The story of the fatal shooting on Sargent Avenue on October 10, 2005 was presented in the media intensely over a short time, and then persistently for several weeks. I summarized the coverage in my entry Unlucky.
There are a few things to be said about perspective. The media are trying to meet the needs of readers, as journalists and editors read those needs. This affects the the questions they address, facts they leave out, and the way they tell the story, The media seldom tell the whole story, and often doesn’t try to get differing perspectives. The media often tries to make a story colourful or accessible by writing about people, instead of facts and issues, which can also make a story intrusive.
The police briefed the media, accurately, on the first day after the shooting that the deceased had been killed by a stray bullet from a gunfight involving members of gangs of youths. That kind of battle on the streets is fortunately uncommon in Winnipeg, although we have had drive-by shootings, gun shots fired at houses, gunfire in bars and restaurants, gunfire exchanged between rival hoodlums in moving vehicles, mysterious explosions and fires, and murders related to drug dealing and gang rivalry. It was a tragedy and a crime. It said something about safety and about social conditions. It was a significant event for the community.
When the police announced Phillipe’s identity, the media were almost desperate to tell a big, important story, but the media didn’t have many facts to report. The police had investigated and laid charges, and had briefed the press. The media got the story of the shooting from the police – through the official a briefing, perhaps by talking to police officers who might have provided some extra information. I don’t know if the press asked questions, and I don’t know if the police answered them. The police mentioned the existence of two specific gangs, with gang rivalry being given as the background for the violence.
The media probably could not have done much to report any more about the shooting without the cooperation of the police. The thought of reporters knocking on doors, interviewing witnesses and uncovering evidence is faintly silly, but there are other dimensions to the story. One of them, as I said in my other entry, is the way police reacted to the first shooting at the house, the previous evening, and how the police and paramedics responded to this emergency. Another is the coverage of the gang issue. The police and the media said that the shooting resulted from conflict between gangs called the Mad Cowz and the African Mafia, and implied that most of the members of these gangs were immigrants from Africa. It would have been interesting if the media had asked the police for more information on the gangs – size, leaders and members, criminal records, cases pending. It would have been interesting to see what the media could tell its audience about modern young people, street culture, drugs and gangs. It would have been interesting to see if the media could have given its audience any insights into police work. The police and the media referred to the event as a consequence of gang activity, which invited readers to apply their own limited knowledge and preconceived ideas about drugs, gangs, and immigrants to the story. On this part of the story, someone looking for information might as well have been reading a graphic novel.
The general suggestion is that these gangs are new, and that they represent a new threat to public safety. It would be fair to say that gang affiliation is fluid, and that African immigrants are not easily welcomed into Aboriginal, white and Asian gangs. If immigrant youth are drawn to the streel life, they have to find or form their own gangs. So these two particular gangs are new, although they are simply new players in an old game. It’s hard to say that the Africans are any more violent than any other groups, given recent history. The problem is that young men who join gangs are impulsive, aggressive, and living in a fantasy world. The African component in these gangs has been overstated by the police and the media. Both gangs are loosely organized groups dominated by a few toughs. The main leaders of the Mad Cowz are a few brothers, members of a black, non-immigrant, family. Neither of the young men charged with the shooting are African immigrants. The police believe that the leaders of the gangs are particularly aggressive, in selling drugs and in defending their territory. There are some nasty stories about them. The African part of the story is more obscure. The police seem to be concerned that the Africans approach gangs with no particular sense of limits, and that African youth may be easily led into more extreme behaviour.
Within the first few days, the chief of police talked to the media. It is impossible to reconstruct the interview from the story, but it looks like he was anticipating criticism of the Police service and trying to answer or deflect it. He probably knew that the individuals charged with the shooting had been arrested and released on bail on other charges. He must have known that a lot of people in Winnipeg were wondering why the police can’t control gangs. His answer was that the police are arresting criminals, but the Courts aren’t locking them up. He portrayed the police force as being limited or held back by inadequate resources and inadequate public support. He implies that if the Courts and the corrections system could simply lock up everyone the police arrested, the street would be safer. One problem with this logic is that the police aren’t doing that well in catching criminals. It isn’t that they are incompetent – it’s often that the evidence isn’t there. The police catch the dumb, the impulsive, and the unlucky, but they aren’t catching all the criminals. Another problem is that it overlooks the ecology of the street. If the police arrest one dealer, there are always more people competing for his place – his resources, his power, his status.
This line of discussion also involves some questionable assertions about the performance of the courts. The police chief promoted the myth of lenient sentences, and the media didn’t challenge his story. Gang members commit many crimes, and are often caught in act. The offences are minor, but with repetition, they accumulate a record and they are penalized for their records, their recidivisim, their gang involvement and their posture of defiance. The sentences are tough compared to sentences imposed on other offenders for the same offences. The offenders antagonize the police, who would like to do something to get the offenders to stop the nonsense or get them off the street, but the law punishes the crime, not the attitude. Young men in gangs commit a lot of crimes, and they keep the police entirely too busy. They do seem to make a game of it. The chief of police suggests the stakes of the game need to be raised drastically.
Part of his job is to reassure people that we have a competent police force and that we live in a reasonably safe city. Unfortunately when he overstates the effectiveness and efficiency of the police force, and criticizes other parts of the law enforcement system, he undermines his own crediblity and contributes to anxiety and fear.
