Sunday Commentary: Thoughts on Gandhi and Conflict Resolution in Our Community


I first met Robb Davis, other than in passing, in December 2011.  The pepper spray incident on the UCD campus had just occurred and, while the community at the time was looking for “blood” – at least metaphorical blood – Robb Davis had another idea.

He, David Breaux, and the Rev. Kristin Stoneking came to a Human Relations Commission meeting, of which I was a member, and proposed the idea of a restorative justice process as a way to reconcile the hurt of the protesters and the community with the harm done by the university.

At that point, I had never heard of restorative justice, and I was skeptical of the concept.  But Robb Davis won me over with passion and compassion on the issue, and I began to learn about restorative justice.  I was impressed enough with Robb Davis that just six months later, I asked him to join the fledgling Vanguard Editorial Board.

I became impressed enough with the concept that, in January 2013, we asked Sujatha Baliga to be keynote speaker for the City’s MLK event and, that fall, we had Judge David Gottlieb as keynote speaker for the Annual Vanguard Court Watch Dinner, talking about the Fresno County juvenile restorative justice program through the courts.

Restorative justice is just one form of conflict resolution – a core concept that Robb Davis brings now five years later, as he begins his two-year term as Mayor of Davis.

It therefore should not be a surprise that Robb Davis would be committed to conflict resolution or that that commitment might be tested in his first regular meeting where he presided as mayor.  But a Gandhi statue?

I will be the first to say, I was none too pleased to have been at council chambers covering a debate over the issue of a Gandhi statue or the historical treatment of Gandhi at a Davis City Council meeting until the wee hours of the morning.  Wednesday was a lost day for me due to no sleep the night before.

I will be honest.  Gandhi is one of my heroes.  I read his work and teachings rather closely following undergraduate school.  I think the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience as practices in the US civil rights movement, inspired by Gandhi, were extremely powerful.

I also have to admit that some of the comments made about Gandhi were extremely hurtful to me.

Sean Raycraft, one of my current editorial board members, made what I think is a critical point when he countered that he did not previously know many of the controversial things that Gandhi had done, and “these larger than life historical figures are often mischaracterized by history in the narrative.”  “Historical figures need to be humanized,” he said.  He asked that there be “some consideration as to humanizing the man, and not mythologizing the man.”

This is an important perspective.  We tend to forget that historical figures were, in fact, just people.  They were flawed.  They made mistakes.  And they were products of their own time.

We need to address each of these points.  First, as much as many respect Martin Luther King and what he was able to accomplish – during his own time, he was extremely polarizing.  Not only did the white establishment despise him, but he was considered a traitor, he was considered by some a communist, and he was the most reviled man in the country by many.

Even the black community was somewhat split – some considered him a hero, but others questioned his tactics and thought he was moving too slowly.

Moreover, he made mistakes.  The FBI was monitoring him and discovered that he had extra-marital affairs.

The point here is that MLK was a man, he made mistakes and he was a polarizing figure in his own time – even if he has become a near universal symbol for peace and racial and social justice today.

Secondly, we need to understand that historical figures lived in their own time.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.  The founding fathers wrote slavery into the Constitution.  Woodrow Wilson was a virulent racist.  Should we judge these figures based on modern day mores or should we judge them by the good deeds they performed in their times?

I think we make a mistake if we write off every historical figure based on today’s mores, and I think we make a mistake judging people by their human flaws rather than the merits of their overall accomplishments.

On Tuesday, we heard from people that Gandhi was a bigot, a sexual predator, and an enforcer of the discriminatory caste system.  There are some justifications for some of those views, however, I was searching for some on the net and found a surprising little amount of mainstream sources on some of it.

At the same time, I think we need to understand that much of anger in the Sikh community is not about Gandhi at all, or at least Mahatma Gandhi.  Much of the anger goes back more than 30 years to 1984 where there were a series of anti-Sikh riots, massacres and attempted genocide against Sikhs in India.

These were directed by the government and the Congress Party in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi (no relation) by her Sikh bodyguards.  While the government claims there were about 2800 deaths across India, some sources put that number as far higher – perhaps 8000.

As we discovered with the Israeli-Palistinian debate from 2009, Davis is not going to be able to resolve longstanding problems that divide us – even within our community.  In this case, the statue of Gandhi in the park served as a much broader springboard for an issue that clearly has resonance –even if many of the people who came to speak were from the broader region, not Davis.

I am not sure that three hours of public comment were the way to go about this process – if anything, it seemed that it only made both sides dig in more.  I think I would have preferred allowing the HRC to take on this issue rather than using council time.

