The unusual suspects

B.C.’s mid­dle­class gang prob­lem

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Laura KANE, Amy SMART

SUR­REY — At the end of a tran­quil cul-de-sac in a pleas­ant neigh­bour­hood, a tall stucco house over­looks a well-kept lawn and lush flowerbeds. The home is in the Metro Van­cou­ver city of Sur­rey, where the av­er­age price of a de­tached prop­erty is $1.1 mil­lion.

Be­fore an of­fi­cer from the RCMP’s gang en­force­ment unit knocks on the door to con­duct a cur­few check, he notes that the al­leged gang boss didn’t pur­chase the home with drug prof­its. This is his fam­ily’s house, where he grew up and still lives in his mid-20s.

“Gangs in Chicago and other U.S. cities, they’re usu­ally ge­o­graph­i­cally based. They keep a watch of the block, or they’re a bunch of new im­mi­grants to a coun­try. It be­comes a unity thing, like sur­vival. Th­ese kids don’t have that is­sue,” Const. Ryan Sch­w­erd­feger says.

“Some may be new im­mi­grants to Canada, but their par­ents sold prop­erty back home and they live in $1 mil­lion-plus homes and their par­ents buy them what­ever car they want.”

Po­lice of­fi­cers say the gang con­flict in British Columbia’s Lower Main­land is un­like any other in North Amer­ica. Many young mem­bers come from middle- to up­per-class homes. They aren’t driven by poverty, but in­stead by their de­sire to be­long, to be pro­tected or to em­u­late the gang­ster life­style flashed by other teens on so­cial me­dia. Some be­come trapped in gangs once they join, while oth­ers just meet the wrong friends and find themselves caught in the crosshairs.

Po­lice are struggling to con­tain the deadly gunfire and fam­i­lies are left bro­ken and con­fused. In fact, the sit­u­a­tion is so dif­fer­ent in B.C. that some say many of the groups tot­ing guns and deal­ing drugs are not re­ally “gangs” at all. But to end the vi­o­lence, ex­perts say, it must be un­der­stood why kids are jump­ing into the fray – and why it’s so hard for them to leave. When los­ing friends starts to feel nor­mal From an early age, all of Ary Azez’s friends were in­volved in the gang life­style in Sur­rey. The 22-year-old now works for an anti-gang group called Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Ini­tia­tive, and he ca­su­ally men­tions that his friends “who are still alive” are still in­volved in drug deal­ing.

He’s lost seven friends in shoot­ings or to overdoses.

“Af­ter a while, it’s like, ‘Oh. Too bad,”’ Azez says with a shrug and a slight laugh.

“It doesn’t hurt as much any­more. In the be­gin­ning, it was re­ally tough, when it’s the ones who are re­ally close to you. Af­ter that, it’s like, ‘Oh, you got stabbed, no way,’ and then you just con­tinue with your lunch.”

Azez grew up middle-class, but he says join­ing a gang wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the clearcut “choice” that po­lice some­times make it out to be. In his ex­pe­ri­ence, each high school rep­re­sents it­self.

“If you go to the school, you’re ba­si­cally a part of the gang,” he says. “You could be one of those kids who stays in­doors and plays chess with the nerds, or you could be with the cool kids out­side smok­ing and hanging out on the block. On the one hand, you did have a choice. But on the other hand, it’s clear that no one re­ally wants to be on the in­side.”

Azez was kicked out of school be­fore he be­came too deeply en­trenched, he says, al­low­ing him to take a step back and ob­serve how “stupid” the life­style was.

He also started to no­tice the im­pact on his fam­ily, af­ter hid­ing his be­hav­iour from them for a long time.

“We’re not coming from bro­ken fam­i­lies, where we’re miss­ing par­ents, or from foster homes, or we’re poor. We have a fam­ily. We have a nice house. We have cars,” he ex­plains.

“All of a sud­den, when you’re bring­ing out­side drama that doesn’t re­ally be­long in that en­vi­ron­ment, it re­ally crashes down.”

On a high school field, teenagers en­rolled in Yo Bro Yo Girl prac­tise kabaddi, an In­dian sport. One young player, 18-year-old Jaski­rat Dhali­wal, re­marks that kids need money to join gangs.

“I’ve seen kids who are loaded and then they get in gangs,” he says, shaking his head. “To hang out with peo­ple and go around, you need money. You have to spend on peo­ple. There’s a guy here who pays $700 for his gas ev­ery month. That’s crazy ... You’ve got to buy stuff for the fights. That’s stupid. I’d rather buy my knee pads and my mouth guard.”

Kids look­ing for pro­tec­tion or a sense of be­long­ing

The con­ver­sa­tion about B.C.’s gang con­flict has largely fo­cused on Sur­rey, of­ten per­ceived by out­siders to be a rough part of Metro Van­cou­ver. But other than a few trou­bled neigh­bour­hoods, Sur­rey is an av­er­age sub­ur­ban com­mu­nity, where the me­dian house­hold in­come in 2016 was $68,060, higher than the provin­cial av­er­age of $61,280.

