Whenever gang-related violence spikes in Toronto, or spills over into public areas and kills innocent bystanders, the public takes notice and politicians feel obliged to respond forcefully.
Officials promise to “stamp out” the violence and deploy more police officers, as Toronto Mayor John Tory did this week. They vow, also like Mr. Tory, “to send a message that we will not tolerate this reckless disregard for life in our city.”
And then the shootings abate and the moment passes. The public stops focusing on the issue, and so do the politicians.
It’s a cycle that has repeated itself for more than a decade. From the Summer of the Gun in 2005, to the shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners inside his school in 2007, to the Eaton Centre and Danzig Street shootings of 2012, and on to this summer’s surge, most Torontonians alternate between brief bouts of fear and long periods of feeling comfortable in what is, after all, one of the safest big cities in the world.
What that ignores, though, is that there is a segment of Toronto’s population for whom the fear never goes away; who live with it 365 days a year. They are people who worry about being caught in crossfires that don’t reverberate in the downtown core and wealthier neighbourhoods of the city. They agonize about their children being recruited by gangs. Their children live in fear of being threatened, bullied or beaten by gang members.
Perhaps worse still, because they live in neighbourhoods that have been identified as being at high risk of gang activity, they must co-exist with a heightened police presence. They were, until recent legislation curbed the practice, subject to repeated cardings by officers. They feel simultaneously stigmatized and abandoned; they only hear the rest of the city talk about their reality when it becomes extreme or spreads outside their communities.
This alternate Toronto reality has been described in studies that have examined the root causes of gang-related violence in Ontario and Toronto. Perhaps the most exhaustive was released in 2008 and co-chaired by a former judge, Roy McMurtry, and a Jamaican-born MPP, Alvin Curling.
The two reported that they “were taken aback by the extent to which racism is alive and well and wreaking its deeply harmful effects on Ontarians.”
They said “the education system can be a root of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.”
They found that “overly aggressive police practices nurture the roots of the immediate risk factors [and can] undercut major investments in other areas that may well have kept a youth on the path to a productive future.”
They saw how a lack of affordable and decent housing has forced the poor “to live in functionally segregated parts of our cities,” with poor transit and a lack of basic conveniences.
Above all, they saw that “when poverty is racialized and then ghettoized and associated with violence, the potential for the stigmatization of a specific group is high.” That leads to the belief that the violence is “over there,” the report said, which in turn leads to the view that “resources should be spent to the extent necessary to contain and suppress it, rather than to the extent necessary to address the conditions that are giving rise to it.”
Which is the greater tragedy: sporadic outbreaks of headline-grabbing gun violence every few summers? Or the fact that tens of thousands of Torontonians live in ghettoized communities with poor housing, inadequate schools, lousy services and a heavy police presence, factors that combine to incubate gang violence in those communities and deprive residents of “any sense of belonging to the broader society”?
In our opinion, it is the latter. Forget the summer of the gun: We live in an epoch of misguided and failed responses to a serious social issue.
Toronto has any number of laudable programs aimed at keeping young men out of gangs. It also has response teams to send into communities affected by violence.
But until politicians at all levels address the deeper issues, little will change. People need safe, affordable housing. They need police officers to be allies in their struggles. They need better community services, and schools where their kids feel safe. They need decent transit options. They deserve, above all, the same healthy communities everyone else enjoys.
To end gang violence, we must see it less as a police problem and more as a public-health issue. Only then will the solutions last longer than a Toronto summer.