Düsseldorf, Germany, May 2020 – The BRIDGE project (“Building resilience to reduce polarisation and growing extremism”) organised a series of three online web conferences on 23 and 30 April and 7 May replacing the two-day meeting that was originally scheduled in Düsseldorf (DE) on 23 and 24 April and had to be cancelled because of the lockdown measures imposed throughout Europe in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
The effects of the sanitary crisis on social cohesion
All members of the BRIDGE consortium* are affected by the pandemic and the sanitary measures put in place in their countries and regions. Many are part of local emergency response or crisis management teams and have seen their work schedules taken over by the health crisis and its volatile developments. Others are working under lockdown without access to their clientele, teams and offices, adapting their workflow to exclusively online activities. All of them are dealing with the direct effects of the current crisis on social cohesion and coexistence and see new trends of polarisation emerge in their local and regional contexts. The meetings thus provided an opportunity to exchange on this and to reconnect with peers and partners across Europe.
Düsseldorf’s prevention approach and adapted work programme
While the consortium members were not able to travel to Düsseldorf, the city remained the host of the online meetings and notably played an important role in shaping the first session held on April 23. Tanja Schwarzer, head of Düsseldorf’s Crime Prevention Office and Director of the local Prevention Board, presented Düsseldorf’s approach to mitigating polarisation and preventing radicalisation and extremism as part of the municipality’s overall prevention strategy.
Exemplary of the German model of municipal crime prevention councils, Düsseldorf’s Prevention Board is attached to the Mayor’s office and overseen by the Deputy Mayor in charge of security and public order. The head office coordinates 10 permanent expert working groups on a wide range of topics such as domestic violence, prevention in school, urban development, victim support and violent extremism, as well as relations with different municipal departments, the regional government including law enforcement agencies and the justice system (which are organised at regional level in Germany), the education and health sectors and civil society.
A number of local programmes tackling extremism
Regarding extremism, the municipality of Düsseldorf and its partners run a number of programmes, among which a counselling and advice centre for family and friends of at-risk persons and alternative narrative campaigns designed with local youngsters. Even though Düsseldorf is not an extreme-right stronghold, the municipal authorities have noted that a new group called “Brotherhood Germany” has emerged, which is now being monitored. Moreover, there is certain polarisation around topics such as racial discrimination – which the municipality terms “everyday racism” – and LGBT-phobia, which is addressed by various preventive measures and projects.
Based on this presentation, the meeting attendees discussed local strategies to mitigate polarisation as well as new topics and challenges they see emerging in the context of Covid-19, such as rising inequality and the risk of polarisation between different age groups due to their level of exposure or vulnerability to the novel coronavirus and the measures taken to protect the public.
Mitigating polarisation – lessons from the restorative justice approach
The second session, on April 30, was a public webinar titled “Mitigating polarisation – lessons from the restorative justice approach”, which was attended by approximately 45 participants. The keynote speaker was Tim Chapman, member of the BRIDGE expert panel. A visiting lecturer at the University of Ulster/Masters programme in Restorative Practices, he has contributed to the development of restorative justice practice in both the community and statutory sectors in Northern Ireland. Moreover, he is Chair of the Board of the European Forum for Restorative Justice.
Tim Chapman highlighted the benefits of the restorative justice approach in tackling polarisation. He said that connecting people and building and maintaining just relations between them is key to repairing injustices and locally putting in practice key aspects of social cohesion, such as respect, truth, solidarity and justice. He introduced the concept of the “restorative city” as a model of how cities can capitalise on restorative justice practices to locally foster dialogue.
Following Tim Chapman’s presentation, the participants discussed how insights from restorative justice programmes can be used to improve local measures to prevent polarisation. The discussion focused primarily on ethical questions, such as safety and the wellbeing of participants in such programmes, but also on aspects of sustainability, participation and feasibility in light of limited resources. Importantly, the discussion helped the group understand polarisation not only as a threat to social cohesion, but also as a potential resource, a shared experience of different community groups which can be a starting point for dialogue, awareness raising and transformative social processes.
Local pilot projects in the context of the pandemic
The third session on May 7 was dedicated to the partners’ presentation of their pilot actions: their objectives, phases, challenges, local partnerships and support networks and draft budget. Members of the BRIDGE expert panel, who accompany and support the project partners in designing and implementing their local actions, complemented the presentations with practical comments and advice.
A range of pilot projects addressing different aspects of polarisation
The planned pilot projects will cover a broad range of topics and dynamics fuelling polarisation in the different localities as well as a variety of methodologies to address them. Among the planned projects are, for example: training programmes for local front line staff on polarisation, its links to extremism, and intervention methods; the development of a diagnosis tool to assess polarisation in the municipality and inform targeted mitigation strategies; the creation of a training programme for groups of volunteer mediators and resource persons, and an awareness campaign on the risk of polarisation related to Covid-19 and lockdown measures.
Adapting the project’s working method to the physical-distancing context
All the partners highlighted that the current context hampers the planning and implementation of their local actions because these require face-to-face contact. In order to adapt their work programme, many are contemplating holding online events such as trainings and focus groups and rescheduling or scaling down their activities. Nevertheless, they are all planning to go ahead and keep developing their local projects in the coming weeks while constantly adapting to the volatile situation.
* Brussels (BE), Departmental council of Val d’Oise (FR), Düsseldorf (DE), Government of Catalonia (ES), Genk (BE), Igoumenitsa (GR), Leuven (BE), Reggio Emilia (IT), Region of Umbria (IT), Rotterdam (NL), Terrassa (ES), Stuttgart (DE), Vaulx-en-Velin (FR), Ufuq (DE), Real Instituto Elcano (ES)