When Andrew Bacchus was a player in the gang world of Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood in the 1990s, there was something of a code: Don’t involve women and children in your business. The rare time someone stepped out of line, they were lectured or beaten.
And if two men wanted to settle a dispute, they would often set their guns aside and fight it out with their fists.
“Because of the respect people had for the ‘Game,’ they just knew how to conduct themselves,” said Mr. Bacchus, who has been a youth worker for the 15 years since he went straight. “Nowadays, all that kind of stuff is out the window.”
As family and friends gather to mourn the innocent bystanders killed last week at a Scarborough block party and the city reels from three more shootings over the weekend, Torontonians are feeling the effects of a shift in gang culture towards more overt displays of violence.
Driving the problem has been the steady proliferation of guns, allowing unskilled shooters in low-level street crews to pack heat. Unlike the sophisticated syndicates of outlaw bikers or Cosa Nostra, these groups are loosely organized collections of friends with few rules. And to many of them, guns are as much a marker of status as a tool of the trade.
In the cases of Ephraim Brown and Jane Creba, two of the highest profile bystander deaths in recent years, there was evidence the shooters fired most of their rounds in the air or at the ground, less concerned with actually targeting their opponents than making a show of force, said Edward Sapiano, a criminal defence lawyer involved in both cases.
Jane Creba, 15, was fatally shot on Boxing Day 2005, caught in the crossfire of warring gang members. Eleven-year-old Ephraim Brown died after being shot during a gunfight at a birthday party in North York in 2007.
“In Creba, one of the suspects was overheard saying as he fled ‘I’m so glad I emptied my clip,’ and that, to me, was very telling,” said Mr. Sapiano. “He didn’t want any of his friends to say that he was too cowardly to fire the gun.”
Mr. Sapiano blames this change on pop culture’s glorification of crime, purveyed by Hollywood and mimicked on the street. On YouTube, scores of young men use amateur music videos to openly brag about breaking the law. Some of it is certainly hyperbole, but at least a few of these people have later been charged with murder or shot dead themselves.
For instance, Andrew Stewart, a 26-year-old gunned down near Jane and Finch in June, 2011, had previously uploaded a video in which he sings about selling crack cocaine and shooting people while cruising around the neighbourhood.
But Fred Mathews, former program director with Central Toronto Youth Services, says public violence is nothing new, pointing to youth gangs who hung out at the St. Clair and Kennedy subway stations in the 1980s.
“There might be groups from different neighbourhoods who were mobile, who use the TTC and might find themselves in another part of the city or down at the Eaton Centre. And there might be fights,” he said.
What’s different today is the use of guns. Dr. Matthews traces the start of the shift as far back as the emergence of crack cocaine in the late 1980s. As gangs got serious about staking a claim in the lucrative drug trade, they started acquiring firearms.
In response to the demand, manufacturers in the United States produced cheap pistols that found their way into the hands of criminals and eventually trickled across the Canadian border, said Christian Pearce, a lawyer who co-wrote a book about gun culture.
“We’ve had a very indifferent gun industry continuing to make and sell and push to retailers their product, knowing that those retailers are very unscrupulous with their business practices,” Mr. Pearce said. “There’s really no distinction between the legal and illegal market in guns. Every legal gun has the potential to end up in the wrong hands.”
And the demand for guns perpetuates itself: In communities where people don’t trust the police to keep the peace, some men believe they need to be armed to protect themselves, Mr. Pearce said. Brazen displays of violence, meanwhile, help build someone’s reputation and discourage others from tangling with them.
Mr. Bacchus had already started to notice a change in attitude by the late 1990s. People were becoming more territorial, hassling outsiders who strayed onto their blocks. The informal mentoring system in place when he was coming up also seems to have broken down. Back then, younger kids respected older ones, who taught them the code of the street. Over time, he said, this vanished.
And this mix – callow young men carrying guns with no code of ethics and a need to prove their toughness – means even the most trivial provocation can turn deadly.
“Whenever we hear of gun violence, we throw out the word ‘gangs’ because we automatically assume it’s some kind of turf-war rivalry. But a lot of this stuff happens just because people are trying to save face. Nobody wants to be the one who backs down,” Mr. Bacchus said. “Maybe somebody stepped on the other person’s shoes and if both of them have weapons, something bad’s going to happen.”