Urban gang activity is pillared by economic poverty, but the permanence of such activity is sanctioned by a poverty of ideas.
In a speech recently delivered in Westminster, UK Member of Parliament and Chair of the London Gangs Forum, Chuka Umunna, shook conventional assessments of urban gangs by focusing on the "entrepreneurial zeal" that drives gang members and their illicit activities.
While in no way excusing the harmful criminality and deviance engaged in by gang members, Umunna described how individuals involved in gangs tend to demonstrate an "entrepreneurial instinct" that "if channelled in the right way, would provide them with an alternative route to success." That "right way," Umunna asserted, is legitimate business and constructive entrepreneurial opportunities.
Umunna's suggestions are interesting because of the way they break with politicians' typical manner of approaching the problem of urban gangs. Instead of hyping-up fear-inspiring rhetoric that creates images of incorrigible boogeymen lurking in the shadows of the cities' streets, Umunna re-humanizes gang members by acknowledging that they are people like the rest of us, and they can change if given greater opportunities to achieve upward social mobility.
Reading about Chuka Umunna's speech eventually led me to wonder about what Canadian politicians have recently been offering in terms of perspective and proposed solutions to address the issue of guns and gangs -- a topic that has once again seized the Canadian public's attention as a result of the recent Eaton Centre shooting. Here's a small sampling of what I've found:
Federal Conservative Cabinet minister, Julian Fantino, responded to the Eaton Centre shooting by saying: "Some of these people obviously need to be taught a lesson [...] We haven't been able to effectively get their attention. That's why some of these sentences, severe sentences and mandatory sentences are absolutely critical."
While a predictable and stale assessment and proposed solution, NDP Justice critic, Françoise Boivin, responded to the incident by saying, "What are really needed are more police on the ground."
The best of these altogether tired and hollow suggestions came from Bob Rae, interim Liberal leader, who is reported to have insisted that, "rather than waiting for the crimes to occur and then getting up on our high horses and saying, 'Isn't it a terrible thing?'" emphasis should be put on preventative measures supported through having the provinces work with Ottawa to address the festering problem of urban gun crime and violence.
These suggestions on how to properly address gang-related activity, leave much to be desired, but can be considered far less out of touch than what's recently come out of Toronto's City Council on the matter.
Of the latest gun and gang-fighting suggestions to come from Toronto City Council is the maintenance of an anti-gun by-law -- even where it has little to no impact on the lives of Torontonians most affected by guns and gangs, as well as a proposed city-wide ban on the sale of bullets in Toronto.
Though of some value, these responses suggest that in a general sense, our politicians are simply unable to meaningfully and creatively engage this long-standing issue of urban gangs and gang-related activity in a manner that provides workable and innovative solutions.
What differentiates Chuka Umunna's evaluation and approach to curbing urban gang activity from the sampling of Canadian politicians' perspectives just outlined is that Umunna's prescriptions feature a more promising and less fatalist appreciation of the matter.
In contrast to the new directions proposed by Umunna, our Canadian politicians seem to have largely adopted the position that those involved in gangs are hopelessly and permanently corrupted. As such, instead of seeing their human and individual potential for making positive contributions to our cities and Canadian society, it seems that our politicians have become fixated with the idea that these kids and young adults are just inherently bad people who can only be dealt with through harsher punishments and further measures of state-sponsored control.
Of course, the UK's London gangs are not the same as the gangs that we've seen in Canada's major urban centres. However, Umunna's interest in redirecting the entrepreneurial and business acumen of gang members becomes all the more relevant to the Canadian situation when we consider that the Italian mafia, biker gangs and major international criminal organizations have all been known to incorporate Canadian urban street-gangs into their illicit enterprises.
If you're wondering whether value could come from seriously considering Umunna's approach, you should consider the global phenomenon and profitability of the hip-hop/rap industry which has made legitimate millionaires out of once street-level drug dealers Jay-Z, Nas and 50 Cent.
Indeed, the rap game offers neither an ideal nor reliable route out of ganglife. However, it does exemplify what can happen when legitimate, relevant and competitive opportunities are offered to those attracted to the profits of gang affiliation.