Urban storm warning

TheStar.com – Opinion – Urban storm warning: To avoid this kind of unrest, Toronto must find ways to empower youth in poor areas
August 15, 2008. Simon Black

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Canada’s premier hip-hop culture magazine, POUND, arguing that it was not a matter of if but of when urban riots led by poor youth would erupt in Canadian cities.

The riots that shook Montreal North on Sunday night leave me with no sense of self-satisfaction about a prediction come true, but rather with a sense of obligation to once again urge our very own city to take action before Toronto shares Montreal’s fate.

Although some details of the incident are still unclear, police were attempting to make an arrest during a “routine intervention” in Henri Bourassa Park on Saturday when they were surrounded by up to 20 youths. Police say a number of youths broke off from the pack and charged the officers. It was then that one officer opened fire on three young people. One of them, 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva, later died in hospital from his wounds.

The community expressed its anger in a well-attended and peaceful demonstration on Sunday afternoon. As the demonstration concluded, reports say a few protestors torched cars parked outside the local fire station. Propane tank fireballs, Molotov cocktails and gunfire followed as local youths took to the streets in rioting that caused damage to local businesses and shocked residents of the working-class neighbourhood.

Sunday’s riot may have been small-scale in comparison to the mass insurrections launched by French youth in 2005, but policy-makers and the Canadian public would be remiss to think that the urban riot belongs solely to the poor French suburbs known as banlieues or the black ghettos in the United States.

As the respected urban historian Michael B. Katz noted in his recent address to the Urban History Association: “Poverty, inequality, chronic joblessness, segregation, police violence, ethnic transition, a frayed safety net” are “the combustible ensemble of elements” of the urban riot.

And as report after report has made clear, from the United Way and the Toronto City Summit Alliance to York and the University of Toronto’s urban institutes, that “combustible ensemble of elements” is increasingly present in our city.

Not that Toronto has been immune from such unrest in the past. The so-called Yonge St. mini-riot of 1992 is often framed as a copycat case influenced by the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the brutal beating of African-American Rodney King. Yet, as the Stephen Lewis report revealed, tensions between Toronto’s black community and the police were long-standing and had been brought to a head with the acquittal of two white Peel Regional police officers involved in the 1988 shooting death of black teenager Michael Wade Lawson – the more likely spark for the Yonge St. unrest.

Urban riots in working-class and racialized communities like Montreal North are expressions of anger at police tactics, high rates of joblessness and poverty, and a government that appears unwilling to address the grievances of these communities.

An instance of police violence is often what brings the simmer of frustration to a raging boil. The historical precedents for what happened in Montreal are numerous. In the U.K., urban riots in the predominantly black Liverpool district of Toxteth in 1981 followed an incident of police brutality. Similar events occurred in the London neighbourhood of Brixton that same year and again in 1985. The Wolverhampton, Coventry and Birmingham riots, also in 1985, were all sparked by acts of police misconduct toward black or South Asian youth.

When Miami police were implicated in the death of an African-American man in 1980, the so-called “Liberty City Riots” involved some of the worst urban unrest seen in the U.S. since the late 1960s. Brixton erupted again in 1995 when a black youth died in police custody. In 2001, riots in Cincinnati followed the death of 19-year old Timothy Thomas, a black male who was gunned down by a white police officer during an on-foot pursuit.

In 2005, riots erupted in close to 300 cities and towns across France after police chased two youths of colour into a power station where they were electrocuted and later died. France erupted again in 2007 after two youths were killed in a collision with a police cruiser.

The young people who populate these neighbourhoods, “urban outcasts” as sociologist Loïc Wacquant has called them, do not engage in this violence irrationally. They often target symbols of governments they feel have failed them. It could be police, a community centre or a fire station.

Wacquant, a University of California at Berkeley academic, has done important work in this area. In a recent talk, he concluded that the French riots were a more effective political tool for socio-economically marginalized communities than voting in the three previous elections. A dangerous proposition, but one he backs up empirically. After successive governments had cut social supports, the French government responded to the 2005 riots with a cash infusion of 100 million euros to social programs and the education system; 100,000 fellowships for students in designated “sensitive urban areas”; 5,000 teaching assistants to schools in France’s poorest urban neighbourhoods; 20,000 publicly subsidized jobs targeted to these same neighbourhoods; an immediate increase in welfare rates; and a doubling of the number of social workers geared toward immigrant settlement.

This is not to say riots are politics – but they are political. Politics in contemporary society involves channelling popular discontents into the legitimate avenues of social and political reform, such as political parties, social movements and the courts.

Rioters ignore the niceties of polite political practice, but they can and do shape relations of power between the government and the governed nonetheless.

As Martin Luther King once said, “a riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”

When ignored and marginalized, the urban riot becomes a voice for the voiceless, however reactionary and destructive these events may seem. If Toronto wants to avoid the fate of cities in the U.K., the U.S., France, and now Quebec, it needs to find ways to empower youth in our most politically and socially marginalized communities. Setting up a dialogue that would allow youth to express their legitimate grievances with Toronto’s police force, without fear of further stigmatization or reprisal, would be a small step in the right direction.

Simon Black is a researcher at York University’s City Institute and visiting Fulbright fellow at the City University of New York.

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