One evening in April, two teenage skinheads burst into the Quebec City apartment of Jean Claude Bedard. They gagged the 42-year-old man, tied him to a chair, then proceeded to rob, torture and humiliate him for an hour and a half. They ransacked and vandalized his home. They kicked and beat him, shaved his head, ground lighted cigarettes into his chest and shoved sleeping pills down his throat. At one point, one of the youths even attempted to masturbate in front of Bedard. Even by the outrageous standards of skinheads, it was an unusually vicious assault. For despite Bedard’s age, he is a child. He has the mental capacity of a 15-year-old and stands a mere five feet, two inches tall. One of the suspects who appeared in a Quebec court earlier this month, charged with the crime, was a six-foot, 10-inch, 225-lb. giant. “It was really repugnant,” said the investigating officer, Det. Sgt. Michel Gagnon of the Quebec police department, “a case of sheer gratuitous violence.” That same kind of senseless violence is becoming common in urban centres across Canada. And it is being perpetrated by teenagers.
Nazi: They are youngsters who like to move in groups. Only a few of them are skinheads, those notorious shaven-head youths with an affection for heavy boots, tight jeans and neo-Nazi ideology. Most, in fact, are congregations of the very people whom the racist skinheads dislike—Asians, Latin Americans, blacks and middle-class whites. But like the skinheads, the other young toughs share a fondness for intimidation and for roving darkened city streets in packs. Some are members of highly structured gangs, others coalesce into groups for only a night or two. They tend to posture, inflating their own importance with collective names: Lotus, Los Diablos, the Rude Boys, The Untouchables or Partners in Crime.
Many of the gangs are proving to be dangerous, with members who are capable of erupting into volcanic rages as they storm playgrounds in Montreal, exchange gunfire in Vancouver or descend on Toronto shopping malls to engage in the tactic known as “swarming,” in which gangs of teenagers surround, assault and rob unsuspecting victims. Psychologists and other experts speculate that parental neglect and economic pressures may be to blame. But, at times, the sudden upsurge of youthful violence is as inexplicable as it is brutal, suggesting that British author Anthony Burgess may have been closest to the mark when the teenage hero of his prescient 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, cannot explain his own violence other than to remark, “Then there was like quiet and we were full of like hate, so [we] smashed what was left to be smashed.”
Epidemic: Whatever the reasons, the phenomenon of youthful lawlessness is worldwide—and growing. On the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, young marauders known as trombadinhas—little crashers—appear out of nowhere to surround unwary adults and rob them. In Rome, as in many of the other cities of southern Europe, gangs of gypsies, recruited from the impoverished interiors of such countries as Yugoslavia, carry out similar crimes. In Britain, Holland and West Germany, soccer hooligans and skinheads have created an epidemic of lawlessness. Youth gangs are not new in the United States, but the level of violence there is markedly increasing. Driven by links to the trade in illegal drugs, gang warfare has made sections of Los Angeles resemble free-fire zones (page 38). Even New Yorkers, long inured to urban violence, were shocked by an incident in Central Park in April when teenage boys raped and beat a female jogger—and left the severely injured woman for dead. Few countries in the world seem immune. The virus has spread as far as the Soviet Union, where juvenile violence can now be openly reported under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies (page 44).
Now, Canadian cities are being swept by the rising tide of youthful violence. Last week, a house in south Vancouver was fire-bombed in a gang-related incident, and a young gang member in a suburb of Toronto was jailed for repeatedly smashing another youth’s head against a concrete pillar. So far in 1989, there have been dozens of similar occurrences across Canada. In February, a 22-year-old Laotian was stabbed to death in Calgary during a dispute with young members of a Vietnamese gang. Similarly violent confrontations between gang members have become commonplace in Montreal, where ethnic tensions are increasing (page 42), and in Toronto, where youth gangs are rapidly increasing their membership (page 40) and an 18-year-old high-school student was fatally knifed two months ago during a fight with a street gang outside a downtown nightclub. As Rob Tucker, who works for the Toronto Council on Mind Abuse, told a meeting of concerned parents last week: “There is a new climate out there in which ideas—and ideals—of violence are being encouraged.”
