The Lower Mainland has a lengthy record of gang-related incidents, but lately something rarely seen before has happened. Police officers such as Surrey’s Sgt. Mike Sanchez say more and more young people from well-off families are engaged in gang activities. Sanchez leads the Surrey Gang Enforcement team. One of his jobs is to visit neighbourhood schools and talk with the kids.
These sessions reveal children as young as 11 or 12 decked out in gang paraphernalia. On meeting their parents, Sanchez frequently finds expensive homes with expensive cars in the driveway.
Law enforcement agencies in the Lower Mainland also report that when they pull over a suspected drug dealer, increasingly there are young women with expensive clothes and flashy jewelry in the passenger seat. This is also a departure. In the past, gang members tended to come from low-income families, and for the most part were young men. Their motives included boredom, the desire for “easy” money and the need to find protection in violent urban centres.
But that appears to be changing. With many of these youngsters, poverty or inability to find a job is not an issue; their middle-class families are affluent. Something different, and more troubling, is going on.
Various explanations have been offered, but one stands out: Children today rely on social media to form relationships. They are communicating through a variety of chat options. They see older friends and acquaintances glorifying the affluent gang lifestyle, and want to emulate it.
Their parents are apparently unaware of what their children are doing online.
The networking programs young people are using offer a way to “meet” people without seeing them face to face, and while children might believe they can handle themselves online, most do not have the protective skills to stay out of harm’s way. By some reports, the average teen spends nine hours a day online, or talking on a cellphone, with little or no supervision.
In part, this might be a reaction to the increasingly crowded and challenging nature of urban life. It can be easier to have a life online than to face the pressures of the early teens. Many young people are craving a sense of belonging, and while that might be available to them at home, it can be more tempting to find it with their peers.
On the surface, social-media platforms seem to offer the same rewards. They do not; relationships are fleeting, often shallow and lacking substance.
As a gang member, there is real danger, but the relationships are real as well. That can be enough to bring more impressionable youngsters into the fold.
Police say that once younger kids become infatuated with the idea of joining a gang, the harm is already done — and it is far easier to join a gang than to leave one. There are programs designed to steer kids away from gangs, but a task force in Surrey has found that they operate in isolation, are underfunded, and are aimed at older individuals.
In 2017, a Public Safety Canada study found that there are many reasons for joining gangs. A gang might be seen as a source of protection, a way to increase income, a social network, a source of emotional support, or a way out of a future that seems helpless and hopeless. All these factors might help to create prime targets for gang leaders looking for new members. But how can we keep them from falling into gangs?
Far more attention needs to be placed on youngsters before they take the plunge, which is why police officers such as Sanchez are touring schools in Surrey, speaking with children, teachers and parents.
Outreach to parents is vital, because we cannot expect schools and law enforcement agencies to solve this problem; the solution starts with the immediate family.
All of us — parents, grandparents or friends — have to be far more conscious of what children are doing, and of influences luring them even as they sit quietly in their bedrooms. The old saying — it takes a village to raise a child — is more accurate now then ever. Once a child has joined a gang, it’s usually too late.
We need to go to the roots of the problem, and more often than not they are found at home.