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.
Barter, Dominic. 2012. Walking Toward Conflict. Tikkun 27(1): 21.