Restorative Justice and social conflict

By Mario Ragazzi

Despite the general drop in temperatures, the political climate of this Autumn season in Belgium is extremely hot. On Thursday 6th November more than hundred thousand workers, union members and political activists marched in Brussels to protest against the austerity policies proposed by the new federal government led by an alliance of fiscally conservative liberals and Flemish nationalists. Towards the end of the afternoon the police charged a group of demonstrators near the Midi station and the ensuing street fighting caused damage to private properties and several wounded. While the media generally focussed on these episodes of violence, the sheer size and scope of the mobilisation cannot be wished away as the actions of a few casseurs. The workers’s union and the leftist opposition to the government have pleaded to be open to dialogue but at the same time are preparing new mobilisations.

What happened in Brussels a few days ago looks less shocking or surprising in the European perspective. Deflation and sluggish economic growth in the Euro area are hitting particularly hard a highly indebted country like Belgium. Together with the same austerity policies that during the last five years have been applied to the countries of the southern periphery, social conflict has now reached the heart of Europe.

How does this conflict look like as seen through the Restorative Justice lenses? The references to the notion of ‘conflict’ with reference to RJ has been highly contested, especially as a substitute for ‘crime’ because it would underplay the notion of wrongdoing implied in the latter. In a social conflict of the magnitude and complexity such as manifested itself in Brussels a few days ago it is also not easy to single out clearly ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’. True, zooming in to the micro level of the events, the owner of one of the cars smashed at the fringes of the demonstration may arguably claim to have suffered a direct harm could potentially enter into a mediation process with the person who caused the damage. But I suspect there is more to it than a case of vandalism against private property.

At the other end of the spectrum, at the macro level, RJ’s dialogical and communicative approach is more or less already practiced and institutionalises in the workings of a mature democracy like Belgium. It goes without saying that these extreme examples do not exhaust the range of possibilities for a distinctive RJ approach to this kind of conflicts. For the time being it will be sufficient if as RJ researchers and practitioners we will let the conflictual social and political reality to continue questioning us.

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