There are at last serious concerns being raised about the degree of violence occurring within and among Toronto communities. In particular, there is concern about violence within the black community, and violence involving young people. The Neeko Mitchell murder of 2013 brought home for many Torontonians the grim reality of gang violence within the city that formerly called itself “Toronto the Good”. The focus of this paper is what can be done to make the situation better for one and for all, and what steps must be taken to reduce such occurrences. A specific Ontario-based program that has been established within the environs of Toronto is the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism via educational outreach initiatives, community engagement, income support, intergovernmental cooperation, partnership and accountability circles, and remedial measures vis-a-vis policing and the justice system (City of Toronto, 2019). There are, as one might imagine, many complexities associated with the above murder: 1) the pervasiveness of gang-related crime in Toronto: 2) the role that racism plays in driving young black men toward a life of criminality; 3) the dilatory nature of the justice system in resolving such tragedies; 4) the failure of law enforcement to root out gang violence and gun violence; 5) the systemic failures of the education system to reach out to young blacks and steer them down a better path; 6) concerns about leadership deficits within the black community; and 7) the lack of reciprocity and partnering across public-private, ethnic and racial, and ideological lines to come up with a belated solution to the problem of incessant violence.
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The focus of this paper is upon the aforementioned 2013 murder and the challenges and issues it presents, as well as an exposition of measures that might be taken which can mitigate such violence across the City of Toronto. The program described at the outset seems a worthy start, and there are best practices that can be followed to ensure that it functions to the best extent possible. Training techniques, life skills, and the formulation of leadership competencies all seem to offer some hope for better integrating young black men into the mainstream of Toronto life. Inclusivity is possible, but it will require the busy work of many hands.
The diversity of the young people involved in the grim November, 2013, shooting is actually quite limited: it appears that at least four young black men, Tyrone Michael Knott, Jermaine Dunkley, Sheldon Tingle, and Reshane Hayles-Wilson, participated in the public shooting and murder of Neeko Mitchell (Miller, 2015). A young black woman named Kashana Duncan was also charged with being an accessory after the fact for helping the shooter escape; it may be noted, further, that Duncan was evidently a member of a mid-level Toronto-based criminal street gang that has drawn the attention of the metropolitan police in recent years (CTV News, 2015). As a final note, during the 2018 trial machinations surrounding the court case of Reshane Hayles-Wilson (the gunman who shot Mitchell eight times at close range), it was conceded by the Crown Prosecutor that, of the many witnesses to the public execution, only a very small number have elected to come forward with testimony (Cherry, 2018). The diversity is narrow, in this instance, but the complexity of the participants is somewhat more opaque insofar as Mitchell’s death seems to be closely tied to the internecine squabbles and politicking that ostensibly animate and shape gang activity across Toronto (Cherry, 2018; CTV News, 2015).
There are plainly issues and challenges intimately connected to this case. For one thing, gang violence in Toronto has created a culture of fear, and also a culture of resistance to working with police to resolve homicides – even very public homicides that should have many witnesses. In examining the factors that might be thwarting the ability of these young people to function within the larger community and correctional facilities, one must consider that they likely grew up in fractured homes with meagre financial resources and, perhaps, not enough love and parental guidance. It is likely, though it is only conjecture, that they also grew up in home and communities wherein violence was an effective means of resolving disputes, and those who were unwilling or unable to execute extreme violence in defending themselves or their “turf” were quickly overwhelmed and decried as weak. When one considers also the high likelihood that these individuals are likely not especially well-educated, then gang life may have become a viable option for those looking to make money and to accrue social status within their limited world. As to the issue of functioning within correctional facilities and becoming better people upon departure, one must note that their culture of violence and intimidation and gang membership means that they will likely initiate, and face, violence behind bars; they may also further ingratiate themselves with other gang members already incarcerated. Individuals such as these will be a great challenge because the violent life of the gang is all they have ever known, and their only answer to life’s challenges is to return to that former gang life. When Hayles-Wilson pulled the trigger on Neeko Mitchell in November of 2013, he did so with numerous other people in close proximity – including a toddler; it was deemed a minor miracle that other casualties did not arise from the attack (Pagliaro, 2013). Such an act reveals a clear lack of concern for innocent life, and suggests that Hayles-Wilson will likely not be easily re-integrated back into society when his time behind bars finally ends.
