Opinion

Take it from someone who has been in a gang: tackling the symptoms won't fix the problem

Plenty of regions have come up with short-term approaches to rescue boys and young men from violent streets, but the problem remains: there's always a new cohort of vulnerable boys behind them, ready to take their place.

Even if I had found a way out, the structures that led me to violence would still remain

Plenty of regions have come up with short-term approaches to rescue boys and young men from violent streets, but the problem remains: there's always a new cohort of vulnerable boys behind them, ready to take their place. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

At the age of six I was exposed to my first bully. I was punched in the face and thrown to the ground. As a child growing up in the west-side of Toronto, I would come to learn that I lived in a community that bred violence, where tough guys were respected, and where the weak were preyed upon.

By high school the bullying took on a new life, as I was physically and psychologically tortured by boys that were not only bigger, but who had also developed a reputation for hand-to-hand combat and the utilization of weapons. During my teen years I was robbed at gunpoint, stabbed and, at times, beaten to an inch of my life. It seemed that the bullying had multiplied in high school, as several tough guys would create "crews" that not only dominated the internal environment of school, but also the external space of the community or "block."

As a result of these experiences, I feared for my life every day. I hated having to go to school, where my bullies lived to destroy me. Eventually, I just couldn't take it anymore, so I decided to find other friends who were going through similar problems. Our small group learned to fight and defend ourselves, and we began to inflict harm on those who had harmed us. I ended up in a gang.

Wars began over turf, respect and money. Violence came with them, and as a result I began to carry weapons to stop my enemies from trying to kill me. And with every perpetration and victimization I became numb to violence and developed a complacency for human life. This goes on in cities all across Canada, where for many young men, violence is power. Plenty of regions have come up with short-term approaches to rescue boys and young men from violent streets, but the problem remains: there's always a new cohort of vulnerable boys behind them, ready to take their place.  

Last year was a banner year for homicide in Toronto, compounding a spike in gang violence across Canada. With the homicide rate at a 10-year high, politicians at various levels of government, in various provinces, have committed themselves to finding a solution.

For the federal government, it means a plan to limit access to handguns and assault rifles, along with $86 million in funds earmarked to tackle gun violence. At the city level, it means more police officers on the streets (in places like Toronto), and funds for programs such as WrapED in Edmonton, which offers counselling and resources for at-risk teens on a one-on-one basis.

But while access to after-school programs, counselling, mentorship and employment are all pieces that can have a protective effect against violence, they may not actually change the blueprint that causes violence in the first place: systemic racism, poverty and unemployment and toxic masculinity.

There have been 96 murders in Toronto this year, a new record that includes the van attack in April that killed 10 people. Police blame guns and gangs for the majority of the deaths, while communities try to figure out how to stop the violence. 2:37

We can remove people from the toxic fold of street warfare — through arrest, prosecution, or proactive community programming — but there will always be a cohort of new youth behind them exposed to the same blueprint that will lead them to violence. That's why we need to fundamentally change the framework of these "tough" communities. One-time grants and programs are fine, but these regions needs systemic overhauls.

How to achieve those overhauls is a complex question for which there is not an immediate answer. Reflecting on my life, and the years lost to violence, I am not sure what would have saved me from joining a gang — especially since I did not see it as a "gang" per se, but my friends, comrades and family.

What was going on in my case was no secret: our teachers, the police and even our parents knew about our pain and suffering. But my perception was that no one cared, and that no one could stop it. So, unable to find security through adults, my friends and I took matters into our own hands. I was of course punished for acting out in aggressive ways. But while the police and school system seemed to believe that formal interventions would stop my violence, they only strengthened the bond I had with my friends and the street. I felt like I was being punished for trying to survive, so I developed a deeper attachment to my crew — my street family.  

Perhaps the attempt at intervention came too late: after I was already victimized, in a community with destructive views of violence and masculinity. But even if I had found a way to escape, the structures that led me to violence would still remain, poised to seduce vulnerable youth behind me.

That's why the approach needs to go beyond policing a crime; it must tackle socio-economic inequality, racism, marginalization and hopelessness on a macro level. Take it from someone who has been there — addressing the symptoms won't fix the problem. We must disrupt the root causes if we want long term change.


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About the Author

Adam Ellis

Adam Ellis is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto, a Vanier Scholar and a former gang member. His research explores the relationship between trauma, PTSD and gang violence. He is also a lecturer at Ryerson University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology where his teaching focuses on gangs and their behaviours.

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