essentially to fight them from the inside out. On the spectrum of high risk activities, that sounds pretty close to the top of the scale to me. In my interviews I asked several smokejumpers what part of the operation they considered the most difficult. Several explained that from their perspective one of the most difficult tasks was after the fire was extinguished, when before pulling out of the fire field, it was necessary to drop their heavy gloves and protective gear, get on their hands and knees and poke around barehanded in the dirt feeling for hot spots. The logic, of course, was that those smoldering embers beneath the surface could easily flare up and reignite another serious fire. While the dramatic towering flames and plumes of smoke from the fire demanded an immediate and determined tactical response, the warm soil the remained after the blaze called for a more measured strategic response.
As I watch news headlines this evening, word that Ferguson is again in a state of emergency, I have been thinking back to the smokejumpers. The smokejumpers seemed to understand that the initial suppression of a fire can lead to a false sense of safety, and that the risk of a smoldering crisis may be equal to or greater than a sudden crisis.
Violent protests and riots may appear sudden. They can be, and have often been, spontaneous reactions to perceived injustices. With the benefit of hindsight, those in affected communities often say that the kindling of anger, resentment, unfairness and repression had existed long before, and that the latest incident of excessive force or aggression was simply the spark that set the blaze alight. Just as individuals who commit extreme violence do not just snap, communities do not just snap. Collective violence, like individual violence, arises from the dynamic interaction of many forces. And as the byproduct of smoldering crises, community violence is very difficult to fully extinguish and is very susceptible to flaring up again and again for an extended time.
I am not suggesting that anyone in the law enforcement or emergency management community in Ferguson somehow took their eye off the ball. Rather, the events in Ferguson at this moment and the events that first lit that fire are a stark reminder that managing collective violence is a marathon, not a sprint. It is also worth noting how highly contagious collective violence can be. Riots in New York City, Berkeley, Oakland, Baltimore and other cities across the country over the past year all ignited from a common fuse. The chant on the streets of Ferguson tonight is, “Ferguson is Everywhere!”
Everywhere, and for a while to come. It will be important to not just keep an ear to the ground, but to get down in the dirt to poke around for the next hot spot in trying to manage the potential for a protracted and geographically dispersed wave of violence. The kindling is very dry, and there are a lot of people throwing sparks.