Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gangs in Sudbury?

While it was once a routine thing for me to produce writing that had relatively high visibility in my local area, that has not been true in quite a few years, and I am no longer used to it. So I was a little anxious about having a recent op/ed piece published in a local newspaper. Thankfully, though the piece lays out a pretty unapologetic left position on an issue that has emotions running high in the city, most of the feedback I've received online and in person has been quite positive -- not all of it, to be sure, and I'm pretty certain there are other folks who've just been silent rather than disagree overtly, but a lot. And, while I'm well aware of the reasons not to make too much of it, it has felt a little hopeful, somehow.

Yet this sense of getting a broader-than-expected head-nodding response when writing about one issue was completely torn to shreds when I thought about writing about this:

This was a poster for a local police-organized community forum on gangs, as part of a province-wide initiative to prevent gangs from spreading to rural, remote, and northern communities. There are all kinds of levels of wrong with this. I encountered this image (and an expanded version) because a friend posted it to FaceBook and named the wrongness.

That is, Sudbury is a city with a population that was 94% white in the last census. Given that the indigenous population of the city is growing at a very rapid rate and that one legacy of colonialism is that indigenous people tend to significantly underidentify on the census, lets call this more like 92% or 91% white. Yet racialized youth make up way more than 8% of the youth represented on the poster, which pretty directly implies that the cluster of issues that the police group under the heading "gangs" is actually a problem with youth of colour. Not only is this racist in and of itself, this thinking, if it were to organize police practices beyond just questionable choices in poster design, is a recipe for racial profiling of youth of colour in the Sudbury community.

Note that this is not based on any presumptions about the initiative itself; it is based on easily obtained facts about Sudbury and a quick glance at the poster, and the hope that it doesn't reflect the initiative. Yet on FaceBook and in responses to another blog post about the issue, even this level of wrong, which is based on things that are very easy to find out and very easy to see, has been met with white indignation, objection, and refusal to see.

There is lots about this that is upsetting, but the particular flavour of the upset for me was a reminder -- it was experienced as a reminder rather than my everyday experience because of white privilege -- that broader-than-expected openness to certain kinds of critical politics does not necessarily imply much openness to other kinds of critical politics. Because there is more to be concerned about based on this poster than the racst overrepresentation of youth of colour, yet even that most demonstrable element of wrong is met with denial and hostility. Other levels of wrong that I can see (and there is probably lots that I'm missing) are less easily demonstrated and so would likely face even greater denial and hostility, but are no less crucial in understanding why people in Sudbury should be concerned about the poster and skeptical about police initiatives focused on gangs.

More on the Poster

One other aspect -- and noone else has mentioned it yet, which may mean I'm misreading the image, and I welcome correction -- is the other ways in which the poster is signaling "gangness" in the youth. This is particularly visible to me in the full version. Most of the youth, regardless of whether or not they are racialized, are shown as having particular kinds of personal aesthetics and many have their bodies posed in distinctive ways. To me, the images in mainstream popular culture that these echo are images, probably largely stereotypical, of youth of colour who are in gangs and youth of colour who are involved in hip-hop. Given that the most prominent figure in the image is a young Black man, and given the slogan is "WE are here... What'cha gonna do about it?" -- which also given the context reads most readily as an attempt to duplicate speech patterns stereotypically associated with poor and working-class communities of colour in the United States -- the take home message seems to be that Sudbury needs to watch out or youth of colour from the big city are going to come and contaminate youth in Sudbury, especially but not only youth of colour. This, obviously, is also racist.

(The other interesting thing about the image that is less directly about racism and more about stereotypes of 'dangerous youth', which admittedly do tend to get applied more vigorously to youth of colour, is the defiant looks on all of their faces. It is as if the message is that youth defiance and criminality blend in to each other, if indeed they are not the same thing, which tends to be a message that conservative parents and conservative community leaders are very willing to hear.)


That's all I get from the poster directly. However, it seems to me that the presence of this poster and this workshop need to be understood in a broader context, and that such an understanding should lead us to approach this whole process with some considerable concern. I do not know how this process is working, what people are saying at the events -- though I did hear through the grape vine that at an earlier event in this process a number of youth were excluded and a graduate student researcher was arrested for asking questions outside of the designated time, so that should give you a flavour -- or how it is all organized. I am not pretending to be presenting an analysis of what this process is actually doing. Instead, I am presenting some elements of context that indicate to me that this process should be met with considerable skepticism, and should be expected to prove that it deserves otherwise.

