Gun violence:The best defence is a good offence.

If a dog bites you the owner is legally responsible. If people drink in my house and later embark on vandalism or drunk driving I am responsible. If the child shoots someone the parent is ……..

I attended the vigil for Jane Creba who was a friend to two of my three children. This prompted me to read and research gang violence. A common thread repeated time and time again was parenting and community involvement. While some people are rolling their eyes, consider why children enter gangs in the first place. Partially this is attributable to simply being a teenager, but it certainly does not end there. As adolescents enter this period of rapid physical, social and emotional changes they become more involved with their peers. They begin to question adult standards and the need for parental guidance. It is a time to question values, ideas and experiment without fear of being ridiculed. Naturally the peer group offers friendship, affiliation, support and autonomy, all of which are appealing. .

Teens will distance themselves and parents will feel less connected but that does not mean we disconnect. We brought them into the world and are responsible for sustaining love, support, guidance and above all communication. It will mean relationship negotiations, involving them in decision making and redefining rules on a case by case basis. It may be a struggle to find the common ground at times. We have to pick and choose our battles, watch them fall and pick them up. It is a battle where losing is not an option.

Unresolved conflicts, neglect, apathy, distant or unavailable parenting, physical or verbal abuse, are real in all socioeconomic and racial groups. Remember Columbine, those killers were middle class and had all the advantages .In Vancouver there are gang members with university degrees. We live busy lives and want quick fixes. We live in a materialistic and celebrity worshiping society. Music, videos and games even glamorize the gang culture to the point we are desensitized and apathetic. There is undeniably a culture of acceptance in those hot spots of crime where assassins are treated like heroes. I just saw Snoop Dog welcome Ice-T to the stage as the “original gangster” and the song went on to praise that outlaw/crime lifestyle. The crowd ate it up. We are all less than perfect. Perfection is not what is required. It is continual involvement and commitment as a community at enforcing zero tolerance. The old gang member doesn’t look like 50 cent when he is addicted to drugs dying from HIV and looking for their next meal in a garbage can..

The first defense in protecting our children against gang violence is a good offence. In the same way we warn our children against drugs, smoking and alcohol we must warn them about gang association and encourage them to mentor friends considering this. Let them know of the consequences of being in a gang. We must teach them to not go out with gang members or associate with them. It is our responsibility to teach children ethics, civic duty and to report criminal activities to the authorities. What is cool is to stay in school. Education gives you options. Gang membership gives you a box six feet under the ground.

My whole point in writing this is there are warning signs early on. You do not become a gun wielding killer overnight. There is no 180 degree turn. I am not saying parents can be psychiatrists or social workers. Kids do live secret lives. However a lot of times the dots are there and just have to be connected. It can be a matter of looking at the moment with fresh eyes. It is easy to be in denial, because you don’t have to take action. No one wants a confrontation after a hard day at work and long drive home. Parents are like gardeners. The weeds pop up and we need to rip them out before they have bigger roots.

What is a gang?

A street gang is loosely organized cohesive group with an identifiable leader (formal or informal). They show unity and loyalty in times of conflict. An attack on one member is considered an attack on all members. The gang exhibits disrespect for established authority of any kind, independence and lack of conventional morality. Ironically there is more conformity in the gang than the world they are escaping. It is a real pan to the fire scenario. Once you are in a gang you are in for good- a life, punctuated by a series of no returns. So much for independence and autonomy now. It is a resume of fear, betrayal, greed, suspicion, paranoia, murder, cocaine and methane drug addiction and incarceration. How cool is that? There is guilt for personal family and friends that were killed out of “loyalty” to the gang. .

Los Angeles has their fair share of gangs. I researched the Joliet Police Department for answers to the difference between gangs and groups.

Gangs can be distinguished from groups primarily by their

• exclusivity- cut themselves off from non-members
• Criminal and antisocial behaviour
• Violent rivalries with other gangs
• Loyalty that overrides ethics or common sense
• Usually have a gang symbol , dress code, insignia in the form of a tattoo or sign
• History of arrests
• Regardless of their personal feelings they are to carry out actions of the group
• They do not question or evaluate rivalries.
• They are not reflective young people but reactionary.
• Rivalries tend to be impersonal, random or retaliatory acts against a convenient victim or set who committed the precipitating insult or offence.
• Families and family members are also fair game.
• Events after this stage are unpredictable and uncontrollable.

A few reasons for joining a gang

• familiar gang involvement
• personal problems at home
• feel alienated or marginalized
• lack of success in school, sports or conventional activities
• low self-esteem
• ostracized by cliques
• crave autonomy, status recognition and fame , money “Get Rich or Die tryin!” mentality”( They don’t want the nine to five job.) They think they are going to die young and want to live large.

