Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer of the gun: Part II

To many peace-loving residents of Toronto, the latest mass shooting (July 16) on Danzig St. in Scarborough raises yet the spectre of another “summer of the gun” that shook the city in 2005. That summer seven years ago, 24 people were shot dead in Toronto from June 12 to September 16, and by year’s end, a total of 52 people were killed, all by guns.
A passerby stops to look at a memorial for Joshua Yasay, 23 and Shyanne Charles,
14, both of  whom died in the Danzig Street shooting on July 16, 2012. Photo by
Peter  Power/The Globe and Mail.  Click link to view "Looking at the Victims of
the Danzig Street Shooting,"
This summer, there have been just six murders in Toronto, but all the victims have been shot. Of the 28 murders so far in 2012, 19 were by guns. There have been 140 shootings so far, up by 30 per cent from the 106 in 2011.

The statistics are not that grim to indicate another turbulent summer, but the level of violence is already driving Torontonians to push the panic button. After last Friday midnight’s (July 20) shooting rampage in a theatre complex in Aurora, Colorado, that killed 12 and wounded more than 50 people, fresh calls for tighter gun controls are being heard again in the U.S., and these have reverberated very loudly in Toronto.

But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has a different idea – he stressed that the best remedy for shootings is jobs. Shallow as Ford has always been when it comes to effective public policy, according to him, “the best social program around, is a job.” He’s behaving like Marie Antoinette, whom, according to the myth, upon hearing that the French peasants were starving and had no bread, ordered to “let them eat cake.”

Ford’s doesn’t want any more spending on social programs, as others are wont to do. “I don’t believe in these programs. I call them hug-a-thug programs,” he added.

Last week, Ford voted by his lonesome against all city community development grants, even against accepting federal funds for a gang-prevention program that will cost the city nothing.

It’s easy to blame the lack of jobs as the engine that revs up criminality, without seeing unemployment in the context of poverty and other elements of social disorganization that can be found where poverty exists, such as poor housing, single-parent families, lack of discipline, economic inequalities, family breakdown, and absence of social and community controls. There is a societal explanation for crime in poor neighbourhoods and families, and people with simple minds like Mayor Ford do not understand the extent to which crime results from poverty. Thus, Mayor Ford would only see the absence of jobs and fail to understand the connection between the social environment in which people and institutions interact.

Mayor Ford does not only betray his lack of knowledge of the link between crime and socio-economic circumstances, but also is quick to blame the ethnicity of those who commit crimes against society. Or perhaps, he is confusing those circumstances with ethnicity, and to many other people, the link between ethnicity and crime is too often simply obvious. We hear many in the community who believe that immigrants commit crimes because it comes with their cultural background.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who according to Chris Selley of the National Post, is
out of his depth when he starts talking about crime. Photo by Darren Calabrese
of  the National Post. Click link to view "Ford - Put Down Your Guns,"
During a radio interview in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in Toronto’s history, Mayor Ford told listeners, "Once they’re charged [those guilty of crimes] and they go to jail, the most important thing is when they get out of jail, I don’t want them living in this city. They can go anywhere else, but I don’t want them in the city.”

When asked how he planned to force gangsters out of Toronto, Mr. Ford said: “I don’t know and that’s what I’m going to sit down with the prime minister and find out: how our immigration laws work. Obviously I have an idea. But whatever I can do to get them out of the city I’m going to, regardless of whether they have family or friends, I don’t want these people, if they’re convicted of a gun crime, to have anything to do with the City of Toronto.”

Unfortunately, Mayor Ford misses the whole point about the link between immigration and criminality. According to Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminologist and gang expert, Toronto’s gang problem is a “homegrown problem, not a problem that’s been exported from other countries.” Wortley pointed to studies across North America that found immigrant communities actually having lower levels of criminality and lower levels of gang membership than those born here.

The Toronto mayor seems to be saying that immigrants are responsible for most of the gang crimes, which they’re not. Again, Mayor Ford does not take into account that a person’s background and environment can affect their behaviour. If he would only look at the various communities in Toronto and try to reconcile crime, social support and cultural diversity, then the link between ethnicity and crime instantly disappears. People from ethnic communities are no more or less susceptible than anyone else to the pressures of poverty, unemployment or poor education. A person does not commit crime because of their ethnicity.

But then Mayor Rob Ford and people like him never truly understand the more relevant causes of criminality. For them, the only task to do is to round up criminals and throw them in jail. Or worse, expel them out of their communities. Street crimes, such as the shootings in Scarborough and the Eaton Centre often are given wider press coverage and public condemnation than those crimes committed in suites or by white collar executives or children of rich families. Greater sentences are imposed against street crimes, and often the poor are given stiff sentences while the wealthy are given leniency for even serious crimes.

Arguably poverty is an influence on the criminal, but there is some inconsistency in linking socio-economic variables with all crimes. The difficulty perhaps lies in not fully accounting for the multiple causes of crimes, such as divorce, unemployment, broken homes, neighborhood decay, or other related factors. It’s rather easy for those in power, like the Toronto mayor, the police and members of city council to suggest that people in poor families and communities are more likely to steal, rob, sell drugs, and possess and trade illicit guns.

There are many views as to the motivations of crime and the influences on criminal behavior. Economic deprivation or poverty can motivate individuals to commit crime or create the circumstances that serve as a breeding ground for crime. Nevertheless, there are many who are poor but still choose to live a life of high moral standards and to adhere to societal norms. As such, poverty cannot be the only and single cause of crime.

Solutions for reducing criminality, particularly street crimes that involve gangs and guns, call for interventions beyond traditional policing. More social programs, subsidies, government housing, funded education, or community service programs, while they may assist in halting an increase in crime rates, can create more dependency on outside help. Politically, such programs are also not widely held acceptable because someone has to pay for those programs, and when governments are in austerity mode, these programs are usually the first ones to be eliminated.

If economic conditions, such as lack of jobs as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would like to suggest, are to be considered the primary causal factor for crime, then the future is very dim. Economic conditions will invariably get worse, as the higher proportion of the population is in the lower economic class. Indications are that poverty will increase and the proportion of people who make a significant income will decline, and this may be exacerbated by the marginalization of new immigrants, taxation policies, jobs going overseas, an increase in cost of living, and a reduction in consumer spending.

We need a more comprehensive solution to crime. One that addresses and reduces risks to the community, increases the quality of life in the community, strengthens social institutions so as to reinforce social control, decreases family stress and family decay, and improves education and educational opportunities. The family and the community must work together to build social bonds with young adults and children, giving them the positive influence they need to accept social norms.

In the larger context of social issues, crime should not be seen alone as the central problem, but rather poverty, unemployment, racism, family breakdown, and a host of other related factors that we often ignore or avoid because they inconveniently bring up the roles of class division and social inequality.

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