Horizontal violence, political opportunism and the war on our communities
by Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
On July 17th 2012, just hours after the mass shooting at a Scarborough block party that left 23 wounded and two dead, Mayor Rob Ford declared:
“Some people have suggested there is a gang war brewing. I don’t know if that’s true. But, I do know it’s time for us to declare war on these violent gangs. …We must use every legal means to make life for these thugs miserable, to put them behind bars, or to run them out of town. We will not rest until being a gang member is a miserable, undesirable life.”
Indeed there were many upset faces, repeated condolences and angry words from officials and politicians after the Danzig tragedy. The usual bad cop/good cop routine was acted out: the Mayor had his ridiculed outburst about using “immigration laws” to exile anyone with gun charges from the city, and later blubbered on about useless “Hug-a-Thug programs”; the Premier chided the statement as “short-sighted” and pleaded for a balanced and reflective approach; ‘progressive’ politicians, like Councillor Adam Vaughan, got emotional: “If…all they want to talk about is jail, they can go to hell!”
After this media charade was over, both the stick and carrot were ready for action and unanimous approval. Within a week Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, Premier McGuinty and Mayor Ford were chuckling over a table passing a $12.5 million boost to aggressive policing programs in Ontario (the stick). A month later the same provincial government unveiled a $20 million plan for youth jobs and community programs (the carrot). Both strategies serve the same wicked agenda – exploiting blood and fear to ramp up the invasion, occupation and containment of poor and oppressed communities.
Self-destruction festers in every hood in the city, consuming African (West Indian, West African and Somali) men as both the primary victims and perpetrators. Murders this year included two people close to BASICS members past and present: 22 year-old Nixon Nirmalendran, the second target in the Eaton’s Centre shooting; and a month later 25 year-old Abdulle Elmi. It’s clear that this needs to be called out and confronted, but it’s no mistake that the official analysis fails to trace its origin.
This level of violence emerged in the early 90’s after Toronto’s ghettos were flooded with drugs and guns over the preceding years. This coordinated process began in the U.S. in a campaign to neutralize the revolutionary Black Power movement, particularly the Black Panther Party; and while those radical forces were sparse in Canada, the potential for social upheaval was still present. That lethal flood was followed by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs with the signing of the NAFTA trade agreement in 1992, and then by the systematic stripping of social assistance and programs under Mike Harris (Premier of Ontario 1995-2002). Those cuts to welfare and other benefits have been maintained by every provincial government and political party since, and because of inflation have actually been intensified.
Blatantly white supremacist policies like the Safe Schools Act deliberately fed the violence by expelling black students, pushing them into illegal means of survival, and thereby into sharper confrontation with each other. During the eventual Ontario Human Rights lawsuit it was estimated 80% of expelled students were non-white; the majority of those being black males. This agenda continues to advance with the annual increases to the Toronto Police Service’s budget (currently over $1 billion/year), and mass incarceration with the March 2012 passing of Harper’s Bill C-10.
So the calls of “Stop the Violence” from the same political and social forces that created the conditions in the first place couldn’t be more perverse. On the ground police officers not only do nothing to prevent conflicts from arising, but often deliberately instigate tensions between youth. The hypocrisy can be seen in public discourse where the only time crime becomes an issue is when it spills over into the commercial centers of the city, or when certain bodies become targets: a white teenager on Boxing Day, a 14-year old, or University graduate at a BBQ versus the dehumanized young men “known to police”. This is not to say the system as a whole really holds any more value for the former lives; but that their deaths allow for the whipping up of public hysteria to push through long-desired pieces of legislation and policies that people would otherwise meet with skepticism.
After Jane Creba’s death in 2005 TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) introduced new levels of occupation and surveillance to the poorest neighbourhoods in the city- and has since been responsible for 4 massive paramilitary raids and 22,000 arrests. On July 24th TAVIS got approved for indefinite provincial funding ($5 million/year), along with $7.5 mil to PAVIS (Provincial Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy), its now permanent counterpart across Ontario. Also in Danzig’s aftermath the Harper regime wasted no time in relating and promoting their proposed piece of legislation that would see any non-citizen (landed, refugee, permanent resident etc.) deported automatically after any sentence over 6 months. As for Bill C-10 – which ends pardons, introduces mandatory minimums and eliminates conditional sentences for a number of charges – we have yet to see the real impact in part because many judges are refusing to implement it. Now the Justice Minister and other are demanding they be forced to do so.
Along with pigs and prisons there’s the carrot being dangled in front of us: a multimillion dollar social service industry. The same 2005 “Year of the Gun” saw the designation of 13 priority neighbourhoods and the injection of millions through such boards as the Youth Challenge Fund. This was parallel to police expansion that saw TAVIS deployed in the same neighbourhoods. In total $100 million has been pumped into these areas over the past six years, and despite many important projects making use of the flow, most money never reached the ground and was instead siphoned off into bureaucratic structures, poverty pimps, and spaces inaccessible to actual communities. This government-NGO complex in fact serves as another form of control: preventing independent mobilization and self-determination, reinforcing dependency on the system and illusions of its necessity and generosity. Even the limited community power created by genuine peoples’ initiatives is destabilized as successful projects get funded one year and cut the next. Any substantial discussion of violence perpetrated by the system is censored, and sponsored organizations and individuals are often forced to work directly with cops and other crooked apparatuses, like the social housing authority, Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). Much of McGuinty’s Youth Action Plan goes directly towards this – the ‘Youth-in-Policing Initiative’ for example, or the $500,000 ‘Safer and Vital Communities Program’ where applicants “must partner with the police.”
Horizontal violence (violence amongst the people) will only be resolved when we have real democratic control over our communities; when neighbourhoods have enough organization to solve internal strife and defend their common interests against vertical violence coming down from the state. This does not mean we stop getting every dollar, space and opportunity we can grab to advance the immediate needs of our people, including using the social service sector for employment as many mass leaders have done. But it does mean moving towards the consolidation of institutions that remain accountable only to the people and strive for self-sufficiency.
When Rob Ford declares a war on gangs he does not mean a war on the Hell’s Angels, the Mob or any of the high level syndicates often allowed to operate as extensions of the system – sometimes with the collaboration of elements of the state. He means a war on the racialized bodies at the very bottom of the drug trade. He means a furthering of the attack on poor neighbourhoods: heightened levels of harassment, more sweeps, new laws and packed jails. And not because they oppose smoking, dealing, robbing or shooting when the victims are almost always in the same conditions and communities; but due to the connotation of these behaviours: disregard for the law, and more significantly, the danger of that armed force being redirected at them. And for those not connected to these areas, the G20 and Quebec Student Strike have shown that the methods of physical repression and containment usually reserved for the hood will be extended to any rebellious section of the population.
As poor, working, and progressive people we have a collective interest in recognizing and resisting this physical, economic and social attack. If this is war they are the only side fighting. It’s about time we responded.