Street gangs are a creation of the police, says a book
The book “It was necessary to defend oneself” will be published by the publishing house Mémoire d'encrier on May 8, 2023.
The phenomenon of “street gangs” in Montreal emerged in the 1980s because of the police as a consequence of violent and obvious anti-black racism on the part of white Montreal society. That's what the former gang leader and owner of the Cash Content pawn shop claimsin Hochelaga, Maxime Aurélien, and Concordia University associate professor, Ted Rutland, in an interview with Métro about their new book tracing the history of the Bélangers, the first Haitian gang in Montreal .
The book, titled You had to defend yourself, offers a counter-history from the perspective of the Haitian “gangs” of the 1980s, for whom the violence they suffered in Montreal forced them to defend themselves in groups, contrary to the conception understood by the general public that made them violent and organized criminals. This perception stems rather from the prevailing racism of the time, experienced by the black population through police brutality and fueled by unfavorable media coverage of them.
“We were just a gang of friends”
“My father had a restaurant on Bélanger Street, near Sainte-Bernadette school and the park between 16th and 19th avenue [in Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie], and it was in this park that my gang friends and I played basketball or soccer, which is why we got the nickname “les Bélanger”, says Maxime Aurélien. I was about 15 or 16 at the time, and racism was very present: we heard the N-word every day and the police harassed us all the time. They started calling us “street gangs”, and we were definitely the target of racism, whether it was in the park, in the clubs around town, or riding the subway. At some point, you had to defend yourself.”
Six members of the Bélanger in Montreal, with Maxime Aurélien in the center, dressed in white. The photo dates from the mid-1980s. Photo: Courtesy, Maxime Aurélien
This premise is the heart of the book to be published by the publishing house Mémoire d’encrier: the racism experienced by the Bélangers of Maxime Aurélien and his friends forced them to constantly defend themselves, even though they were a group of friends as there are everywhere in adolescence or adulthood. Moreover, the media systematically failed to mention this dynamic, labeling them as criminal groups and as the instigators of problems in the public space.
“The media at the time said that Haitians were attacking passers-by and creating problems in the metro, but it was obvious that it lacked context,” explains Ted Rutland. In fact, Haitians were more victims of racist attacks by whites. We never talked about the violence inflicted on them by the white population and the police. This is why I decided to intervene in public discourse to illuminate this blind spot. There was even still segregation at the time in Montreal, and that too, we don’t talk about it.”
“We don’t want you guys here”
As such, Mr. Aurélien recounts the experiences of segregation he repeatedly had in bars and clubs in the 1980s and 1990s when he was asked to leave once there, if not. not be denied access outright. He also experienced segregation in the job market, much more difficult to access at the time for the black population of Montreal.
“There was a club at the time called l'Horizon and which is closed today. They accepted everyone: Italians, Quebecers, but not us. Black people were being told not to come in and go back to us or our country in addition to being compared to the monkeys in the movie Planet of the Apes, or Kunta Kinte in Roots. Same thing in the labor market: when you wanted to work and the bosses saw that you were black, it was automatic; they wouldn't hire us, even if they were interested on the phone because we sounded like “Quebecers.”
Maxime Aurélien, like many Haitians in Montreal at the time, found himself employed “by the Jews who owned the textile businesses on Chabanel Street” since he had nowhere to go to work. According to him, it’s this unfavorable context for economic emancipation mixed with racism and discrimination that has influenced many people in his community to turn to crime, which has prompted the police to use more repression.
“When the police started targeting these groups of friends as organized gangs, they started using divisive tactics, including snitch between groups. This police pressure has caused people to leave these circles to be replaced by others more interested in crime, thereby uprooting many black people from their communities to settle elsewhere, ”adds Ted Rutland to this topic.
This increase in violence will also push Mr. Aurélien to leave the Bélangers, feeling that “things were starting to heat up” in his community because of growing crime. Despite this uprooting and the years of violence he experienced, he nevertheless recognizes that there has been a development in the right direction with regard to the recognition of black people and their integration into society and professional circles.
Prevention is better than punishment
“When I see black elected officials or black judges today, I feel better represented, understood and defended than I did then. Before, everything was white, now there is more color, and I think it’s less easy to target us unlike at the time because of the significant and diversified immigration that there has been in Montreal since the 1980s. They are also doing more to combat racism.”
However, the authors believe that the approach of police repression is on the wrong track and that this habit of always investing more money in the police force does not solve the problem of racism effectively. Instead, they advocate a greater role given to social workers and community organizations in order to go into the field to meet racialized people.
“I would like there to be more social workers on the ground. Social workers would definitely help us, and that's good because it didn't exist at the time. With them, we could talk more about our problems and that could bring nuances to our experiences, to how people perceive us and who we really are,” underlines Mr. Aurélien.
“Crime will never end ever, especially not now that the police know where to go to stop the gangs. We have to help them, listen to them and use prevention to get them out of crime,” he concludes. ;Mémoire d’encrier edition and will be available in bookstores on May 10.