Moral Panic and Racist Anxieties: Entrenching Police Power through Surrey’s Gang Task Force

The Surrey RCMP Gang Enforcement Unit makes a show of force outside of Queen Elizabeth Secondary

On July 3rd, almost nine months after it was formed, the City of Surrey’s Task Force on Gang Violence Prevention released its first report. The Report includes six recommendations, which advocate for an “integrated approach” to policing and violence prevention in Surrey. It insists that integrating police into all aspects of our lives – starting with our schools, youth services, and local businesses – will prevent gang violence. Ultimately, the Task Force recommends that we hand over more of our power to the police, allowing them greater access to our communities, particularly young people, and allocating more funding and resources to the RCMP and the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of BC (CFSEU-BC).

Police infiltration of racialized youth and impoverished communities is not a new strategy in Surrey. The Surrey RCMP has already pervaded our schools and youth services. Through initiatives like the Wrap Program, Shattering the Image, the School Sports Program, and the Youth Police Academy, the RCMP attempts to recruit “good” racialized youth into police collaboration, while casting those who refuse to cooperate as criminals. In other words, you’re either a suspect or a snitch. The RCMP has also invaded homeless communities through its so-called Surrey Outreach Team, which consists of 12 cops and four bylaw officers. The Outreach Team was established to patrol the hundreds of tents set up on the 135A Street “Strip”, where it subjected homeless residents to surveillance, harassment, and criminalization 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the area was cleared of tents in mid-June.

Under the guise of gang violence prevention, the Gang Task Force’s recommendations entrench and amplify strategies of police infiltration – but we know that inviting the police into our communities does not end violence. The police are a source of violence for working class, racialized, and Indigenous communities, not only because they profile, target, and commit acts of brutality against them, but also because their role is to uphold a deeply violent social order, based on the exploitation of the working class and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their land relations. The Task Force Report takes for granted this existing social order and fails to address the social crises that produce gang violence. The Report misdiagnoses the problem of youth involvement in gangs as a problem of criminality, rather than one of impoverishment and social alienation, produced by capitalist exploitation and colonial domination. This misdiagnosis allows the City of Surrey to present the police as a solution rather than a fundamental part of the problem.

Policing the crisis

Surrey Gang Task Force announcement photo shoot

The push to further empower the Surrey police has gone almost entirely unchallenged. Following the gang-related deaths of three Surrey residents earlier this year, the public culture in the city has reached a tipping point in the moral panic surrounding gang violence. In the book Policing the Crisis, Black British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall describes “moral panics” as a means of managing and containing crisis in order to preserve the dominant social order. Hall says that moral panics serve to win over support for increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state – lending legitimacy to the “more than usual” exercise of control necessary to suppress a crisis. In Surrey, moral panic and desperation for somebody to do something about gang violence have manifested in calls for more police on the ground, more funding for law enforcement, the establishment of a municipal police force in place of the RCMP, and the deeper integration of police into schools and other social services.

These were the messages expressed at the “Wake Up Surrey” rally in June, which drew thousands of protesters concerned about gang violence, primarily from the South Asian community. The panic driving South Asian protestors to make these demands is different from that of white property-owners, whose fixation on crime is simply an expression of racist anxieties and concerns about their own material interests. The protesters at the Wake Up Surrey rally expressed concern for their children’s futures, focusing on the violence and uncertainty associated with a life of crime. They were responding to a real crisis of racism, poverty, alienation, and violence. While gang violence may be one manifestation of this broader crisis, gangs are not the root of the problem. Racism, poverty, alienation, and violence are inevitable outcomes of class, colonial, and white supremacist structures in Canadian society. Efforts to repress gang violence through state power – whether through the “hard power” of cops, courts, and prisons or the “soft power” of social workers, youth workers, and school administrators – ultimately allow the real causes of the crisis to continue unabated.

Nowhere in the Surrey Report on Gang Violence Prevention is there a definition of the term “gang.” In the absence of a definition, the “gang” can be filled with all sorts of meanings based in moral panic and racist anxieties. Every group of racialized youth can be constructed as a potential gang, and the gang can become a symbolic stand-in for everything dangerous and disruptive in society. Further, “gang violence” can encompass anything from homicides and shots-fired incidents to schoolyard fights. In the logic of the Report, all supposed signs of “gang-related behaviour” become grounds for targeted surveillance and intervention by teachers, youth workers, and most importantly, police.

Prevention and punishment: two sides of the same coin

Protestors at the “Wake Up, Surrey” rally on June 13, 2018

While the Surrey Report identifies “risk factors” for gang involvement, such as cultural alienation, poverty, and trauma, the recommendations it puts forward do little to address these problems. As part of its gang violence prevention strategy, the Task Force seeks to turn “at risk” youth into “productive contributing members of society”  through a range of “pro-social” activities. However, the activities it recommends focus on the assimilation and ideological reform of the disaffected, rather than addressing the material and ideological crises that drive their disaffection. For example, the Report recommends that the “business community” provide mentorship to Surrey youth so they can “learn about examples of positive life choices and career paths.” Beyond the abstraction of promoting individualized “positive life choices” to youth who turn to gangs precisely because choices are what they lack, the Report does nothing to provide alternatives to the landscape, characterized by racism and dead-end jobs, facing racialized Surrey youth.

