Hug a thug. Really.

Gang members are a part of our community

Mike Sudoma

The following article is not meant to scare you. It isn’t meant to paint a dreary picture of our city, nor is it intended to make you believe Winnipeg is the Compton of the North. But our city has a gang problem. Before you assume this piece is some right-wing diatribe about locking up kids, I assure you it’s not. The reality is there are approximately 35 active gangs in Winnipeg with about 1,500 active gang members. I’m not necessarily talking about the bar star “gangs” that buy everyone shots at the nightclubs and get custom rims for their Civics and Cameros. The gangs I’m talking about, like the gangs of LA, are products of poverty, exploitation, racial segregation, and colonialism.

There shouldn’t be any doubt the way in which Indigenous people in Canada have been treated has led to the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal people living in poverty and participating in gangs: 75 per cent of Winnipeg’s gangs are Aboriginal. Nor should we be surprised that the lack of resources and respect for immigrants and refugees results in that population making up most of the other 25 per cent. 

Here in Winnipeg, the names of many gangs reflect this, including the Manitoba Warriors, Indian Posse, African Mafia, Native Syndicate, and local derivatives of LA’s infamous Crips and Bloods.

We know often gang members are forced into the life by social issues like exclusion, poverty and racism. We also know that “undoing” involvement in gangs is a difficult concept for governments, and a dangerous process for gang members. VICE’s recent mini documentary called “Warriors off the Res: Aboriginal Gangs in Winnipeg” profiles a few of these youth who yearn to escape the cycle but believe they simply can’t.

The way the public perceives these young people is usually with fear, rather than with compassion. And that doesn’t help. I’m not suggesting you approach a 16-year-old in gang colours and give them a big hug (unless you know them), but I am suggesting you try to understand that the 16-year-old in gang colours has probably been through a hell of a lot more than most of the rest of us. I am also suggesting you don’t see them as hopeless.

There are many organizations that help gang members turn their lives around. Adult education programs provide tools for success and such community groups as Aboriginal Youth Opportunities provide a safe place to be and make friends. There are people who care enough to commit their lives to helping others escape gangs and violence.

We all need to work together to fight racism and poverty in our communities. Governments at every level have struggled with this one: it seems easier to lock someone up than to lend them a hand.

Tackling poverty and colonization is a pretty overwhelming project, but a good place to start is simply by perceiving gang members not as gang members, but as members of our community.

Maybe then our fear will turn into compassion.

David Jacks went to Gordon Bell High School, was President of the UWSA, and is currently a Communications Representative at the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Published in Volume 69, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 22, 2014)

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