But there were clear differences, even on council itself – reflected in the 3-2 split.  From Robb Davis’ perspective, in order to create the urgency for conflict resolution, the conflict had to be real.  From the perspective of others on the council, notably Rochelle Swanson, this simply put Davis back into the “weird Davis” light (not her words), made the broader community question how serious Davis is, and created a real crisis with the Indian Government that had to be rectified.

The problem I have is that, after talking with both Rochelle Swanson and Robb Davis, they have very different views about the needs for this community – at least on this issue they seem to respect each other, but there is no clear way to bridge the gulf here.  I actually respect and agree with both them.  I can see and respect both sides here, but I have no answers.

At the end of the day, just as we have learned from the Israeli-Palestinian issue at City Hall, and the Vanguard has learned to focus more on local issues than national ones, I think the council needs to recognize more clearly its strengths, what it can do and what is simply too large a bite for it to take on.

Robb Davis saw this as an opportunity to see where conflict resolution can get us – others see this as a distraction from the pressing needs of this community.

—David M Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Nancy Price

    I suggest that nothing should be in Central Park. It is a fine and much needed open “commons,” quiet on many days,  with a great fountain, benches, picnic tables, flowers and more.  We. or maybe I,  don’t think we need any permanent “decor” ….politcal/social statements in the way of statues, signs, etc.  Leave it alone.


    1. quielo

      Good comment. If we do want a statue in the park let’s decide who instead of being driven by outside interests. Frankly while I admire Gandhi his connection to Davis is non-existent.

  2. Robb Davis

    Please allow me to clarify a few points about this action.

    First, I never said nor do I agree with this statement:

    From Robb Davis’ perspective, in order to create the urgency for conflict resolution, the conflict had to be real. 

    There are two issues here, one related to the procedure of City Council actions and one having to do with the process for conflict transformation.  In this case the City Council had previously approved an action that would place a statue of Gandhi in the Central Park with an unveiling date of October 2nd.  After becoming aware of strong disagreement with this action I immediately asked proponents and opponents if they might be willing to meet together to hear one another’s perspectives on the matter–NOT so that they might come to an agreement–but merely so they might engage in respectful listening to one another on a very contentious and long-standing historical trauma.

    Both sides gave tentative signs that they would be open to that.  However, the process for bringing two groups with differences like this together can take time.  It is not just a matter of saying “let’s meet next Tuesday.”  Rather significant preparation or “pre-cacausing” is typically necessary to help people move beyond stated positions and interests (concepts I explained last Tuesday night), to the needs underlying these.  It is important to note that this process is being used in our community right now to deal with several conflicts and forms the basis for much restorative justice practice (which his done for different reasons, however).  

    For THAT reason–the need for more time–I asked for a reconsideration of the timing of installation of the statue.  As Mayor in a weak mayor system I had no authority to tell staff to slow down the project.  The only way to do that would be via a public action–a reconsideration of a prior action.  That is what we did on Tuesday.

    Ironically, and I knew this going in, by holding a public discussion on this we opened the door to public comment that was largely limited to a restatement of positions and interests–but not needs.  This happened because we are required by Robert’s Rules and the Brown Act to use the procedure used on Tuesday.  

    I did not propose the public meeting to create a “real conflict” but rather to respect our procedures.  The goal was to provide more time so we could use the tools of conflict resolution.

    In the event emotions were high–exactly what you would expect given the subject.  Hearing each side was difficult but no voice was suppressed and the hearing was largely very respectful and thorough. I believe, though no pause was granted, that some form of dialogue may still be possible.  But I remain convinced that the best way forward would have been to pause. 

    As to whether we should take up issues like this… the answer to me is that there is no one policy that can guide the Council on these matters.  By approving a statue in a location visited by people from across the City and the entire region, we should be open to understanding its impacts on them.  In this case certain negative impacts are clearly borne out of long-standing historical grievances.

    Our goal should not and cannot be to try to solve these–in this case our goal cannot be to try to create some official history of recent Indian history.  Rather, our goal, to paraphrase Gandhi himself, should be to leave the non-violent conflict resolution process having humanized the opponent by hearing their narratives and giving them the respect of our time and compassion.

    I am not always sure what people want to “do” with conflict.  Mostly, they seem to just want it to go away.  But it cannot be made to “go away.”  It can only be dealt with by moving beyond positions to needs and trying our best to figure out, within the means available to us, how to address those needs.  Typically, the disputants themselves come to the best solutions, if they are given the time and a safe space to do so.

