This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. It is cross-posted here with the permission of its author, Simon Black. You can find Simon on Twitter @_simonblack or at his website.
Last year in the city of Chicago, nearly 700 young people were hit by gunfire; 66 of them died. The vast majority of victims were African-American and Latino youth living in the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods. A recent analysis found that 8.5 per cent of Chicago (in terms of geography) contained almost all of the city’s shootings and homicides.
The mayor of Chicago insists that his city is safe. After all, around 90 per cent of neighbourhoods are not affected by youth gang and gun violence. This year, programs designed to reduce violence are being cut along with Chicago’s education budget.
While not as extreme in its geographic concentration, youth violence in Toronto is more likely to occur in our low-income postwar suburbs and pockets of racialized poverty in the downtown core than in white, middle-class neighbourhoods or shared spaces such as Yonge St.
As the 2008 report “The Roots of Youth Violence” found, while crime rates are stable “severe violence is apparently becoming more and more concentrated among socially disadvantaged minority youth.” The report concluded that the roots of youth violence are often found in poor, socially deprived neighbourhoods: the immediate risk factors of impulsivity, low self-esteem, alienation, hopelessness and lack of voice are compounded by longer-term issues of racism, poverty, community design, barriers to education and a lack of economic opportunity. The social exclusion of racialized youth and the alienation and denial of full citizenship they experience must be addressed.
When violence migrates from Toronto’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods into the spaces of commerce and tourism central to our city’s sense of collective safety, identity and international reputation, our public discourse shifts, government officials react and respond, and we reveal a hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that contravenes principles of equality.
On Dec. 26, 2005, 15-year-old Jane Creba was tragically killed while shopping on Yonge St. Between December 2005 and last Saturday’s Eaton Centre shooting, our city has lost 20-year-old Allen Benn, 24-year-old Amin Aafi, 19-year-old Yonathan Musse, 23-year-old Ricardo Francis, 25-year-old Michael George, 19-year-old Richard Gyamfi, 23-year-old David Latchana, 25-year-old Fitawrari Lunan, 21-year-old Kimel Foster, 19-year-old Kevon Hall, 18-year-old Keegan Allen, 19-year-old Ryan Hyde, 18-year-old Delane Daley, and 16-year-old Keyon Campbell.
This is a partial list of young people, racialized men in particular, lost to violence in only one of those intervening years, 2007.
These names, along with those such as Andrew Naidoo, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Lorenzo Martinez and Okene Thompson, are not as well-known as that of Jane Creba. Their deaths did not invoke statements from the mayor, they were not the topic of talk radio, and they did not occupy the front page of the newspapers.
When shots were fired in the Eaton Centre last Saturday, leaving 24-year old Ahmed Hassan dead and six people injured, it was not the names of these young men that tripped off the tongue of police officers, news broadcasters and elected officials.
Nor was it the name of Chantal Dunn, a 19-year-old black student at York University, who was murdered in 2006 in the Keele and Sheppard area, another victim of gun violence. Nor mother of three Rachel Alleyne, also a young black woman, shot to death in 2007 while socializing with friends in a backyard at Jane and Driftwood .
After the 2005 Boxing Day shooting, politicians of all stripes talked tough on crime, adopting a law-and-order rhetoric thought to match the mood of an outraged public. Premier Dalton McGuinty met with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and told him to come up with a strategy to deal with “gang and gun” violence. Talk to front-line agencies that work in the city’s “priority neighbourhoods” and they will tell you that in the wake of the Boxing Day shooting, funds became more readily available for “at-risk youth” intervention and crime reduction programs.
Following the Eaton Centre shooting a well-known Toronto journalist wrote: “Frankly, I don’t much care if hoods want to bump each other off … Saves the rest of us a lot of trouble … Hell, I’d even jail the targeted ‘victims’ of gang hits, should they survive the attempted rub-out. Usually, they asked for it.”
Racism can be understood in part as the collective denial of the humanity of “the other.” Unlike those deemed “innocent,” poor, racialized young men impacted by youth violence are our “urban other.” Victims and perpetrators alike are spoken of as “hoods,” “gang-affiliated” or “known to police,” never as “citizens,” full members of our community. They are criminalized in life and in death. This “othering” is a form of violence in and of itself.
In our city it is the trauma and victimhood of those seldom exposed to gun violence that is prioritized. In response to last Saturday’s events, a headline on a Toronto Star column said, “It could have been any of us; it wounds all of us.” Yet the reality remains that the primary victims of gun violence in our city are poor, racialized youth. And the primary sites of this violence are those neighbourhoods these youth call home.
All our young people’s lives are precious. We have at our disposal the resources and policy know-how to address youth violence. We have countless studies that show what works in reducing violence and victimization. We know how to build safer and healthier communities.
What we are missing is the political will. The main barrier to generating that will is the hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that governs our approach to youth violence. Only when poor, racialized youth are no longer seen as urban “others” will we realize our collective responsibility to address youth violence.
Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University.