Glamor: Police in some parts of Canada blame Hollywood, and particularly the 1988 movie Colors—which portrayed gang violence in Los Angeles—for helping to glamorize youth gangs. Police say that remarks made by gang members show that they have been influenced by the movie. Spike, a 17-year-old who belongs to an inner-city gang of Hispanic and Moroccan youths in Montreal, told Maclean’s that he had seen Colors four times. Said Sgt. Douglas McLean, a member of the Toronto police department’s special youth gang squad: “There are few kids who cannot give you a play-by-play account of what that film is about.” Meanwhile, young people across the country last week flocked to see Lost Angels, a movie that centres on a troubled Los Angeles youth gang member.
Across Canada, the shape and character of gang violence varies from one region to another. In the cities of Western Canada, the problem is largely—but not entirely—located within the immigrant communities, particularly among new arrivals from Asia and, to a lesser extent, those from Central and South America. In central Canadian cities, including Toronto and Montreal, restless bands of discontented black youths coexist uneasily with gangs of middle-class whites. Faced with such a diversity of gangs, psychologists and other experts offer a variety of explanations for gang activities—ranging from society’s failure to cushion immigrant children from cultural shock to the collapse of traditional family values among middle-class Canadians.
Heroin: In Vancouver, where youth gangs have become a major problem for the city’s police force, the activities of Asian gang members are mostly offshoots of organized crime. “Basically, with the Asian gangs, the purpose is to make money,” said Staff Sgt. Gordon Spencer, head of the city’s 14-member Asian crime squad. “They’re into robbery, theft, extortion, pickpocketing, gambling, prostitution and the importation, trafficking and distribution of heroin. Even at the school level, they’re importing and trafficking great amounts of heroin.” Police officials in Vancouver say that most of those criminal activities are carried out by five Asian youth gangs, which have a total of about 350 members. As well, Vancouver has about eight non-Asian gangs with a total membership of about 300. The non-Asian groups are usually dominated by Spanish-speaking youths but include youngsters from diverse cultural backgrounds, including immigrants from Central and South America as well as Greece, Italy and Iran.
Whatever the gang members’ racial or cultural backgrounds, police say that almost all of the gang membership in Vancouver is made up of immigrants who have done poorly in school and who have fallen through the gaps in the city’s social service net. “I see gangs here largely as an ethnic racial dynamic,” said Vancouver social worker John Turvey, who co-ordinates a program aimed at helping young people on the streets. “Basically, they are nonwhite kids who feel they don’t belong to the mainstream. The gang provides a place where they belong, and that’s exactly what we have not given them. The real issue is racism and our ability to aid in assimilation of immigrants.”
William Yeung, 18, is a typical Asian gang recruit. He moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong with his family in 1985, enrolled in a special high-school course to learn English, but had difficulty adjusting to life in Vancouver. According to a court psychiatrist’s report, Yeung was befriended by gang members who provided him with money, status and a group of peers who spoke his language—at a time when he was feeling vulnerable and inadequate. Eventually, the gang members demanded repayment. At first, that involved Yeung in petty crimes. Later, according to the psychiatrist’s report, he was ordered to shoot a member of a rival gang to avenge an injury suffered by one of his gang’s leaders. On Jan. 23, 1987, he walked into the Golden Princess movie theatre. A gang member handed him a .38-calibre revolver, then left. In front of about 400 witnesses, Yeung shot 14-year-old Tony Hong in the head. Hong survived but lost an eye. Yeung was sent to jail, where he is currently serving an eight-year sentence for attempted murder.
