Jagdeep Mangat is a lawyer in Surrey who focuses on immigration, family and criminal law. His particular interest is on worker rights, especially low wage private sector workers. He is also an ex-gang member who has worked with kids in the school system around issues of gang involvement. The Volcano met up with Jagdeep to ask him about the recent spate of shootings in Surrey.
Volcano: Since the beginning of March, there have been close to 30 shooting incidents in Surrey, and the police say it has to do with groups fighting over control of the drug trade. Are these simply street gangs involved in turf wars?
Jagdeep: In the 1980s and 90s when I was involved in the gang scene in East Vancouver, there were street gangs protecting and controlling geographical areas and managing the street level drug trade within those areas. At that time, the street gangs were working for larger, more sophisticated criminal organizations, and at all levels there was a fixed command and control structure. But that’s not what’s happening these days. Now there tend to be crews with a lot more flexibility, and they don’t try to control geographical areas so much as control drug lines or phone networks of drug supply and delivery. It’s a communication-based system where people operating the phones get calls for the product, and drivers deliver it to the specified location, and at the end of the shift the cash is brought in. The fights in Surrey are over these drug lines and the wealth they generate; phones with good contacts and access to customers are worth thousands of dollars.
Volcano: The shootings have generated a great deal of fear and concern for communities in Surrey, and there are been loud calls for more police, more gang-prevention programs for youth, and more systems of surveillance. But do these responses get at the root causes of the issue?
Jagdeep: Although gangs engage in a variety of activities that make them money, the vast majority of their profits come from illicit drugs. And organized crime from top to bottom is all about making money; it operates on a business model of supply and demand within an underground world of illegal products and activities. When there are contract disputes, they don’t sue each other in court, they resolve the issues in their own ways, usually through unsanctioned use of violence. So under the regime of prohibition, throwing more cops, judges and prisons (state violence) at the issue will never get at the heart of the matter.
If you want to understand gangs, you have to understand drugs; and unless you deal with the drug issue, you can’t deal with the gang issue. I think we need to see gangs and drugs as a problem of urban life in capitalist society. Bruce Alexander has argued that addictions flourish in the soil of alienation, that people who live in societies where they feel disconnected and isolated are much more likely to develop addictive habits. So the demand for drugs is high in capitalist societies where social relations consist of individualized consumers driven by rational self-interest bumping into each other in the pursuit of private wealth. Gangs supply (illegal) drugs to people alienated from one another and dislocated from their communities.
This also explains why people, especially youth, are drawn into gangs. They provide a social space of comraderie and purpose. In a study of hundreds of incarcerated lower to mid-level gang members, 90% said they were motivated to join gangs by the sense of belonging they offered. You get up in the morning and you’ll do anything for your group; it’s that strong.
For immigrant youth, there may also be the push of racism. You can grow up feeling like an outsider in the dominant society; you’re made to feel ashamed of who you are, the colour of your skin, your own name. Being part of a gang, you organize together, defend one another and feel strong; it’s a space of solidarity and belonging.
Of course, money is a significant factor as well, and not just for immigrant youth from low-income families. For young men with solid middle class backgrounds, the gang scene offers prospects of a lot more money than what they would make within a capitalist system of worker exploitation. Young people are smart; they see that the myth of meritocracy, the idea that if you just work hard you’ll rise to the top, is a scam. I came to that realization after leaving the gangs and working at an electronics store selling equipment, and it led to a personal breakdown.
So gangs capitalize on the endless demand for drugs, the desire for lots of money, and the human need for belonging and meaning – all of which are social conditions produced by capitalism. We’ll never get rid of gangs and drugs unless we fundamentally change the nature of our society, from one that is alienating to one based on respect, justice and mutual aid. Of course, if you want to mitigate the harms of drugs, you’ll need to go the route of regulation. But if you want to go after gangs, you’ve got to go after the roots of hopelessness, alienation and inequality in our society.