In the wake of the Eaton Centre shooting, The Sun’s Joe Warmington declared predictably that Toronto is “a dangerous city.” The rebuttals – statistical, official and political — began to flow fast and furious, including one from Mayor Rob Ford.
Nevertheless, Councillor Adam Vaughan, of all people, decided he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pander to the cheap seats and warned (as if he were still in Citytv commentary mode) that Toronto could be facing another “summer of the gun,” given the general uptick in shooting incidents (though not homicides) this year.
After the guns and gangs taskforce crackdowns of 2006 and 2007, as Vaughan elaborated in an interview with The Sun, “the number of people that got sent away on what appeared to be sort of a pattern of five and six-year sentences and this may be the echo of the Summer of the Gun.”
Toronto Police Service officials categorically denied the implication.
So Adam, what’s with the fear-mongering?
To my ear, the phrase “summer of the gun” — first used in print by a National Post reporter in August, 2005 — has always had the sound of coded language, certainly capable of summoning very specific associations in the minds of middle class residents. Which are: young brown men with handguns who have the temerity to bring their violence out of those dark recesses of the city that the rest of “us” don’t frequent and, by and large, don’t think about. And “we” don’t like it when their bullets fly in the places considered to be emblematic of Toronto’s urbanism.
A few years ago, Toronto Life assigned me to write a feature about Toronto’s “gun culture” in the aftermath of several well-publicized downtown shootings, one of which killed a much-loved father, John O’Keefe, who was heading home after a beer with friends at a pub on Yonge Street. I spent weeks interviewing people whose lives had been torn apart by guns, but it quickly became apparent that most, though not all, of the violence was happening in forlorn pockets of the inner suburbs, where such killings barely register with the media, much less the broader public. (By contrast, the murders of Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin, shot in their SUV late one night near Trinity Bellwoods, warranted a solid week of mournful media coverage.)
Toronto Life’s intention, however, was to make ominous predictions about another “summer of the gun,” and also to alarm downtowners that the gun violence could intrude on patio season and the gentrified inner city. The editors even removed official statistics about shooting incidents that ran counter to the thesis. As it turned out, however, there was no reprise of the summer of the gun in 2008.
With this latest shooting, I think it’s important to acknowledge some important subtexts:
There’s no Jane Creba in the story of what happened at the Eaton Centre, and no one, save a circle of friends and family in the Somali community, is mourning the death of Ahmed Hassan. We will quickly forget his name, although his tale — war, migration, and the subsequent descent into crime — is surely every bit as tragic, especially in this city of immigrants.
Because this story lacks an anointed martyr, it will have far less political and policy impact. The 2005 Boxing Day shooting on Yonge Street, coming on the heels of that terrible summer, precipitated an awful lot of change. Creba, innocent in every conceivable way, galvanized the political classes in a way that compromised figures like Ahmed Hassan never will.
The Conservative government’s hasty and opportunistic overtures last week – an off-the-record chat with Somali leaders, followed by a cheque for $350,000 for one-year extension for a gang prevention research project – will accomplish very little, if anything.
Last, the much-hyped redevelopment of Regent Park has not, and will not, halt the gang-related turf wars that led Christopher Husbands to allegedly exact his revenge on an apparent rival in the middle of a crowded food court. Remember: for all the cultural spaces and new food stores and award-winning urban design that went into this project, the reality is that Regent Park’s low-income tenants have been carefully segregated from the affluent condo owners. The new Regent Park is a pastiche of a mixed income neighbourhood — a detail, I’m sure, Adam Vaughan has at the top of his mind as the revitalization of Alexandra Park continues apace.
To the extent that anyone genuinely wants to draw lessons from the Eaton Centre shooting (or was it actually a Regent Park shooting?), it is impossible to ignore the fact that this particular episode occurred in a city-region that has, since 2007, invested substantial energy and resources in reforms like community policing, guns-and-gangs enforcement, priority neighbourhood services, public housing redevelopment, arts and recreation facilities, stay-in-school programs, and other measures to prevent “at risk” youth from falling through the proverbial cracks.
Despite all that effort, Husbands and Hassan fell through nonetheless.
So, summer of the gun? Let’s not go there. Indeed, the grinding, increasingly concentrated poverty [ PDF link ] that can give rise to the drugs, the guns and the internecine gang warfare isn’t seasonal. It’s perennial. And as far as I can tell, no one seems especially able to find meaningful solutions to that particular problem.
photo by Gadjo Sevilla