The first reason for skepticism is about policing in general. This tends to be a very significant social faultline. The dominant commonsense about policing, formed in white middle-class experience of the police and through vigorous public relations work by police themselves, paints a largely benevolent picture, sometimes tempered with an acknowledgment of occasional excess that is acceptable because they have to do what they have to do to keep Us safe from Them. On the other hand, lots of people regularly experience harassment and even violence from the police. This is particularly true of people who live in extreme poverty and racialized people. There have been a number of books released in the last few years documenting the extent of racial profiling by police in Canada. (Interestingly, a friend related to me that a Black police officer of her acquaintance objects to the term 'racial profiling,' which he thinks obscures what's going on, and instead we should just stick to calling it 'racism.') I've read only one of them, and I've heard that one isn't the best of the bunch, but that, various articles I've read over the years, and listening to personal experiences of friends who are racialized, makes it pretty clear how huge a problem this remains.

And I should be clear that police harassment of racialized people and poor people is not just a problem for big cities, or faraway places. A friend of mine was roughed up by cops in Sudbury a few years ago. In the course of some organizing around issues of police brutality in response to that, I heard a number of other stories of similar experiences, even given that the organizing was quite modest and was not sustained. And in doing anti-poverty work in the first couple of years I lived here, it was pretty evident that, much like most other cities, people living in extreme poverty regularly face harassment and sometimes violence from the police.

This is part of the everyday/everynight experiences of a portion of the population, yet it is not reflected in how the police get talked about in the media and it does not seem to be reflected in how social service agencies in the city relate to the police. Both of these sites accept the middle-class commonsense that police are defending the public, rather than the commonsense of some folks in Sudbury and elsewhere that police are a source of danger.

Now, there is a much larger discussion to be had about the social organization of policing and how that produces certain outcomes, as well as the place of policing in the context of social relations as a whole. There is also the consistent pattern of police manipulating fear for both self-serving institutional reasons and broader reactionary ideological reasons. I don't feel I know enough about all of that to get into it here, and I will leave it at this: the fact that a non-trivial segment of the Sudbury population experiences police primarily as a source of danger to me implies that any increase in police powers and resources should, at the very least, be met with skepticism. Actually, I think that means that there should be fundamental questioning of current social relations, but I haven't demonstrated why I think that, and I'm not going to try in this post.

Cops and Gangs

Another reason for skepticism is the larger North American context when it comes to gangs.

Generally, public discourse around gangs tends to be full of fear, full of racism, and largely out of touch with the contexts in which gangs happen and with what gangs actually are. "Gang" often serves as a stand-in or a codeword for some dangerous Other, a way of pretending to concretize vague fears that Something Bad Will Happen (often because Someone Bad made it happen). Often the discussion is based in a completely ungrounded "what if" that is more an expression of the fear of privileged people than it is of the challenges faced by the more oppressed and exploited people who are often the target of whatever police initiatives result.

(An anecdotal digression: A good example of this for me was back when I wrote articles about local issues in Hamilton, Ontario. Some sort of educational event had been hosted for local politicians, I think members of the Police Services Board, about gangs. I remember one local city councillor, who represented a downtown ward, repeatedly getting up in council meetings and going on about it in ways that demonstrated his ignorance, and the ignorance that the educational session had amplified in him. He was very concerned with graffiti and tagging, which he was convinced was a sign that gangs were overwhelming the city, though in my understanding tagging is more often something done by an individual artist with no particular affiliation. More outrageously, there was a business in the downtown owned by a young Black man, I think a clothing store, which had gotten together some local youth involved in hip-hop culture in various ways to do some artwork on the back of the building that his store was in. I don't know exactly what this guy's decision making process was around this, but I suspect he understood it as doing his bit to contribute to downtown renewal, to beautifying the core of the city while also making the presence of Black communities and hip-hop communities a bit more visible, as well as making his business more visible. But there was a serious initiative to try and force him to remove all of the beautiful paint on his building, this contribution to the cultural life of the city, out of some vague fear that it would somehow be making gangs worse.)

Anyway. The point is, public discourse about gangs tends to be pretty disconnected from reality at the best of times, so that is a reason to be skeptical.

Another reason to be skeptical is that frequently what 'police initiatives against gangs' translates into in practice in North American cities is racial profiling and attacks on racialized communities. In other words, part of the fear about what an event promoted by this racist poster might be leading to is a fear based in what actually happens in lots of places. It's particularly stark in some U.S. cities -- and it is interesting that the event this poster was promoting includes an expert from New York State, a place where attacks on communities of colour in the name of combating crime have been rampant.

Which isn't to say that the various things that the police tend to identify as "gangs" are not indicators of challenges that communities face. Often "gangs" get recognized as a problem in communities that are facing huge problems already. And it is not unusual for members of that community to want the violence associated with gang presence to end. However, organizing a significant portion of the public response to those challenges around the notion of a 'war on gangs' or whatever tends to do more harm than good. Not that there is no variation between different initiatives, and not that organizations in some communities don't work with the police despite misgivings. But focusing on 'gangs' tends to mean that huge, complicated, socially organized problems of violence and suffering get identified simplistically with criminality and that resources are used in ways that amplify violence rather than creating justice.

