Moral panic over gun violence encourages racism and repression

Blaming violence on Black American influences has a long history in Montreal
Photo: Montreal North (Caribb / Flickr)
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Since the fall of 2019, we’ve seen an ever-increasing panic about gun crimes in the northeast neighbourhoods of Montreal. Central to this panic, spread by the police, city hall, and the media, are claims that gun crimes are rapidly increasing and that new police resources and often more aggressive police tactics are required to contain the problem.

These claims, which are bound to exacerbate racial profiling issues, inevitably turn attention away from the investments in social programs that organizations and community members in the affected neighbourhoods have been demanding for decades.

While every shooting is a great cause for concern, the failure to put recent shootings in historical context greatly exaggerates the extent of the problem and the urgency of repressive police action. In fact, SPVM data shows a modest 10 per cent increase in gun crime in 2020 versus 2019, an increase that places 2020 below the average of the last six years and well below the totals for 2016 and 2017. Moreover, since the 1990s, crime has been decreasing across North America, including gun crimes and crimes committed by youth.

Not surprisingly, claims about increasing gun crime are generally light on data (if any is cited at all) and heavy on assertions that speak to pre-existing prejudices.

New York’s crime rate has decreased in the years following the end of stop and frisk. Blaming violence on Black American influences has a long history in Montreal. Once the problem is identified as foreign, it is typical to call for a foreign solution as well.

One example of this comes from Université de Montréal criminologist Marc Ouimet. Speaking in various media venues over the last six months, Ouimet has claimed that recent shootings are the result of “hip hop culture” imported from the United States. The claim fails apart under scrutiny — hip hop, after all, was not invented last year — but it slips across a message that would be more repugnant if stated more directly: gun crime is the fault of Black and brown people, and no other factors need to be considered.

Following this pattern, the solution for Ouimet is the “stop and frisk” program implemented in New York City in the 1990s. “What we need,” Ouimet explained on Radio-Canada’s Midi Info, “is a system where youth are put under surveillance, with police in plain clothes stopping them, checking their ID, and searching them.”

This claim ignores years of evidence that the program simply ramped up arrests for small infractions, not gun crime, and that it aggravated problems of racial profiling and, indeed, violated the rights of Black and brown people. For these reasons, the United States federal court in 2013 found the practice racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. In a final repudiation of the practice, New York’s crime rate has decreased in the years following the end of stop and frisk.

Rather than more police and more aggressive police tactics, recent shootings in the city should provide an opportunity to reflect on the systemic causes of long-standing social and racial inequalities

Crude perspectives like Ouimet’s have found a larger platform in the last two weeks, but the push for more police resources and more aggressive tactics began much earlier. Claiming that gun crime was increasing, the SPVM launched a new anti-gun squad in the fall of 2019. The actions of the gun squad, it turned out, involved increased police harassment of Black people in the northeast of the city and the disproportionate arrest of Black people for non-gun infractions — 75 per cent of people charged by the gun squad in its first six months were Black, and less than 30 per cent of these charges involved guns. Undaunted by these results, the SPVM announced the creation of a second gun squad in December, expected to involve 20 police officers and a cost of $2.5 to $3 million per year.

Sidelined in the increasingly panicked debate about gun crime in Montreal is the need for investments in social programs that organizations and community members in the affected neighbourhoods — the actors that best understand the root causes of violence — have been demanding for years. Included here are much-needed programs that address the marginalization that makes crime (and associated violence) more attractive to some youth, as well as programs that seek to build relationships with youth vulnerable to gun crime and mediate conflicts before they become violent.

Rather than more police and more aggressive police tactics, recent shootings in the city should provide an opportunity to reflect on the systemic causes of long-standing social and racial inequalities, including the role of the police in exacerbating them and the absurdity of trying to combat social problems with repression of any kind.

Karl Beaulieu is a master’s student in the Department of Criminology at the Université de Montréal. Jade Bourdages is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Ted Rutland is an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Environment at Concordia University.
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