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Teenage gangsters are made, not born

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Ever feel like you're on repeat? Last week, as West End violence ramped up in the headlines, it seemed familiar, if deeply troubling.

Reports of an allegedly gang-involved 13-year-old and 16-year-old being shot on Toronto Street were downright disturbing.

The public's disgust barometer shot up further when an eight-year-old and 10-year-old were injured after another related shooting on Victor Street. Seeing stuffed animals in the window of their Victor Street home sent a chill up my spine.

It's the little things that stick.

Police said Friday they'd arrested a 19-year-old shooter who'd fired the Victor Street bullets and some retaliatory shots on Agnes Street after 16-year-old Kyle Earl was fatally gunned down. The spate of violence had deep resonance with Winnipeggers.

Two of the biggest crime-related civic moments in the city's recent history involved the Sargent Avenue shooting that killed 17-year-old Philippe Haiart in 2005, as well as the 1995 shooting of 13-year-old Beeper Spence on Flora, near Robinson.

Spence was mistaken for an Indian Posse member when he was gunned down.

I have a lot of thoughts here, but one is this: crime is a virus, a communicable disease that spreads quickly where it's given conditions to grow. Want to see brutal elements of public health: guys who reek of sniff, are still wearing last night's hospital bracelet and cost the public up to $250,000 worth of emergency services per year? Head to Main Street Project or Siloam Mission.

Want to see kids involved in gangs?

Head to the 400 block of Flora near Salter Street, a block where I've attended more shootings/assaults/broken homes than I can draw from my immediate memory. One of my favourite homes to visit down Flora closer to Powers is now rubble after a fire.

The family I knew there (single mom, car thief son, a teenage girl grabbed at by johns) is also gone.

Like any good virus, criminal involvement -- and the decision to join gangs -- preys on those who are susceptible and spreads where there's fertile ground (in this case the breeding ground is poverty, violence, abuse, and a normalcy to inter-generational engagement with gang-life like the Manitoba Warriors or Indian Posse).

Crime can be macabre entertainment for people that don't cover it up close, or live amidst it. Many of our city's chattering classes are privileged to choose to escape its effects. A cheeky journalist I once chatted with compared crime coverage to porn for its ability to titillate and excite.

I'm not as cynical as he is. But I do think segregation is alive and well in Canada, it just works differently: with money, you buy your way out of the odds of crime infecting you.

It's easy to talk about the never-ending gang issue with a sense of easy judgement when it's not outside your front door.

Security of person is a privilege, not a God-given right, sadly.

Sometimes, we see inner-city residents being set up as adversaries of the police, but it was interesting to note last week both Chief Keith McCaskill and Ndinawe Turning the Tides gang prevention program coordinator Melissa Omelan referenced some similar points in conversation. Note this:

"There is no way that the police service can just go like 'this' and stop gang activity, I've said that many times, we need community work, so a lot of these things are long-term solutions. We have to stop people from getting into gangs in the first place," said McCaskill last week at a press conference. There is no "magic solution," he said. "There's long-term plans that have to be put in place... some of these gangs are inter-generational, and some young people out there involved in gang activity think that's the right thing to do."

And Omelan Monday:

"People don't understand the pressures... we ask these kids 'leave your gang' but we're asking them to isolate themselves from their communities and their families," she said. "That's a really hard thing to ask a kid to do, because when they do that, then what? What do we do with them? Where do they go? Who's their support system?"

Omelan isn't foisting the youth's choices to participate in gang life onto society or saying they shouldn't face consequences for their actions. She's nuanced that way. Police say they're not social workers. They're right, too.

Simplistic and reductive conversations focus on blaming others (heck, there's always the familiar refrain of calling for more police on the streets or pressure for 'new' and flashy toys/units/officers to deal with deeply embedded social issues.

Sometimes, our political bodies are only too happy to satisfy those unhealthy quick-fix cravings with cotton-candy announcements).

But these approaches ignores all the work community members and police already do in the West End, and have done for years.

Here is what is more interesting to me -- the place where we all meet, as a mindful civic society  -- in dealing and coping with crime and its impact on our lives. You know you have a cold when you start sneezing and coughing.

However, the virus was there already, coursing through the blood and waiting for a chance to blossom into its external symptoms.

You know gangs are a problem for West End residents when bullets hit children. Beeper Spence died 15 years before Kyle Earl did.

How far does the virus spread before we all wake up?

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About Gabrielle Giroday

Gabrielle has handled the police and crime beat for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2009, meaning she’s seen the best and worst humanity has to offer.

Covering the crime beat in a city known for its homicide rate and violent crime can be challenging, but Gabrielle tries to look at the more complex factors that drive violent events. She began the beat after originally joining the Free Press in June 2005.

Her previous experience contributing to the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, the National Post, Maisonneuve magazine and NOW Magazine. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Queen’s University Feminist Review, and completed a degree there in politics and English. Some of the Toronto native’s favourite adventures include hitchhiking in the Cuban countryside during a stint studying in Havana, and hanging off the back of a jeep climbing the Kanchenjunga mountain in Nepal.

Gabrielle also felt privileged to write about the first-time elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 2006, and received a grant from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian International Development Agency to write about sexual violence there.

She recently went to Cameroon in fall 2010 as part of an expert election monitoring team, on behalf of the Commonwealth.

When she’s not chasing a story, Gabrielle can be found jogging every morning by the Legislature and down Portage Avenue.

She’s always enthusiastic about stories that involve investigating the road less travelled or the opinion less broadcast.

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