“We’re not trying to get kids out of gangs,” Chris Harris tells me. “The gangs are here to stay.”
Not an idea likely to comfort police or politicians,? but he isn’t just being provocative.
Harris, aka rap MC Wasun, lives in northwest Toronto, “in a Blood neighbourhood.” When not pursuing a PhD at OISE, he works with the Hood To Hood project, which seeks to end inter-?neighbourhood violence.
He says gangs are best understood not as a criminal force but an economic reality. And he feels they could in fact become the cure for, and not the cause of, the problem of street violence in Toronto.
“The majority of youth in gangs we know are in a precarious employment situation,” says Harris. “That’s not paying them enough to survive, so the gang is an economic opportunity for them. They’re workers, not bikers. These are youth who were shitted on in the Harris era, now grown up, and there are no jobs, no community centres and they have no resources to do activities, so they pick up a red flag or a blue flag.”
Harris sees the potential for gangs to reform themselves as bodies capable of pushing for economic opportunity in their neighbourhoods and political change in society.
“Our main objective is to end gangbanging, which is different from gangs,” he says. “These are my neighbours. We want to turn these gang members into community activists.”
He says this starts by educating youth about how ending the violence could actually be a way to fight back. “By gangbanging, they’re allowing the right wing to push the get-tough-on-crime agenda, which is criminalizing an entire generation,” he says, citing the $81 million the province has recently pledged toward a new youth super-jail in Brampton.
Harris’s approach is a far cry from the top-?down tack usually taken by the powers that be; but, then, so is the mayor’s handgun ban, which is primarily seeking to phase out sport shooting ranges through changes to zoning bylaws.
On the one hand, the idea of using zoning and bylaws to restrict the proliferation of materials of violence is intriguing. Canada is, after all, the world’s 14th-largest arms exporter.On the other hand, it’s akin to blaming video games for violence – which, aside from the unfortunate monkey uprising in the nation’s wineries following the release of Donkey Kong, has always just been (pardon the expression) political cannon fodder.
If you’re looking for knee-jerk reactions, the figures suggest the overwhelming majority of gun crime occurs among young men. Hence, outlaw being young.
But, then, depending on where you live, that proposal may not seem like a joke.
Michelle Cho, an organizer and researcher with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, laments the blurring of the line between education and law enforcement, saying school administrators are increasingly willing to give information on students to police.
“When I talk to racialized students,” she tells me, “they say, ‘I walk down the halls of my school and there are cops who say hi to me by name and I’ve never met them before.’”
From the vantage point of harried administrators dealing with violence, police surveillance of students may make sense. But it may alienate kids who already have negative associations with law enforcement and government from a school setting that could otherwise be a refuge from difficult circumstances.
Cooperation between schools and law enforcement can also outright exclude these students. In the 2000-?01 school year, there were 17,371 suspensions across the Toronto District School Board. In 2001-02, there were 24,238 –?40 per cent more. The difference? The provincial Safe Schools Act. It wasn’t long before some, including trustees, were outraged by the preponderance of racialized students in the suspension and expulsion lists.
And if you’re not expelled because of violence, you may be selected for training in it. Cho has qualms about the growth of co-?op placements with the Canadian Forces.
“The kids who are most targeted are the ones who would be seen as criminal –? racialized kids, kids with learning disabilities,” she says. “We don’t have a real youth employment strategy in this province, but we have a way for kids to make $77 a day shooting off a gun instead of working at McDonald’s.”
But what can the city do beyond zoning?
Getting rid of the Safe Schools Act would be a good starting point.