      1. Robb Davis

        I guess you missed my SWOT analysis published in this space and the Enterprise last Sunday.  I laid out the fiscal and other challenges facing the City in that piece and have spent FAR more time raising the issues related to the fiscal challenges in public spaces than I have talking about conflict resolution.

      1. Robb Davis

        “Strong disagreement:” If someone articulates that an action I have approved will be harmful or hurtful to them as a group, I believe I should hear that and figure out a way to permit people to discuss their needs together.

        Internal/external… (I assume you are talking about inside the City versus outside).  I will point out that I met a group of opponents in Davis at the home of a Davisite.  However, because we market the Farmers’ Market and Central Park as a regional destination, I think that hearing from voices outside of Davis makes sense.  Many people from across the region use and enjoy this space.  People from all over the world visit it regularly.

        I will reiterate a point that, perhaps, I have not made clearly enough: Gandhi, who is an inspiration to me personally, did not promulgate a “theory” of peace.  He did not promote the “idea” of peace.  He practiced peace-keeping and chose the practice of non-violence even in the push to overcome a colonial power.  I believe what I am calling for is in keeping with his practice of peace-keeping.  I am not particularly interested in the idea of peace.  I am interested in practicing peace-keeping.

        I am open to suggestions on how to best deal with conflict in our community (but my bias is to oppose, a priori, avoidance of conflict).  In the absence of that I will move forward to try to create dialogue concerning this issue in a way that is working to deal with other conflicts here.

  3. Delia .

    As a minimalist I see Nancy’s point. As a middle income person I beg to differ.

    Davis is propelling itself towards a village of haves and have nots.

    Where are the homes for middle income folks to purchase, not simply rent?

    We need Ghandi’s messages now more than ever.

    Tourists will visit that statue, in quiet reflection or boisterous celebration, and smile.

    1. Barack Palin

      Where are the homes for middle income folks to purchase, not simply rent?

      I seriously doubt that Gandhi’s message was about concern over middle income home ownage.


  4. Tia Will

    Robb Davis saw this as an opportunity to see where conflict resolution can get us – others see this as a distraction from the pressing needs of this community.”

    And I see it in yet another way. I do not believe that Mayor Davis in any way believed that public comment at the council meeting would serve as an act of conflict resolution, and said as much in his comments. Unfortunately the council was bound by the rules surrounding a reconsideration of a completed act by the council and a period of public comment was required to allow this to occur.

    I believe that this placing of a statue would have been a very good opportunity for conflict resolution and that the underlying problem was not the Mayor’s action for reconsideration, but that this was advanced as a consent item in the first place. Obviously the degree of controversy and opposition from the community was unanticipated. For me, this speaks to the core of why I do not agree that this is a “distraction from the pressing needs of the community”.

    To me, the rights of a minority to be able to express themselves fully on issues of importance to them, and to share with us their narrative rather than simply having to accept the predominant narrative is a pressing need of the community”. As the Mayor noted, City Council meetings are not the appropriate venue for this type of expression and I think that allowing time for such expression in a more appropriate setting such as before the Human Relations Commission or in a forum of some type would have been a completely appropriate action for the council to take.

    Some of our current council members have chosen to delay other important issues stating that there had not been enough time for community discussion. To me, the placing of this statue would have been an appropriate moment for a brief pause to allow time for community discussion. It may be that the action would have been the same in the end, but I believe that community conflict reduction should be seen as a major priority for our city, not just a “nice to have”.

  5. Biddlin

    “but I believe that community conflict reduction should be seen as a major priority for our city, not just a “nice to have”.”

    Sometimes I believe a cadre of psychoanalysts should be seen as a major priority for your city, in light of its apparent epidemic of conversion disorder.

  6. Delia .

    Perhaps if the statue is not erected, folks could pick a spot to stand in quiet reflection. I bet the drama dept at DaVinci, Davis High, UCD, etc.would enjoy that. The art world, too.

    Even a better message to tourists. “We eschew Ghandi,  so plz come stand in the spot where our statue cannot be placed. Plz.”

    1. hpierce

      Or, we could have that statue melted down, recast in smaller versions, and they could be placed in folk’s yards (assuming their CC&R’s permit).

      The major “symptom” I see that something is amiss, is when a relatively small group of people want the “City”, as in all of us, to feel the same way they do, and publically express that… I like the National anthem (except its un-sing-ability), yet David and others says it’s archaic, and no one should be compelled to stand for and/or sing it… fine… I’m good with that… but to,out of the other side of the mouth say we need, as a community, erect and honor a statue to Ghandi in one of our public places?  Where we are compelled to honor someone?