20 Warning signs – Before they cross the line

This is a compilation some of which came from “Mother’s Against Gang Wars”. Here are a few clues to look at. There are not airtight but serve as a guide. This list is not exhaustive. Be careful not to point the finger. Take stalk. Talk to siblings and explain your concern. The only way to know if your son or daughter, niece, nephew or grandchild, student, neighbor is affiliated with a gang is to talk to them. It takes a village to raise a child. Early warning signs are a barometer to check behaviour. It allows us to get help for the child before it escalates. If you have an intuition, follow it. Truancy does not necessarily lead to crime but it does leave them vulnerable.

1. Withdrawn from the family and or exhibits a major attitude change

2. Breaks parental rules consistently and shuts down or argues in a hostile way

3. Acquires goods and or cash with little or no explanation

4. Become secretive or deceitful and defensive about activities

5. Looses of interest in normal activities and interests

6. Breaks parental rules and curfews repeatedly

7. Truancy and or poor grades ask for a printout)

8. Shows signs of drug or alcohol use accompanied with aggressive attitude

9. Excessive swearing and cursing

10. Particular clothing, drawings, clothing, books or on the body in the form of an insignia or tattoo. Has paint or permanent marker on his hands or clothes. In possession of graffiti paraphernalia such as markers, etching tools, spay paint, bug spray and starch cans

11. Has an obsession with the gang culture and lifestyle such as videos, video games, music

12. Is obsessed with one particular clothing over another. Consistently wears one colour of clothing over another

13. Wears distinctive jewelry worn on either the left or right

14. Changes friends and hangs around with new” questionable” characters

15. Out of control behavior, anger management problems, violent outbursts and delinquency at school or with police. ,

16. Conflicts become the new normal rather than the exception.

17. Runs away and stays at friend’s house for a sustained period. Does not feel the need to check in with parents. Inability to account for time away..

18. Shows evidence of personal injuries and lies about how they were obtained or damage to personal property.

19. Change in a name or uses hand signs and gestures to friends

20. Drawings depict fascination with death and violence.

What can I Do?

The problem is so multifaceted and involves every member of society that we feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. However, as parents, we can take action at the grassroots level -the preventive side of the coin.

1. We leave cracks open because we are hurried or due to miscommunication. Always know where your children are and who they are with, and enforce the curfew regulation for anyone who is 16 or 17 years old. They have to be in between 11:00pm and 7:00 am for those 15 years of age 10:00pm and 7:00 am

2. Give them responsibilities at home and praise them for a job well done. It teaches them the value of work, life skills and raises self esteem. .

3. Have a serious chat about the real dangers of gang affiliation including intimidation and retaliation against family members. Share your personal experience. Teenager’s ears will perk up if you keep it real rather than lecture. Better yet, show them a video on gang violence. Videos of this nature are offered as a public service from video stores and libraries.

4. Stand firm on the prosecution of violent crime. Write letters or form a lobby group or join one. Vote for the party that you think will follow through. Go to an open candidates meeting -demand answers and action.

5. Discourage children from hanging around with gang members. Meet your child’s friends and parents. Find out who they are. What influence do they have?

6. Occupy your teen’s free time. Give them responsibilities at home. Get them involved in school sports, leagues, recreation activities at the centre or church activities. You can also create your own. Support your children’s involvement in extracurricular activities and other legitimate community events. I don’t mean just a drop- off and pick up

7. Participate in the community. You are not only being an excellent role model but you get to know your neighbours. Organize or join neighbourhood watch groups. Remove graffiti from around your house or report it to city officials. It should be removed right away because that is how gangs invite rivals and turf wars erupt. Discourage gangs from hanging around your neighbourhood- use the 11: 00 pm disturbing noise or report suspicious actions. Attend community functions and teach civic pride to your children.

8. Talk about media influences and where you stand. Gangs are often glamorized to appear cool. What is fantasy and what is reality? Teach them how advertising and marketing work. Do they play violent video games like “Doom”, “Grand Theft Auto 3” “or “Counterstrike” -violent games are left to your discretion. They will probably go to a friend’s house to watch if you forbade it. However, why make it easy for them. At least you would have had the discussion about violence and planted a seed.

9. This is the big one. Stay current in what is going on in your children’s lives at school with friends and other adults. Are there any striking changes in behaviour that don’t match their personal make-up? Ask questions, if you don’t like the answer, do some investigating of your own. . Look in drawers and backpacks.

10. Contact your law agency to report any gang activity be it a threat or rumor. Use Crime stoppers program (416) 222-TIPS.

Take heart, this might look like pie in the sky by the preventive level can work. Chicago has dropped its crime rate in half with more outreach workers, by tackling each crime and building community relations. We have a real life Narnia battle going on in Toronto. We will prevail if we join forces and each of us does what we can in our corner of the woods. We owe it to the innocent who have died.

– Anita L. Barber

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