For instance, take Los Angeles, a city widely associated with gangs and a place I briefly lived. You have very large racialized communities that have been subject to systemic violence -- racist violence, economic violence, state violence -- for decades, even centuries. The phenomena that tend to get grouped together as "gangs" are one facet of the challenges that these communities face, and, yes, probably much of these communities wish that the phenomena labelled "gangs" weren't happening. But by addressing these huge systemic issues by focusing on "gangs" and prioritizing policing as a response, you are essentially refusing to address the underlying issues and inflicting even greater levels of violence onto these communities. You could be prioritizing racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, but instead you end up with police who claim to be dealing with the problem but who are reinforcing what amounts to a colonial relationship within the confines of the city.

There are obvious differences with the situation in Sudbury, not the least of which being that the dominant cultural imaginary of gangs based on inaccurate accounts of various kinds of social organization in particular contexts in U.S. cities is being used to name much different social forms in the context of northern Ontario. However, the continent-wide patterns in how police initiatives against gangs often happen -- as attacks on already-oppressed communities that claim to respond to very real problems but often just make them worse -- is still enough that those of us in the community should be skeptical. Though racial formation in Sudbury is very different than in most U.S. cities, this is a city with lots of people who don't have much hope for the future. We have a resource-based economy that leaves huge swathes of the community poor even in boom times, and we are not in boom times. We have governments that jump up and down and claim they are doing all they can to deal with poverty or to support northern Ontario or whatever -- well, I'm not sure the federal Cons actually claim those things -- but they steadfastly refuse to do anything that isn't cosmetic to deal with the real challenges that communities face. Yet they put money into anti-gang initiatives.

Yes, a recent newspaper article identifying that "street gangs [are] often stereotyped" and making the startling revelation that privileged kids do criminal things too is a welcome contribution -- though the failure to mention the stereotyping in the police poster for this event is notable. However, given the history and context of policing organized around 'gangs' it will take more than one short article to convince that such policing in Sudbury is not going to amount to additional profiling of racialized and poor people.

A cynical person, in fact, might think that such initiatives show a concern with keeping the impacts of colonization, racism, and capitalist exploitation from affecting people with relative privilege, rather than actually dealing with the challenges that colonized, racialized, and highly exploited communities actually face.

Like I said, none of this is claiming to be an analysis of what the Sudbury police and their out-of-town allies are actually doing, because the media reports have been pretty vague and I would be skeptical of published claims anyway. One intriguing and maybe even encouraging element is that a future event will involve Clayton Thomas Muller, who they bill as an 'anti-gang expert' but who is an indigenous radical from the Cree Nation who is heavily involved in environmental justice organizing. I'm not sure what exactly his participation means, and it certainly doesn't eliminate my skepticism about what the local police might or might not be doing, but he is someone worth listening to. On the whole, though, I'm skeptical. And I'm a bit depressed that my skepticism is probably not broadly shared in the Sudbury context. A number of local agencies and other organizations are co-sponsoring this process, which is just sad, and betrays an uncritical allegiance to a very distorted understanding of what policing actually does.


Julie Laurin said...

Scott, this is a fantastic analysis of an issue that greatly deserves attention in Sudbury and throughout Canada. You're right that your skepticism is probably not shared with a lot of people in Sudbury. That's sad because progress can't be made if current methods of doing things aren't examined and brought into question.

In regards to the image, you're not misreading it at all. It's very evident that their poses, clothing and attitudes are representative of hip hop culture. It's an image that is being systematically cemented into people's minds so that when they hear the word 'gangs', they'll think 'hip hop'. Somehow, it's been perceived as socially acceptable to use this message when it's plainly racist.

Not only was the response to my article by a committee organizer one of the most appalling things I've ever heard from someone on the front line but it was representative of a larger issue in Sudbury. And you concluded brilliantly by pointing that out: that this event was co-sponsored by local agencies who haven't been critical at all about the poster and about the larger issues surrounding the role of policing as well their own responsibilities in the community. That's a scarier thought than the idea of baby gangstas taking over the city.

Anonymous said...

The event got a hundred people out. I wonder whether money and events might be better spent on letting people know about poverty and employment issues - or the high percentage of first nations incarcerated due to racism, or the cutbacks to social services or the results of a misguided drug policy and the grounds that creates for gangs!

Austin said...

What's interesting is the strategy police use in indentifying/profiling/stereotyping is identical to the strategy gang leaders use in recruting. Think "Indian Posse" in Regina, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. Which, in my estimation, is what local authorities are gearing up against.

Scott said...

Hi Julie, and thanks!

Hi Anonymous...yes, I agree, that would be a much better use of that money.

Hi Austin...I'd need to hear more about what you mean by their strategies being "identical" in order to really respond. I suspect I might understand things a bit differently.