Toronto gun violence: 'A product of what we didn't do right'

Activists say community-led initiatives and socioeconomic opportunities, not more police, key to ending gun violence.

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    A police officer guards the scene of the recent shooting in Toronto that left two dead and 13 injured [Chris Helgren/Reuters]
    A police officer guards the scene of the recent shooting in Toronto that left two dead and 13 injured [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

    Montreal, Canada - Louis March has seen this before.

    So, too, have many community activists in Toronto, who have urged officials to take concrete steps to address the root causes of gun violence in Canada's largest city for years.

    "The gun violence that we're seeing right now is a product, a consequence, of what we didn't do right yesterday," March told Al Jazeera as he reflected on the city's response to rising levels of gun violence in Toronto, including Sunday's shooting that left an 18-year-old woman and a 10-year-old girl dead.

    While city councillors debate how to respond to that shooting and other incidents of deadly gun violence across the city, March, who is the founder of Zero Gun Violence, a movement working with dozens of local groups to reduce gun violence in Toronto, said the situation is a result of years of bad policies.

    From putting more police on the streets, to deploying new technology and pledging money for social programmes, the city has said it is doing everything it can.

    On Tuesday, the city council passed a series of measures meant to curb gun violence, including a request for the federal and provincial governments to ban handgun and ammunition sales in Toronto.

    But for March, like many community activists, the solution lies in community-led initiatives and socioeconomic opportunities, as well as in ending policies that have led to discrimination.

    "You do not ignore, you do not oppress, you do not deny and exclude people, and then expect them to be walking around with a smile on their face," he said.

    Spike in gun-related violence

    According to Toronto police data, the city has experienced 228 shootings so far this year, and 308 people have been the victims of gun violence in the city, including 29 people who were killed.

    That includes a shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto's east end Sunday that left two dead and 13 others injured.

    This year's tally is higher than what was recorded at the same time last year, when Toronto had 205 shootings and 299 victims of gun-related violence, the police data shows.

    A woman reacts while visiting the scene of Sunday's shooting in Toronto [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

    Earlier this year, the federal government said gang-related homicides have nearly doubled since 2013 in Canada's largest cities. In March, it hosted a summit on gun and gang violence, bringing in various stakeholders to try to find solutions.

    March, meanwhile, said gun violence has changed in Toronto in recent years.

    Guns are more widely available than ever before - "there are more guns out there than there are jobs," he said - and the calibre of the weapons has increased, from smaller handguns to semi-automatics.

    "The people using the guns are young kids, teenagers. The brazenness of the shootings, in public spaces, that has changed - in a playground, in a public shopping mall; we didn't used to see that," he said.

    The increase in shootings prompted Toronto Mayor John Tory to announce a multi-million-dollar plan to boost community services in areas with high levels of gun crimes, such as employment fairs, mental health support, and programs for youth.

    Among the anti-gun-violence motions the city passed on Tuesday, CBC News reported that the city will increase funding to a programme for at-risk youth, ask the provincial coroner to conduct inquests into each gun-related death, put in place a gun amnesty buy-back programme and hire 100 new police officers.
    Indeed, much of the city's focus has been on police enforcement.

    In a statement at the start of July, Tory said the city planned to hire 200 police officers this year, and modernise the police service "to ensure there are more officers patrolling the streets".

    He also said he would push for tougher bail conditions, and stricter gun control measures.

    "The answers are easy if we work together to deploy more police and support the police to actually get these thugs behind bars and keep them there," Tory said.

    People write messages on construction boarding after a shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

    While March said it's positive the city is acting, he said it's only doing it because gun violence has reached areas that aren't often affected, such as Queen Street and Danforth Avenue, two busy, east-west arteries filled with shops and restaurants.

    "If [gun violence] was in certain neighbourhoods where there's poverty, unemployment, lack of education, lack of supports, it didn't seem to concern them. But now that it's in the public spaces … they're concerned," March said.

    "And that is scary because they're deciding which lives are important and which are not."

    Don Peat, a spokesperson for the mayor, told Al Jazeera "gun violence in any part of our city is horrible and completely unacceptable".

    Tory has been working with city staff, as well as police, community housing officials and community groups to do "everything possible to prevent gun violence and to address the root causes of violence", Peat said in an email.

    Racist policies

    However, Black community activists have condemned the mayor for using words like "thugs" to describe the perpetrators of gun violence in Toronto.

    Tory also called the people responsible for a recent shooting at a playground that injured two young girls "anti-social sewer rats".

    Idil Abdillahi, an assistant professor at Ryerson University's School of Social Work, said that dehumanising language has very real effects on all Black residents of Toronto.

    "How do you reconcile identifying us as non-human, while also then saying that we're going to put money into social programmes?" she told Al Jazeera.

    The mayor's comments also came as Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Michael Tibollo, and city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said they had to wear bulletproof vests to visit a predominantly Black neighbourhood of Toronto called Jane and Finch.

