In 1993, when Karen Umemoto, PhD ‘98, set out to find a case study for her urban-studies doctoral research on racial tensions and conflict resolution, she didn’t have to look far. Just a mile from her home in Culver City, CA, a conflict among local gangs was quickly spiraling into a racially charged war that would leave 17 dead and more than 50 injured over a 10-month period.
Her recently published book, The Truce: Lessons from an L.A. Gang War, is an engaging scholarly study of how the conflict escalated, how media portrayals depicting it as a racial clash eventually turned it into one, and how varied attempts at resolution played out. “I don’t consider this a gang study but a conflict study, and gangs were the main participants,” she explains. “It was more of a study of the ways that people were trying to deal with the conflict through different interpretive lenses.”
Umemoto, who is now an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, began her research as the gang conflict was just beginning. She attended town meetings after reading in her local newspaper about firebombs in a public-housing project near her home, and she started talking to community members who were indirectly involved with the conflict. In time, she gained the trust of those more directly involved. Umemoto interviewed people on all sides, including gang members, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and uninvolved bystanders, and closely followed the media’s coverage of–and influence on–the conflict.
She says it took time to gain the trust of some of her subjects. “I was put through a lot of tests to see whether or not I meant any harm, to see what my intentions were,” she says. Law enforcement and government officials were more willing to talk than other sources. “Gang members were very understandably cautious,” she says. “It took over a year to gain enough trust among people close to gang members for them to vouch for me to gang members.”
The trepidation ran both ways: Umemoto was careful about the circumstances in which she interviewed gang members. “I only did interviews where I felt I could trust the person I was interviewing, or trust the person who was helping me set up the interviews,” she says. “I would also be very clear that there were certain types of information that I did not want: I didn’t want any real names; I didn’t want to hear about any illegal activity.”
One key lesson Umemoto drew from her study is that it’s nearly impossible to resolve a conflict unless both sides genuinely try to understand each other’s point of view. She writes that efforts toward conflict resolution could be more effective “if we acknowledged the fact that we possess multiple views of reality.” Although the conflict itself is long over, Umemoto hopes that this kind of study–one that considers all vantage points and tells the story of the resolution, not just the conflict–will enable society to, as she writes, “seek more effective solutions to urban violence in the future.”