Out­rage over gang vi­o­lence in Sur­rey has reached such a fever pitch that a new mayor was elected last year on a prom­ise to re­place the RCMP with a mu­nic­i­pal po­lice force. Pre­vi­ous may­ors have also tried to curb the gunfire, in­clud­ing in 2017 when then-mayor Linda Hep­ner con­vened a task force on gang vi­o­lence preven­tion, which pro­duced a re­port last year.

The re­port high­lights that gang crime is not lim­ited to Sur­rey. Of 46 gang-re­lated homi­cides in B.C. in 2017, six oc­curred in Sur­rey, seven in Abbotsford, six in Rich­mond and five in Van­cou­ver.

The re­port also notes that, un­like other re­gions, B.C. gangs span so­cio-eco­nomic classes and are multi-eth­nic. The high­est pro­por­tion of gang-re­lated murder and at­tempted murder vic­tims from 2006 to 2015 were white, while 25 per cent were South Asian.

The task force also shed light on the com­plex rea­sons why kids are join­ing gangs. They might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing trauma or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sub­stance abuse at home, lack of parental su­per­vi­sion or have delin­quent peers or siblings. Or they might be get­ting bul­lied at school and turn to a gang for pro­tec­tion, or just to feel like they be­long some­where. And some might sim­ply be lured by the prom­ise of profit and lux­ury.

“What we’re see­ing is sur­pris­ing to us and un­ex­pected,” says Joanna An­ge­lidis, di­rec­tor of learn­ing ser­vices for the Delta School Dis­trict. “It seems to be that it’s young peo­ple who you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect would be­come in­volved in gang life,” she added.

“So what we’re think­ing is that it’s young peo­ple who are maybe look­ing for a feel­ing of con­nec­tion or in­clu­sion and they’re look­ing for that in ways that are clearly un­healthy or danger­ous.”

Is ‘gang’ is the right word?

Sev­eral hours into his pa­trol, Sch­w­erd­feger makes a re­mark that seems sur­pris­ing for a con­sta­ble with the words “Gang En­force­ment Unit” printed on his bul­let­proof vest.

“In my per­sonal view, I wouldn’t say we have a gang prob­lem in Sur­rey,” he says.

He ex­plains that while the city has some no­to­ri­ous gangs, in­clud­ing the Red Scor­pi­ons and Broth­ers Keep­ers, many don’t have names and are more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as “drug traf­fick­ing groups.”

“When I think of gang, I think of Crips and Bloods, you know, Chicago, L.A., like real gangs. I don’t usu­ally give too much credit to th­ese kids to call them gang­sters,” he says. “For the most part, they’re all just boys that sell drugs.”

Sch­w­erd­feger says un­like the Hells An­gels, where mem­bers all hang out and move as a group, th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions op­er­ate more like busi­nesses where each mem­ber has a spe­cific func­tion that they might per­form largely in a silo. He com­pares it to a Wal­mart, with a gen­eral man­ager, floor man­ager, shelf stocker and greeter.

When he talks about the Lower Main­land’s gang land­scape, he’s quick to men­tion the work of Ke­iron McCon­nell, a vet­eran po­lice of­fi­cer and Kwantlen Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who trav­elled to Toronto, Chicago, Los An­ge­les, Maskwacis, Alta., and Lon­don, Eng­land, to ob­serve gangs for his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion.

While gangs in each city had some unique as­pects, McCon­nell broadly found marginal­ized males liv­ing in im­pov­er­ished, graf­fiti-cloaked neigh­bour­hoods. B.C.’s clean streets and sub­ur­ban homes stood in stark con­trast.

The Crim­i­nal Code definition of a crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion – a gang – is a group of three or more peo­ple that com­mits crimes for profit. But McCon­nell’s dis­ser­ta­tion re­jects the idea that B.C. has a “gang prob­lem” and says the term is mis­lead­ing and prob­lem­atic be­cause it con­notes ban­danna-wear­ing youth fight­ing for turf and sug­gests street­based out­reach could work.

McCon­nell ac­cepts that po­lice and me­dia have adopted the la­bel “gang” and it’s stuck, but says it’s im­por­tant to note how dif­fer­ent its mean­ing is in B.C.

Quit­ting gang life can be dif­fi­cult and danger­ous

En­ter­ing a gang may be a choice for some youth in B.C., but leav­ing is not so sim­ple. The youngest, newest mem­bers typ­i­cally do the most danger­ous work as dial-a-dop­ers, risk­ing rob­bery, as­sault or even death from des­per­ate ad­dicts or ri­val groups, say po­lice.

But some­times when a dial-a-doper ex­presses in­ter­est in leav­ing, his own crew will set up a rob­bery so he must pay back the loss with “tax” that never goes away, ex­plains Sch­w­erd­feger.

“Now they’re work­ing be­cause they have to,” he says.

“Or th­ese guys come to their front door and try to col­lect from the mom and dad. They don’t care.”


Mem­bers of the RCMP Gang En­force­ment Team speak to the oc­cu­pants of a car dur­ing a stop in Sur­rey on May 31.

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