    Many condemned the move as racist, accusing the politicians of fuelling the misconception that the neighbourhood is rife with danger.

    "Every time we deem Black people as dangerous, we need to understand there are real life outcomes and consequences, and those … are death: death as in actual death, and death as in social and political death and isolation," Abdillahi said.

    She was among a group of Black activists, scholars and community members who signed an open letter, published on Tuesday, that urged the city to treat gun violence as a public health issue.

    "Research and common sense show that an increased militarisation of police does not curb gun violence and certainly is not focused on prevention," the letter reads.

    "We demand that the millions approved for militaristic interventions in these neighbourhoods go to community initiatives to provide affordable housing, jobs, and social and health services."

    The signatories also criticised the city for backing a new type of surveillance technology, known as ShotSpotter, as part of its response to the violence. On Tuesday, the city approved a funding request to implement the system.

    The technology - a network of microphones that can be affixed to buildings, lampposts and other structures - is meant to help rapidly recognise and locate gunshots, and then transmit that information to first responders, including police.

    But whether it actually works to reduce gun crimes is unclear.

    On Tuesday, Tornoto approved a funding request to implement the ShotSpotter system [File: Mathew Sumner/AP Photo]

    According to a 2016 investigation by Reveal, a project from the US-based Center for Investigative Reporting, of the more than 3,000 ShotSpotter alerts sent out over a two-and-a-half-year period in San Francisco, only two arrests were made, and only one of those was related to a gun.

    The technology, Reveal found, "generally plays a minor role for prosecutors and police trying to reduce gun crime."

    The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also raised concern about the SharpShooter technology, which it said "could run afoul of constitutional privacy rights".

    "Worse, if placed in racialised neighbourhoods, the new technology may be an unconstitutional sucker punch to already marginalised population," the group said in a statement.

    Repeating past mistakes?

    But Abdillahi said the surveillance of Black communities in Toronto is not new.

    "This is a continuation," she said. "There's a particularity in this strategy, but that doesn't mean there wasn't surveillance before … We've been under the thumb of this 'modern policing' for some time."

    This also isn't the first time Toronto has been host to a debate over how to address gun violence.

    After a spike in gun-related murders in 2005, a period known as the Summer of the Gun, Toronto put in place a contentious police programme called TAVIS, aiming to counter gun violence by deploying more officers into areas with high levels of it.

    Critics said the controversial programme led to racial profiling - a Toronto police practice known as carding allowed officers to stop and check peoples' IDs without needing to have a reason - and the criminalisation of Black communities.

    In 2012, shootings at the Eaton Centre, a multi-floor, downtown shopping mall, and at a block party in Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto, also led to a flurry of promises to crack down on gang violence.

    Survivors of the 2012 shooting at the Toronto Eaton Centre hold a vigil [Mark Blinch/Reuters] 

    Toronto's then-mayor, the late Rob Ford, vowed to boost police funding and launch a "war on gangs". He also rejected calls to bolster community programmes, calling them "hug a thug" initiatives that don't produce results.

    While TAVIS was cancelled in 2016 after the provincial government slashed its funding amid widespread criticism, Ontario Premier Doug Ford (Rob's brother) has hinted at bringing it back.

    After Sunday's shooting, Ford, whose Progressive Conservative Party was elected last month, said he plans to redirect some of the $1.4b ($1.9b Canadian) previously pledged for mental health and addiction support programmes, to the police.

    Listening to the communities critical

    Beverly Bain, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, told Al Jazeera she has seen over-policing in largely Black communities in Toronto over the past 40 years.

    She said Black communities are not the sources of violence in the city, but they are recipients of it, often through heavy-handed police tactics and other policies.

    "What goes on in the Black community is a response to the violence that it experiences, and the responses to the kinds of policing and the kinds of state economic and political strategies that bear down on this community, forcing them to live in untenable conditions," she said.

    Bain said city and provincial authorities must work with activists in Black communities to implement solutions local people are putting forward themselves.

    "It has to be approaches that are less about policing, and more about creating socioeconomic policies," Bain said.

    "It cannot be putting more police officers into these communities. It cannot be about arming our police officers. It cannot be about more surveillance technologies, and it cannot be about TAVIS."

    This is not a surprise. What is a surprise to us is the lack of political leadership and resolve to deal with it, not only when it spills over into other communities, but in the communities where we know that it's normalised.

    Louis March,  founder of Zero Gun Violence

    March agreed, saying the city should focus on prevention, rather than enforcement.

    He said local programmes that are working to address gun violence in communities most affected by the problem need to be amplified, and they need funding.

    The underlying causes that contribute to the violence - poverty, oppression, social exclusion and neglect - also need to be at the forefront of any strategy, he said.

    "We work on the streets. We work with these kids; they want a way out, but in many cases, there's no way out for them - because the government is not addressing this problem in a meaningful way," said March.

    "So this is not a surprise. What is a surprise to us is the lack of political leadership and resolve to deal with it, not only when it spills over into other communities, but in the communities where we know that it's normalised."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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