Civic politicians portrayed their predecessors in office and rivals as incompetent and inadequately dedicated to fighting crime. We saw the chief of police and the mayor standing on Sargent Avenue promising to make a Clean Sweep on gangs. There wasn’t much substance in the announcement but the media reported this theatrical gesture favourably. Local politicians, activists, and commentators weighed in. Anyone with anything to say about law enforcement or social policy in the West End mentioned Phillipe, and the call to arms, and social problems of African immigrants. A few commentators suggested that immigrant youths were more inclined to join gangs because Canadian immigration practices, educational practices and social systems had failed to socialize them and integrate them into Canadian society. A few letter-writers denounced the commentators, immigrant youth and their parents.
The media coverage focussed on the deceased and his family for several days. His family weren’t available, so they talked to his girlfriends and some of his friends. This part of the story was about loss and grief. There seems to be an established journalistic technique writing about the victim as a celebrity, and reporting on the reactions of friends and family. This is supposed to respect the victim and to give the victim a presence and a voice. It was emotional and engaging, and it was intrusive and manipulative. The media seem to me to have become the priests at an ad hoc public ritual. The media were active participants in the story, and the working methology was dramatic, emotional and tragic. This part of the story inspired genuine empathy for the family and genuine anger at stupid and violent young men resolving disputes about dirty money and the honour and status of criminal tribes with gunfire. Their work on this part of the story has a powerful positive aspect.
A troubling aspect of the media’s technique is the that reporters interviewed people who were hurt and vulnerable, and portrayed them as calling the city to arms. The image of anguish was compelling. One man handed the media a golden quote about a “call to arms”, which was promptly appropriated by the police and by conservative politicians as a call to arms against the underclass – the dirty plebs, the immigrants, the outcasts.
Another negative aspect of the story was the initial emphasis on the social standing of the deceased’s family, which was followed by a persistent practice of mentioning the deceased and his family in stories that were not related to the court proceedings or the criminal investigation. Several stories about police policy, City politics, social and social policy have mentioned the deceased by name, and some have gone into the details of his family’s social position including his parents’ professions and the name of the school he had attended. This was pervasive and I am wondering if this pervasive coverage respects the victim and his family.
The emphasis on his social standing has led to some confusing interpetations. He was a resident of the inner City, although he had only moved there recently and he was young and poor. The police take crimes against residents of the inner City seriously, and his case was investigated thoroughly. The media covered the story intensively, as they have with many other stories of violence against residents of the inner City. However the media’s attention to his suburban background seems to have been used to suggest that the police and the media have been indifferent to crime and gangs in the inner City. This was Charles Adler’s view in his column in the Free Press on October 15 – Imagine if Gang of Six lived in core. That view seemed to be coming from some citizens. It isn’t clear if this started with Adler through his local radio program, or if he anticipated that current of opinion and publicized it. Adler’s interpretation of the facts is wrong, but his observations about police and politicians spinning the blame were astute.
There is, I think, a huge issue about the way parents and schools socialize children. We are seeing huge numbers of teenagers and young adults who can’t handle frustration and boredom, who expect life to be entertaining, and who aren’t impressed with rules and authority. Many of these kids will grow up to be wealthy and successful narcissists in business and the arts, but some of them grow up to play real-life games with the police. They steal real cars, sell real drugs, they beat up real people, and they shoot real guns. The one who get in trouble and stay in trouble tend to have grown up poor and disadvantaged, but some kids who started with more social advantages find their way into that life too.
There are wide-spread, perhaps univeral beliefs that certain social practices and systems can control crime and protect individuals. If parents raise their children properly, if social workers help the bad parents, if the schools do their job, if the mental health system did its job, if addictions counselling did its job, then there wouldn’t be bad kids growing into bad adults who commit crimes. If the police and the courts did their jobs, criminals would be afraid to commit crimes because they would know they would be caught and go to jail for a long time. These are interesting stories, with some descriptive force, and some elements of wishful thinking. Adler, like everyone else in the media, seems to have manipulated these stories nicely. People in the suburbs can see the problem as an urban problem, a lower class problem. People next door to crack houses can seen the problem as being let down by the suburban policitians, bureacrats, social workers and police officers who control their lives. Everyone is able to feel righteous, anxious and angry all at once.
The media reported on the basic facts, on community fear, on political reaction. They were content to report what people were saying without looking at the speeches to see if the facts were correct or fresh. The relationship of many of the journalists with many of the players in this story seems to have been trusting and uncritical. They aren’t asking questions. They reported opinions and political postures. This coverage was not partisan or overtly ideological, but lazy, uncritical reporting of speeches and posturing is merely progaganda. Journalists have direct access to newsmakers. They have the chance to ask for the information that citizens in a democracy need to let them participate in the life of the community.
The media made the story personal, not entirely ignoring the social and systemic questions, but leaving them in background. There is no democratic discussion of the situation we are in.
The writing seems to reflect a low opinion of the capabilities of readers, combined with a fear that readers will resent challenges to their fixed views of life and society. Criminal violence can be interpreted for instance, as demonic evil, perversion, a loss of self-control, disrespect for the authority of the law, fearless defiance of the power of the law, the product of a wounded personality, an example of the violent tendencies of members of races or classes, and in several other ways. It seems to me that this story was like a folk tale out of the dark ages, a tale of beasts lurking in the outer darkness, a story tended to frighten rather than to enlighten.