The inability of the Surrey Report to address the “risk factors” that draw young people into gangs is a critical failure of the Report. Moral panic about crime points to deep social anxiety about the future – parents (particularly racialized, first-generation immigrant parents) are afraid that their children will be the first generation in a century to be worse off than their parents. Any response to “gang violence” that limits its scope to education and punishment cannot possibly address the legitimate fears about material security and social belonging that underlie the moral panic about crime and gangs.

To make up for its inadequacy in offering alternatives to gang involvement, the Surrey Report overcompensates with heavy-handed, zero-tolerance punishment and social exclusion for those racialized and profiled as gang members. With the release of the Report, Mayor Linda Hepner vowed to make life “miserable” for gangsters. RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald had a similarly punitive and remarkably dehumanizing message: “You can run, you can hide, but we will hunt you down and expose you. We will ensure you are prosecuted. We will put you in jail.”

The Task Force Report recommends the establishment of a RCMP-run Inadmissible Patron Program, similar to Bar Watch in Vancouver. This program is supposed to limit “known gang member” access to bars and restaurants, supporting Assistant Commissioner McDonald’s declaration that they “are not welcome in this city.” Bar Watch and similar programs have faced serious criticism. According to the BC Civil Liberties Association, there is little evidence that such programs improve public safety, and because the power to determine who is “inadmissible” is concentrated in the hands of the police, individuals face repeated harassment and (sometimes violent) ejection from venues with limited avenues for appeal. For young people racialized and targeted by police as “known gang members,” Surrey’s exclusion program will compound social alienation and isolation from broader communities.

Both prevention and punishment entail intense surveillance of “at risk” populations, thereby subjecting racialized youth to police involvement and criminalization, which is then used to confirm their “criminality” and justify further surveillance. This is the logic behind the Task Force’s recommendation to develop a “neighbourhood specific prevention program” to identify “high risk” neighbourhoods, like Newton and Guildford, that “require additional supports beyond those traditionally available.” What marks Newton and Guildford as “high risk” is that these neighbourhoods are Surrey’s inner-city, where high numbers of poor and racialized youth live and hang out; the “additional supports” on offer are more cops. The ostensibly neutral language of the Report allows the Task Force to advocate for the targeting of poor and racialized communities without explicitly saying so.

Government austerity continues… except for cops and collaborators

Map of “vulnerable neighbourhoods” from the Task Force on Gang Violence Prevention’s report

Since the 1970s, governments across Canada have drastically and relentlessly cut funding to social services, decimating housing, healthcare, education, and social assistance. This neoliberal consensus, premised on the sanctity of the so-called free market, has created a bleak landscape characterised by ever-intensifying social inequality. The only government programs safe from cuts are police, prisons, and immigration enforcement. The City of Surrey allocates 30% of its budget – over $164.4 million – to policing. The Surrey RCMP is the largest detachment in the country, and it grows larger every year. Implementing the Task Force’s six recommendations will require allocating even more funding to police, since police are included as “stakeholders” for all proposed anti-gang activities.

The Report does advocate for funding for youth services, but only those services that ally with the police against the threat of “gang violence.” Assistant Commissioner McDonald stated that the RCMP gang enforcement unit is set to double in size to align with Task Force recommendations. Exact numbers for the expanding unit were not given as McDonald said specifics could compromise operational integrity. In this way, moral panic over gang violence is mobilized to delegitimize calls for transparency and democracy, and silence any criticism of anti-gang initiatives.

Divesting from the RCMP would free up City funds, which could then be re-invested in community-led projects aimed at addressing the crises underlying the growth of gangs. Where, specifically, to invest these funds is a question for communities directly affected by these issues – in particular, South Asian and Black youth. What is clear is that the City of Surrey has abstained from even approaching this problem, opting instead to pour more and more money into policing. This move is backwards and will only exacerbate the crises of income inequality, material desperation, and the alienation of racialized youth from a white supremacist society.

A new horizon: towards the abolition of the police

In the moral panic over gang violence in Surrey, the interests and anxieties of white property-owners, represented by Mayor Hepner and Assistant Commissioner McDonald, dictate the horizon of possibility. Responses to gang violence that refuse to expand police power fall well outside this horizon, while any response that goes as far as advocating for the abolition of the police is unthinkable. Within this landscape, there is space for racialized parents to express their grief and fear, but only if these expressions confirm the dominating logic of the moral panic.

In all of this, the voices of South Asian and Black youth are silenced and the roots of their social alienation and material deprivation are ignored. The Task Force’s recommendations entrench these dynamics by further legitimizing the surveillance, regulation, and criminalization of poor and racialized youth in Surrey. The limits of Surrey’s Gang Task Force Report demonstrate that the fight for the abolition of the police is a fight for an entirely different social reality. In concrete terms, we can begin to push back against police power by organizing against the continued expansion of the RCMP budget and the integration of police into schools and other social services. Through our organizing efforts, we can create a new horizon of possibility – one that takes on the fight against police power as part of our fight against capitalist alienation and colonial dispossession, and one that is characterized by the hope embedded in our collective power, solidarity, and self-determination.

You might also like