Commentary  Look at the big picture behind “gang violence”

Last week, Global TV aired a segment on escalating violence between Filipino and South Asian teenagers in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. The journalists framed the most recent fights – following which five people were hospitalized – as “gang violence.” In their report, they focused on community groups’ calls for more basketball courts in the area and the recommendation from a “gang expert” that a special police task force be created to handle such cases.

This kind of coverage ignores the larger issues behind such violence. The conflict is ostensibly over turf – in this instance, over what groups get to hang out on a particular basketball court – so providing more public recreation space, as well as supporting youth clubs and city-sponsored youth activities, would be a logical first step toward curbing conflict between different groups of immigrant youth.

But it doesn’t address the question of why these kids are fighting over turf in the first place. It doesn’t address the root causes of this issue: the economic marginalization their families and communities face, and the lack of social cohesion that can make joining or forming a street gang an attractive option, caused by long periods of family separation involved in many families’ migrations to Canada, and a school system that sets students back several grades while they’re struggling to learn the local language.

A thoroughgoing solution would address the barriers they and their parents face to finding employment that matches their credentials, and the role of federal migration policies that hinder integration –the Live-in Caregiver Program is a prime example (see “Protecting our most vulnerable workers,” September 20).

Though this description applies to the problems of the Filipino community, representatives of Kabataang Montreal (KM), the Filipino youth organization that alerted the media to the situation in a press conference last week, emphasized that South Asian youth face very similar challenges.

KM members are glad that the news stories have sparked discussion within the community. But on the whole, Global’s coverage typifies how the media normalizes the situations of marginalized peoples. Slapping the label of “gang violence” on these incidents villainizes the youth and communities involved, and diverts attention from larger issues of how Canada treats migrants. Reporting like Global’s makes what happened in Côte-des-Neiges seem like an isolated occurrence. But similar cases show it’s a nationwide problem – cases like those of Jeffrey Reodica in Toronto, or Deward Ponte and Mao Jomar Lanot in Vancouver, youth who were victims of street violence or killed by police who assumed they were gang members.

Calling for a special police task force is also at best a band-aid solution. While the police do need to be aware of these conflicts, an increased police presence could exacerbate already-existing tensions between the police and the community.

Côte-des-Neiges already has its share of problems with racial profiling. Getting hassled by the police with no provocation is an everyday reality for youth of colour there. The neighbourhood has also been home to striking cases of police brutality: the case of Anas Bennis, shot dead while leaving a local mosque in 2005, remains unsolved; in 2007, KM reported that a police officer brutally beat a 17-year-old girl while she was waiting to meet her sister in Van Horne Park.

We need to examine how we contribute to youth violence in neighbourhoods like Côte-des-Neiges when we vote for politicians who continue to support immigration programs like the Live-in Caregiver Program, or who do not take steps to counter the barriers that immigrants face to getting their professional credentials accepted in Canada.

With municipal elections approaching, we demand that local politicians take these issues more seriously. KM was not even allowed to use space in a municipal building in a Côte-des-Neiges park for the press conference about youth violence called last week. We need local leaders who will actively support groups rooted in the community that address these issues in the long term.

One of the best ways to counteract media disinformation is to get involved with the communities immediately surrounding our school. Often, what community groups can best use from students is research and other intellectual work; initiatives like the Community-University Research Exchange can help link research in your field to the needs of local groups. Projects currently on their web site include a call from Pinay, a Filipino women’s organization in Quebec, for research on the negative health effects of the Live-in Caregiver Program.

We urge students to seek out commmuity organizations, to listen and learn from them, and to ask where their help is most needed.