At the 1992 "Truce Picnic" in California, the great rap artist Tupac Shakur was instrumental in getting rival "original gangster" members of the Crips and Bloods to sign the Code Of Thug Life, a 26-item manifesto that codified the do’s and don’ts for being a righteous thug. Selling dope to children was a no-no, harming children was unforgivable, and "civilians" were never to be a target and should always be spared.
For those of us who worked in the area of street gangs in the early 1990s, we know that while most gangsters never officially signed off on the Code of Thug Life, its primary tenets were more or less respected. If you had beef with one another, you settled it with your fists, maybe a pipe or a knife, but almost always within the confines of the business of the "game," the gang. You avoided spillover to civilians who had nothing to do with your dispute or your illicit affairs. Injury and shame to your rival was the likely outcome, outright murder not.
Fast forward to today. The targeted shooting at Toronto’s Eaton Centre this weekend, which left one dead and seven injured, suggests the Code of Thug Life is dead. In its place, we now appear to have a lawless, Wild West ethos where there no longer exists a violence escalation path. You wrong me, disrespect me, snitch on me, sell dope to my "custy" or dishonour a member of my crew, I will shoot you in the face. Gun violence is normalized, because guns are ridiculously accessible, inexpensive and are an essential part of the urban-gangster branding package.
Socialized as early as seven or eight years old in this culture of normalized and prescient violence in Toronto’s mean streets, young people who feel and are told they are living in a war zone begin to act like soldiers. If youth "strap" (carry guns) to school to protect themselves in a Cold War-like inspired form of mutual deterrence, why do we expect them not to do the same in a public mall, where rivals may lurk, equally equipped with guns and accompanied by other young people who are prepared to ride or die for their crew?
This kind of violence, while intermittent, should no longer come as a surprise in Toronto’s dog-eat-dog, highly territorial gang world. If you are wronged, you have to settle the score and maintain standing in your crew. Trespassing into a rival’s gang territory invites considerable risk, so it makes sense to follow or stalk your prey in preferred public places, where some measure of anonymity and cover is afforded. To the young, intent-on-revenge or opportunistic shooter, it matters not if there abounds school children, pregnant women or the elderly close to your target. Driven by revenge, a false sense of duty or the need to establish your "bona fides" in the minds of your crew (or your future prison inmates), you see the shot, you take the shot, and let the chips fall where they may.
The Toronto Police have done an admirable job in suppressing gang violence in the past half-decade and will most assuredly "get their man" in this case with its gang connections, but they can’t be everywhere, all the time. Short of turning the entrances of malls everywhere into airport-style security gates, there is little we can do to prevent a revenge-inspired person from committing the kind of egregious crime we witnessed this weekend. To be sure, however, Toronto is still a safe, big city, so we need to keep our fears in check and recognize that our chance of random victimization as a result of gang violence remains remote. What happened this weekend appears not to be a failure of the system, but merely a reflection of the absence of morality, a code of conduct, in the business of gangs.
Michael C. Chettleburgh is the author of Young Thugs: Inside the Dangerous World of Canadian Street Gangs.