Shock: Similar patterns of Asian gang activity show up in other western Canadian cities. Although there are some white skinhead gangs in Calgary, most of the youth gangs in that city are made up of young Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian immigrants. Often, gang membership provides a refuge for Asian youngsters suffering from cultural shock. Typically, 15-year-old Lam arrived in Calgary with his parents in 1982 after fleeing his native Vietnam and spending two years in a Malaysian refugee camp.
Lam has vivid memories of his first days in a Calgary school. “I was scared of all the kids because they were so much bigger,” he recalled. “I could not understand anything they said. The other kids teased me. I felt angry and stupid.” Lam said that his parents were not able to help because “they were working to buy a house and stuff. They both worked as cleaners at night and studied or worked during the day. They were never home.” Finally, in the depths of frustration, Lam simply dropped out of school and joined a gang.
Battles: Youth gangs have also begun to create problems in Winnipeg, where battles have broken out between native people and Asian youths. “Lots of these young Asians have had a disruptive history,” said Ying Hoh, a Taiwanese-born, University of Manitoba-educated psychologist. “They are still reacting in terms of survival instead of a normal adaptation to life here. They are hindered by psychological difficulties arising from the trauma they endured coming here, the language, the awareness of being a minority.”
In Toronto, a wide variety of youth gangs organized along both racial and ideological lines have begun to disturb life in the city. For many Torontonians, the most unsettling gang activity is the phenomenon known as swarming. “A swarming can involve anywhere from six to 60 kids,” explained Sgt. McLean. “A kid will see something he likes—a pair of shoes, a watch, a coat. He’ll walk up to a person and pick an argument. While he’s arguing with the victim, the other kids will surround them. If the individual gives them the watch, he won’t be harmed. But if he resists, the kids attack.” He added, “They do it for the thrill.”
Perplexing: At the same time, experts say that the youth gangs in affluent Toronto are the most perplexing in the country—and in some cases the most difficult to explain in terms of social and economic conditions. As in other parts of Canada, many Toronto gangs are organized along ethnic lines. Although the Metropolitan Toronto police department is officially reluctant to classify lawbreakers by ethnic origin, some officers privately claim that as much as 80 per cent of youth gang violence in the city is perpetrated by young members of the city’s immigrant black community.
At the same time, police officers note that gang members often come from widely varying racial, social and economic backgrounds. Police have found youngsters from the city’s most affluent and most impoverished neighborhoods in the same gang. As well, there are predominantly white gangs, mainly black gangs and more racially mixed gangs. Police say that some gangs appear to be highly structured, while others form in one night for the purpose of carrying out a single criminal act and then immediately disband.
Experts are divided over just what prompts middle-class youngsters to seek out the thrills and risks of gang membership. According to Greg McClare, chief social worker for the Toronto Board of Education, gang membership appears to be “related to power and dominance.” For his part, Grant Lowrey, director of Central Toronto Youth Services, an organization that helps young people living on the streets, said that it is “a comment on our consumer society when kids are ripping each other off for luxury items such as $300 leather jackets and $125 running shoes.” According to Tucker, gang membership reflects a disintegration of traditional family values. “There is not a whole lot for our kids to get attached to,” said Tucker. Added Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital who specializes in the problems of adolescence: “We’re reaping the bad harvest of 1960s-and 1970s-style parenting when kids were told to do their own thing.”
In Montreal, much of the city’s most serious gang activity originates in the Haitian community, which—with 50,000 members—ranks as one of the largest in North America. Montreal Urban Community police have identified at least half a dozen Haitian street gangs. Last fall, Montreal police broke up a Haitian youth gang whose 10 members committed thefts and assaults. All of them had a bright streak of yellow in their hair. They ranged from 14 to 19 years old, and most of them lived in a single, squalid apartment. “When we called their parents, they said they did not want to take them back home,” reported Const. Claude Ladouceur, a youth officer. “They could no longer control the kids.”
