Walking Toward Conflict
At the top of one of Rio de Janeiro’s favela shantytowns—one of several recently occupied by heavily armed military police units—an uneasy gathering begins. Where moments before children chased a ball, now local leaders on several sides of Rio’s long and complex social divide assemble to hesitantly, courageously look at each other and at what they have in common. The gathering includes members of resident associations, local shopkeepers, elders, youth leaders, police, and members of the drug gangs that, until recently, controlled the running of community life.
A few short weeks before, these same actors had met in the same place but in a completely different way: enmity across class and social divides had exploded into petrol bombs, rubber bullets, and serious injury. Strategies of repression and revolt came to blows; outrage, pain, and fear followed. As the Brazilian saying goes, “we’ve seen this film before.”
Now those present at the gathering form a circle. This simplest, most ancient of social patterns describes an intention—to recognize the other, to share meaning, to invite truth-telling. Guided by precise questions drawn on the wall for all to see, the participants edge forward in that most counter-intuitive of social discourses: dialogue. An occasional hand is raised in emphasis, while the other remains firmly on a military-grade weapon. This is not a truce. It is a new way to engage, a rediscovered force with the potential to transform social reality. As one participant describes in a break, “It’s hard. I still remember when he shot my brother. But this is different. When he tries to understand me, we are less enemies. I can see in his eyes it’s the same for him.”
In less time than it had taken for the previous month’s riot to make the evening news, a strategy is agreed upon: a set of voluntary agreements that respond to the key concerns of those present. The parties also agree on a time frame for the implementation and evaluation of the agreements.
The structure and process that guided the meeting that evening began to emerge almost two decades earlier, at the height of police and gang conflict in the mid-1990s. In the years that followed, I worked with others in Brazil to develop an integrated, systemic response to painful conflict, crime, and disagreement. This response encompasses both a unique restorative practice and a specific approach to creating the systemic conditions within which such a restorative practice, and its results, can emerge. As a coordinated whole, this specific response—known as Restorative Circles—represents less a defined procedure and more a dynamically shifting investigation into the power of community self-responsibility and personal responsiveness to the interdependent web of our lives.
Restorative Circles have been extensively used in schools, court systems, prisons, families, and organizations—and more recently in faith communities, hospitals, universities, and development work. In each of these varied settings, as in each unique subculture in which restorative practices develop, the forms necessarily shift. Nevertheless, the defining characteristics of Restorative Circles remain rooted in this practice’s community origins in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
One defining characteristic relates to how, and whom, we see as being in conflict. From history book writers to modern mediation many tend to see conflict as occurring between two opposing parties, whether individuals or groups. When seen through the perspective of attributing blame, either one party is seen as having committed an offense of which the other is a victim, or both are seen as culpable of mutual aggression. Our formal and informal justice systems seek to define who has done wrong, or who has done the most wrong. However, from the very first experiments involving Restorative Circles with favela youth, it was clear that there were three—not two—parties playing key roles in both the development and the attempted suppression of conflict. This third group—the “conflict community”—is much more than a group of family members, neighbors, colleagues, or witnesses. Indirectly affected by the harm that has been done, community members also contribute to the conditions within which the conflict has occurred. Moreover, they are invested in sustainable transformation, as they recognize the cost to themselves of continued disconnection between people with whom they share community. These three perspectives and their creative solutions are essential voices in a comprehensive response to conflict.
A restorative perspective also recognizes the multiplicity of experience that often accompanies painful conflict, in which many—if not all—parties see themselves as having been wronged, and may simultaneously see others as having offended them. As an imprisoned youth told me, “The only difference between me and the other guy is the time the cops showed up. If they’d have arrived ten minutes earlier, he’d be locked up, and I’d be outside.” At the same time, Restorative Circles identify clear distinctions between those who committed the acts in question, and those who bore their brunt. New terminology is required to reflect this new way of seeing. In conversation with residents I coined “author” and “receiver,” not as synonyms for offender and victim, but in recognition of who did what and of the possible plurality of victimhood among those involved.
Another distinctive feature of Restorative Circles—developed from necessity—is their focus on recovering the ability of participants to effectively communicate while meeting in the Circle. The pain of misunderstanding and fear can significantly impair the ability of people to accurately hear what others are saying, or even to hear themselves with clarity. Thoughts that diminish the humanity of opponents further complicate matters. While restorative justice is justly valued for giving all parties—and crucially those who seem to have suffered most—a voice, our early gatherings around conflict revealed the limitations of presuming that truths expressed were heard as the speaker intended. In fact, I soon noticed that a facilitated process of mutual comprehension creates the basis for looking at what was done, and learning from it, without further antagonizing those recalling the acts committed.
The recognition of our process as a restorative practice did not come until much later. Without knowledge of sister practices already in use around the world, Restorative Circles had developed to share many of the same basic characteristics. Like other restorative practices, it had roots in the most marginalized communities in society. And like these other practices, it sought to bring together those who had rediscovered, often tragically, that their actions had made a difference in the lives of others, and could therefore do so again, this time for mutual benefit and greater community safety. Like them, it had also reaffirmed the logic of the circle as a space that welcomes truth-telling.
Thus, referring to such restorative encounters as circles is less a description of the form in which participants gather than a description of the intention to share power. For when the social roles that distinguish and separate us become less important than our shared humanity, the implicit threat of punishment for speaking moral truths diminishes. In a courtroom Restorative Circle, a community member objected to her son’s explanation of his motives for assaulting a couple in the street. The adolescent replied to her, “You can believe me, Mom, because I’m not scared. I lied to the judge because it was dangerous not to. It’s not dangerous to be truthful here.”
A key to the growing understanding of how to design such safe spaces—ones where necessary, and at times uncomfortable, truths can be spoken, heard, and integrated—is a recognition of how, when coordinated with others in a community, home, or work setting, new habits of behavior can create environments supportive of just processes and restorative outcomes. Restorative practices are strengthened to the extent that the systemic contexts in which they function serve the same goals. When communities experience direct access to justice systems, and such systems are dynamically responsive to their needs, our ways of approaching conflict begin to edge beyond seeking individual reparation and resolution, and toward questioning how social conditions can be co-created to serve community life, meet our sense of justice, and actively support the well-being of ourselves and others.
This brings us back to the immediate question of our life with others. It invites us to do that most unexpected thing—to walk toward, and not away from, conflict. Because doing so takes us toward, rather than away from, each other, it becomes a seed of new or renovated community. This is what occurred on that Rio hilltop. This is what I had heard months beforehand in the tired, pained, and ultimately transformative words of a man who responded to my question of why he agreed to participate in the Circle: “I cannot say I want to go. I do not want to look at the face of the mother who lost her child because of what my child did. I would rather try and forget. But I will be at the Circle because my God wants me to go.”
(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.) Also, don’t miss the seven freely accessible online exclusives associated with this special issue on restorative justice — to read them, click here.
Barter, Dominic. 2012. Walking Toward Conflict. Tikkun 27(1): 21.