The best practices for working with such a group within the justice system seem to be rooted in letting them know that other options for living are available. Not least of all, this demands interaction with positive black role models within the community who have found success without resort to gang life, as well as remedial training that will offer them stronger scholastic and critical thinking skills, as well as useful life skills for de-escalating possibly dangerous situations where violence might seem superficially appealing. The Toronto Action Plan described previously calls for proactive recruitment, hiring and promotion for blacks (though this seems confined to the city bureaucracy), and sustained investments in youth mentorship programs and employment (City of Toronto, 2019). The city plan also seeks to discourage – in part through education – anti-black discriminatory practices that frustrate the efforts of blacks to get jobs and to find stable living quarters or accommodations; to this is also married a firm commitment to investing in black businesses, and to creating bodies or agencies that will ensure accountability when it comes to safeguarding black communities from discrimination (City of Toronto, 2019). There is also a desperate need that law enforcement become more sensitive to the peculiar needs of the black community, inasmuch as – despite evidence of discrimination – hate crime reports in recent years have gone up precisely as arrests for hate crimes against visible minorities have ostensibly gone down (Xing, 2017). And to the latter circumstance must be added the fact that black incarceration rates for Canada, not just Toronto, are strikingly high – and strikingly disproportionate (McIntyre, 2016). Just as mentoring programs and role model initiatives can aid young people in finding a better way to live, arms-length agencies or bodies that ensure accountability in the justice system can offer recommendations and corrective measures when it seems that the court system is perhaps too easily committed to “locking up” offenders instead of finding alternative methods that might allow them to pay a debt to society without ending up in prison with hardened and fairly sophisticated criminals.
Working with those young people who use guns to commit crime demands optimal methods so that optimal outcomes may finally be achieved in this challenging area. One thing that is manifestly apparent is that gun crime is very much linked to gang membership; another matter of note is that cracking down on the illegal secondary market for guns can also hamper the spread of gun violence. Finally, drug use also appears to facilitate the use of guns, so there must be acknowledgement of the need to crack down on the illicit flow of drugs within the black community (for the above, please see Public Safety Canada, 2018). These are the factors that most contribute to youth gun violence across North America, and these are the factors, if tackled, that will reduce the current plague of gun violence.
An Effective Community Program
The Ontario-based program that seems to offer the greatest hope for change, after some analysis, is the multi-pronged approach set forth earlier by the City of Toronto (2019). It surely will well accommodate such troubled young people because it tackles deficits in the education system, in the legal system, in terms of how police interact with the black community, and in terms of how the black community interacts with itself. The study does bring forth an array of empirical data which seems to suggest that discrimination, disordered communities, and high incarceration rates are all directly responsible for the plight of the black community in Toronto (City of Toronto, 2019). Thus, the best practices and measures it proposes – intimated at in previous paragraphs – seem excellent candidates to achieve desirable outcomes. There must also be a recognition that community resources do exist for managing the needs of at-risk black youth – in the form of black professionals and successful business-people, as well as meeting the needs of those within the community who need to feel safe from depredations and attacks at the hands of this group. Through mentoring, partnerships, outreach programs, drug programs, proactive and community-based policing, and affirmative hiring practices and remedial training and skills development (including cognitive-behavioural training), individuals can be steered toward better lives.
Putting It all Together
Practising community inclusivity in the Toronto context (and with a client group that is gang-connected and deeply under-developed and under-educated) means bringing this group into contact with other members of the black community who can offer support and guidance; in many instances, the people most hurt by such shootings are other black Canadians, so it seems obvious that these people need to see how they harm their own community and diminish their own future prospects for life success. The steps I would take to ensure I could work with such a group would involve bolstering my cross-cultural communication, understanding and identifying the biases I may have that could complicate interactions, learning how to best conduct client-centered counselling and support sessions, finding out a template that allows me to nudge the individuals in question toward understanding how they can solve their own problems and choose a correct path, and using de-escalation techniques to ward off moments of defensiveness, or possible violence, as they are confronted with what they have done. I believe that, with the close assistance of the black community, those who are not permanently marked by anti-social disorders can gradually be brought around to a state of inclusivity.
Cherry, T. (2018, May 15). ‘Surveillance footage shown in trial of accused in fatal community centre
shooting’. Retrieved May 1, 2019 from https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/mobile/surveillance-footage
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