      Should those who feel Ghandi is less than a venerable person, attend the dedication of the statue, then protest by turning their backs to the ceremony?  Seems about the same…  mirror check time for a number of folk…

      Having a disconnect on folk’s logic…

  7. Tia Will

    Should those who feel Ghandi is less than a venerable person, attend the dedication of the statue, then protest by turning their backs to the ceremony?”

    They most certainly have the right to do so. Do you feel that anyone has said otherwise ?

    1. Matt Williams

      Tia, if those same people were to picket the statue day in, day out, carrying signs that illuminate Ghandi’s faults, would you support their right to do so?

    2. Alan Miller

      They most certainly have the right to do so. Do you feel that anyone has said otherwise ?

      One guy as much as gave a veiled threat that, if erected, the statue would be vandalized.

  8. shergill

    Before commenting on the underlying issue, I must state how much respect I have for Mayor Davis in seeking a path that might offer something other than additional acrimony and bitterness.  The City of Davis is fortunate to have him leading the way.

    For those that are as shocked as I once was about the distasteful, but unfortunately true, nature of Gandhi, the following links are a good place to start your research.  The first is from a South African professor regarding the unambiguous bigotry and racism displayed by Gandhi during his time opposing equality for Africans.  The second is a heralded South Asian writer revealing Gandhi as a sexual predator.  The third is from a leading South Asian intellectual and author investigating Gandhi’s lifelong commitment to the caste practices which deny equality to the majority of men and women.

    A Gandhi statue is distasteful simply because of his repugnant behavior that contradicts the core of his legacy.  However, it is especially unworthy of the City of Davis because the statue is part of a campaign by fundamentalists to promote a sanitized image abroad while they participate in the ongoing murder, rape and brutalization of minorities across India.  The latter is described by the US Commission on Human Rights at the following link:

    The question to the residents of Davis is not only whether you would like to have a statue of a bigot and pedophile that also made meaningful positive contributions to society; the question is also whether you would like to join in the international public relations campaign of modern-day bigots, murderers and rapists.

    You have until October 1 to let your local leaders know where you stand.  It is my expectation that beginning October 2, all of those that stand with the persecuted minorities of India will see Davis as an unfriendly city deserving of condemnation.

    1. hpierce

      Well, there is a town in New York who got it right… Benedict Arnold was key in “winning the day” at Saratoga… a victory that helped convince the French to help the colonists… yet, he is most noted for his “other” behavior…  see,…

      Ghandi is not to be venerated… he definitely had ‘feet of clay’… but, he did good, in many ways… not so much in others… like pretty much anyone else we honor with school names (Holmes killed americans in the Civil War), Chavez (not much “proved”, but allegations are rampant)… elsewhere, Kennedy, FDR, Jefferson, etc.

      Yet, we have no statues to any real, historical folk that I am aware of on City of Davis property (joggers statue is “art”… no real people were cast in bronze)… I feel no reason to support a change, nor reject a change… but, if the statue is indeed placed, with ‘pomp and circumstance’, who else should we “honor”?

      Doors are now wide open!


  9. Justice4All

    People often forget that MLK was despised in his time by many. That is unquestionably true. What is also true  is that Americans have largely collectively white washed his legacy. People think he was JUST about racial justice. When in reality, he was all about racial justice, economic justice and anti imperialism and war. Too often he is portrayed as merely the civil rights leader, and not the person he was. To paint him in one light is to diminish the fullness of his being. As if looking at a painting in a room that is dimly lit. I am sure that when MLK Day comes around again, I will be writing about this in more detail, but the point should not be missed. Put the historical Gandhi in the full light of day, all of his accomplishments, all of his faults, and you will have a great human story, not a polemic tale. The best stories are those about people, not myths.

    1. Alan Miller


      The people there weren’t there to tell his full story as a human being, they were there to condemn him as a pedophile, a friend of hitler, a bigot, etc.

      Maybe they are right, I dunno . . . but for sure they weren’t there to present a “balance” so we could know the man as a fallible human being.

      So much of the narrative in the comments has been how our heroes are flawed human beings.  Y’all are completely blind to what was going on Tuesday night.

      1. Justice4All

        Did you read what I had to say about it Alan? I wrote a whole article about it last week, along with the public comment I left. I think most people missed the broader point. One side went back to their side saying Gandhi was super awesome and never did anything wrong, and the other said he was a huge butthole. People are fallible, and even people who accomplish great things screw things up, and to not mention their moral failings is to pretend they didnt happen

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