OVER 200 people gathered at a gang dialogue in Surrey organized by Surrey Councillor Barinder Rasode last week. The turnout and the nature of the engagement of the dialogue clearly showed that the spate of gang violence which has marred public safety and destroyed families and youth was a serious concern within the community.
That people were eager to learn more about the gang situation in the community was evident by the persistent questions that members of the audience asked about why youth join gangs and what the solution is to stop youth violence and tackle the menace of drugs.
The audience was diverse and included academics, representatives of community organizations and leaders, including former MLA Brenda Locke and members of the Acting Together – Community University Research Alliance Project (AT-CURA) on the prevention of youth and gang involvement. However, what was especially fruitful was that the event reached out to many youth and parents. The event, which I moderated, was aimed at engaging the community on the topic of youth and gangs, what steps the city can do to tackle the situation, how to empower youth to stay clear off the gang lifestyle and positive success stories of those who once were gang members.
The panel consisted of three former gang members who shared their experiences about how they got involved in the world of gangs and how they exited the gang lifestyle:
* Moe Bhatha, who is now part of a sales management team in the construction industry and who has often provided his insight on gang life, including exit strategies. He has organized a gang prevention event in Vancouver for parents and has advised me on my own work on gangs and alienation.
* Scott Magri, who spoke about lessons he learnt and the circumstances that drove him into the world of gangs and drugs. He has written a book titled “Lessons: Crime, Games and Pain” – an honest and compelling story about his experiences and the world of crime.
* Jessie Johal, who is now a volunteer and activist.
Bhatha said that it is a myth if people think you cannot leave a gang; if you want to leave, you can. He said: “Exiting is not a slow process, often something happens to you that is life-threatening or an eye-opener and you get out.”
He said there are avenues to get out, but you have to want to leave. He added: “I try to help young men who think that this lifestyle is glamorous. … It is not as fancy as they think; there is a lot of hell to pay. It is hard to sleep at night, or you sleep at night with one or two guns under your pillow or when you are out, you always have to be on the lookout. That was my spiritual awakening.”
He added: “I have turned back and have no intentions to go to a lifestyle like that again,” to applause from the audience.
(Photo 1: Councillor Barinder Rasode with former gang member Scott Magri and his book “Lessons: Crime, Games and Pain.”
Photo 2: Jessie Johal
Photo 3: Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – BC.
Photo 4: Indira Prahst with some youth participants.
Photos by Chandra Bodalia)
JOHAL shared a compelling story that influenced his decision to leave. He said: “For me the wakeup call came early. I knew a lot of guys who were in gangs trying to make a name for themselves. It was an older person who I was talking to who said: “Son, what kind of watch do you have? … [Johal showed him his watch that was neither expensive nor flashy] … He goes ‘It’s good. You will always know what time it is and you won’t have to worry about how much it cost you. … You see that guy over there? That guy would make money and so he has a pretty expensive watch, but the problem is, time is going to run out on it!”
Just as that older person had predicted, the next day the person with the expensive watch was shot dead.
Johal said: “A lot of people don’t make that connection and say that will not happen to me. But I am telling you and ask Moe or Scott, there are a lot of guys we know who are dead and they never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would ever go out that way – ever!”
Reflecting on solutions and problems Magri spoke about the materialistic desires kids have: a big house and computer games. He also spoke about the problematic work ethics kids have today. He added: “For young kids, it’s not going to end well if they fall into the trap of making easy money.”
He shared a story about the violence involved and spoke about how he had his driver collect money that was owed to him and if the driver looked at him it meant that the person was not paying and he would have to go into the house and beat him up.
He added: “I did not want the guy to pay. I wanted to go into the house [and beat him up] because it meant I was being disrespected.” So, Magri knows all too well the violence behind the quick money that lures youth. Magri also spoke about how he has reached out to kids who don’t have a dad around and how effective it was for them to have someone to go to and open up to because they trust him. Seeing this has inspired him to continue to work with youth in the community.
SGT. Lindsey Houghton of the anti-gang Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – BC (CFSEU-BC) gave an informative and rich presentation on the truths and myths about gangs. His presentation was well received by the audience and succeeded in engaging the audience with an intense question-and-answer period. His main focus was about changing the behaviour of gangsters, gang prevention and underscoring the importance of engaging the public on the issue, having the two-way discussion. He noted: “People in communities need to talk to each other. We do not do that enough.” He also informed the public about the “End Gang Life” campaign which was launched last December and is the largest and most comprehensive gang awareness campaign in British Columbia.
Rasode joined the panel during the question-and-answer period. She thanked the panellists and said: “I know it takes courage to speak in front of an audience especially when you are talking about mistakes you have made. Thank you for your courage.”
She said that what she had heard as a mom and as someone who has been selected to represent community needs showed that they needed more support in their early years which is why after-school programs and more support for parents are needed.
Their dialogues about reaching out had led her to believe that we need to work together and help a person when they are in need and not in crisis.
She noted that what struck her about all the three former gang members was that they needed to protect themselves because there was no one to protect them. She added: “If we can find ways to protect people, then we are headed in the right direction.”
Questions and suggestions from the public were diverse. One suggestion was to find ways to channelize “the energy that has often connected youth to gangs … into other activities” and that “this requires thinking outside the box.”
FOLLOWING the event, I spoke to some youth and asked them what resonated with them at the event. They really learned from the examples and some of the stories blew them away, especially the one Johal narrated about the watch and time running out mentioned earlier in this piece.
They also remembered the story by Johal who bluntly noted: “People think it is cool to be in gangs and have a gun. … But when the barrel is the other way around and pointed at you, it’s not so nice.”
In closing, one piece of the puzzle towards solutions is to armour youth and shield them with knowledge and give them the attention they need so they are not seduced into the world of gangs. This would involve forming connections with your kids, replacing the glitter with the reality of gang life and remembering that those wanting to exit the gang world, can.
As Bhatha told me once: “I don’t see any dead heroes. Once you are dead you are dead. People are going to always talk behind your back anyways. If you want out, just get out.”
Indeed, the panel of three former gang members bravely decided to give back to the community in gratitude for being given a second chance at life and as one of them pointed out: “These guys who spoke here tonight are role models because of the hard choices they made … to get out of the gang world.”
This transmission of knowledge about youth, gangs and violence would not have been possible without the community support, including that of Rasode, to create these spaces. The topic will continue to be discussed at the upcoming CURA conference in Surrey next week titled: AT-CURA Youth Strengths from July 23-25 at Sheraton Guildford. (www.atcura2014conference.ca)
BY INDIRA PRAHST
Instructor of Sociology and Racism and Ethnic Relations,
Department of Sociology and Anthropology