Gleaner Editors' Forum | Talking peace - Corner meetings built bridges between factions in August Town
The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) has listed dialogue between rival gang members, community leaders, the police, and representatives of social agencies as a major springboard for peace in the historic community of August Town, St Andrew.
Laura Koch, lead researcher for CAPRI, said a case study of the area which delved into reasons for a murder-free 2016 showed that residents of the different communities, which are part of the wider August Town area, identified efforts by the different social agencies to engage them in conversation as a big contributor to the peace.
"We observed that improved communication in the community was key. Communication in the form of meetings, especially corner meetings, is a tool where all programmes and all actors came back at you," Koch told a Gleaner Editors' Forum last Thursday.
"Groups and community-based organisations like the August Town Peace Builders, the University of the West Indies Township Programme, they came up with those corner meetings, but it also involved the police, through community policing," added Koch.
She said scheduled and impromptu meetings for residents of the area, including those held by the August Town police, were widely seen as building bridges to peace.
According to Koch, current member of parliament for the area, Fayval Williams, and the People's National Party's caretaker Venesha Phillips are regarded as persons of integrity in the community and form part of the latest corner engagements.
Dr Diana Thorburn, CAPRI's director of research, underscored the work of the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) in August Town and the different programmes implemented, including farming and block making and fish farming. But Thorburn lamented that these efforts were not sustained.
"A lot of times they were not sustainable, because they require constant inflow of resources from outside and they were not yielding the expected results. But they did have successes because ... built into those programmes were structured mediation, structured communication (and) building skills workshops," Thorburn told the forum.
She noted that the approaches to the corner discussions were not haphazard.
"So they were definite approaches. It wasn't just, 'oh let's talk.' It was, 'we are gonna learn how to talk to each other respectfully, we are gonna practise it, and we want to see you take that forward'.
"That was core to a lot of the work of the Peace Management Initiative and part of a lot of the other projects. And that is what we have found to be the most important thing in bringing peace about. And one of the reasons we know this is because when those efforts were stalled, or the funding ended, we started to see the violence rising again," added Thorbourn.
August Town resident and long-time advocate for peace in the community, Kenneth Wilson, noted that initial attempts to get the meetings going were not as successful as the main persons they were aimed at would not attend the formal, structured gatherings.
"So we had to take the meetings to them. The first project we worked on was a human-rights project with Jamaicans for Justice, where we sensitised persons to their rights, because many persons at the time were very angry with how the police treated them," Wilson told Gleaner editors and reporters.
"What emerged from that was a culture of dialogue between the parties, internal and external organisations, and the political representatives. The corner meetings became very successful because everybody used them," said Wilson.
Inspector Keith Steele, head of the August Town Police Station, agreed that the corner meetings were successful.
"I will agree that the corner meetings brought people together. And I made sure that these meetings would have continued during my tenure before coming back to the community in April this year," Steele told the forum.
He said the police were mandated to have at least four meetings per month in the community, but did many more.
According to Steele, this was part of an effort to be proactive, to defuse any acts that could lead to violence in the volatile community.