Knifed: Still, Haitian youths have no monopoly on violence in the Montreal area. Early this year, doctors had to perform microsurgery to repair the severed leg nerves of a 16-year-old student who had been knifed in a gang brawl during a high-school dance in suburban Longueuil. Police blamed the incident on a group of youths known as Les Fresh. Not strictly a gang, Les Fresh represents a style that is characterized by a fondness for black rap music—in which lyrics are spoken over a rhythmic musical accompaniment—and a certain “look” consisting of sweat pants, Reebok running shoes and National Football League jackets. Police officers say that jailing Les Fresh’s leaders is one of the Montreal force’s top priorities.
While gang violence assumes many faces across the country, Canadian police are almost unanimous in declaring that the controversial 1984 Young Offenders Act is making it difficult for them to control the problem. Police spokesmen from Vancouver to Montreal agreed that the act—which provides special procedures, protections and sentences for offenders under the age of 18—is being exploited by youths who view it as a licence to break the law and create havoc. “These kids are well aware of what the Young Offenders Act will allow them to get away with,” Toronto police Const. Gordon Rasbach told a gathering of concerned parents at a high school last week.
There is considerable evidence to support the widely held opinion that young offenders are deliberately taking advantage of the law. Vancouver’s Yeung told a court-appointed psychiatrist that he had been told—erroneously—that if convicted of shooting a rival gang member, he would receive only a light sentence because he was a juvenile at the time. In Toronto, an 18-year-old technical school student told Maclean’s that he had given up his membership in the Rude Boys gang because he was no longer a minor. “I’m out of that stuff now,” he said. “I just turned 18.”
Power: The same student described how and why he had taken part in gang violence. “We used to meet downtown,” he recalled. “There was no leader. We all knew each other. We used to go out and cause trouble—do property damage and break into stores. When you’re in a gang of 60 to 80 people, you get real hiked up. It’s a real power trip.” If the experts are right, that kind of violent and dangerous power trip may also be the price that Canadians must now pay for society’s neglect of its younger members in the past.
DEATH AMONG THE INNOCENT
Ramon Rios became another Los Angeles gang statistic last month. The 17-year-old was riding on a bus when two youths confronted him. One pulled a revolver from his waistband and shot and killed Rios in front of 15 clearly terrified passengers. The reason: Rios was wearing a blue Dallas Cowboys cap—and blue is the color worn by members of the Crips, one of Los Angeles's black youth gangs. Rios's assailants were another black gang, Bloods, who wear red and who are sworn enemies of the Crips. Rios was not a gang member, but he was an innocent victim of deadly gang warfare. Every Monday, the city's newspapers publish a weekend body count—a gang member shot to death at a corner, or a house sprayed with bullets. Said deputy Los Angeles attorney Bruce Coplen: “People don’t sit in their front living rooms because they are afraid.”
The statistics show that the concern of Angelenos are well-founded. Gang-related murders in the city increased by 25 per cent last year to 257, and half of the fatalities involved unprovoked gang killings of nonmembers. Police estimates put gang membership in all of Los Angeles County at 70,000, spread among 600 gangs. Still, police and community officials expressed more concern about the gangs' changed behavior. "Individuals killing more than one person seem commonplace now," said Michael Genelin, head deputy district attorney. Gangs are not new to Los Angeles. For generations, gangs of Spanish-speaking youths have defended their turf from interlopers. Black gangs began to flourish during the early 1970s, and Asian gangs became much more evident about three years ago. Now, violence associated with black gangs is mainly linked with the illegal drug trade while the Asian gangs are primarily involved in extortion. Still, a newly formed organization, called MAGIC—Mothers Against Gangs in Our Community—is working with area youths to get out an antigang message. Said Cmdr. Lorne Kramer, head of the Los Angeles police department’s gang unit: “I see small clusters of people starting to stiffen their backs and say we are going to take back our communities.” Sadly, such moves come too late for Ramon Rios and other gang-war casualties.