Violent Entertainment: The Real Elephant in the Room

ENOUGH guns!” screamed the headline dominating the front page of the Toronto Star on 20 November 2005. Hand wringing in Canada’s largest city followed the shooting of its 69th homicide victim for 2005. It had occurred outside the Toronto West Seventh-day Adventist church after the funeral service for 17 year old Jamal Hemmings, killed days earlier. The victim, his friend 18-year-old Amon Beckles, reportedly may have been targeted because he was a witness to the shooting. Both often went to the local youth drop-in centre. Melodramatic anguish recurred in the Toronto media following the Boxing Day shoot-out on Yonge Street that wounded six people and claimed the life of a 15-year-old girl, Jane Creba, caught in the cross fire as she shopped with her older sister.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s cries of outrage have consistently been reinforced by community leaders, church elders, and politicians. Mayor David Miller has always expressed disgust at the killings. Bishop Colin Johnson, head of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, says the violence is akin to that of a war-torn country. Scarborough-based Pastor, Orim M. Meilke, has called the shootings a wake-up call and Rev. Al Bowen in the city’s North-West corner, has called for an imposition of the War Measures Act or its equivalent.

So far, the only measures promised by city officials involve the usual: more police on the streets, tougher sentencing in the courts, and better co-operation with police from community members with information leading to arrests. Meanwhile, after the November shootings, Toronto School Board employee Marina Brown commented on a steady deterioration in police-community relations. Bickering back and forth between the Mayor’s office and black community leaders continues, with accusations that serious attention comes only with the recent death of white teenager Jane Creba.

Demands for better after hours school based programs and job training centres have been stepped up, spawning numerous phone calls and meetings aimed at better intergovernmental collaboration in dealing with the crisis. Yet, ironically, some centres in the area of the Hemmings and Beckles shootings have been closed down for safety reasons, and also because counsellors themselves reportedly have been seeking grief counseling.

Predictably, proposed political solutions to the violence remain focused on individual responsibility and, during federal election campaigns, opportunism amongst the party leaders with promises of ever tougher law and order measures to deal with the perpetrators of the crimes. One exception to this conventional wisdom involves Liberal MP for Scarborough, Dan McTeague who tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent Curtis (50 cent) Jackson from getting the required papers to enter Canada for the cross country gangsta rap music tour that began in Vancouver on December 3rd. Although he was scorned by both media and political opponents, in the end 50 cent – with only one member of his entourage – was allowed into the country, indications are that the initiative was partly successful in at least drawing attention to the vulgar, woman hating, violence inciting nature of his otherwise tedious lyrics and performance. A number of negative reviews followed. However, most politicians remain paralyzed with fear of being branded either prudish conservatives or censors, and consequently incapable of seriously dealing with the violent, urban popular culture that fuels the gun violence.

One overlooked source of clues on how to address the escalating violence is the testimony from the New York based hip-hop music trial on how life imitates art. According to the Globe and Mail on November 20, defence lawyer for hip-hop producer Irving (Gotti) Lorenzo said his client was” just looking for some street cred” when he was charged with money laundering.

“Street cred” is a necessary ingredient in an industry that chronicles and glorifies the gun-ridden, drug infested world of urban America. Credited with developing a number of rappers, Lorenzo went on to start his own record company, hyping the gangsta image by naming his label Murder Inc. He was on trial on charges of laundering $1 million U.S. in drug money. Although prosecutors also introduced evidence that Lorenzo’s partner in crime, Kenneth McGriff, for whom the money laundering favor was done, planned to repay the service by hitting competitor, Curtis Jackson – better known as 50 cent – who was almost killed in 2000, Lorenzo was eventually acquitted. Jackson’s film Get rich or die tryin, originally produced in Toronto, is currently playing in theatres throughout North America amid protests from anti-violence activists. Some related shootings and killings have occurred in the process in numerous cities throughout North America. (See http://www.fradical.com)

Meanwhile, on November 22, the Globe and Mail announced that Scott Colbourne was kicking off a weekly column examining new media: “From video games to the Internet to things you don’t even know about yet.” His first vignettes included “Financial analysts predict that, with the player base for video games widening, video games will lead all entertainment sectors in growth over the next four years.” Matching the economic optimism is skepticism among veteran players who fear too much “Hollywood-style glitz” at the expense of innovation, and concern among anti-violence activists, who question the growing fascination with virtual killing.

Colbourne tells us, “already, for every artistic gem like Shadow in the Colossus or groundbreaking virtual world like World of Warcraft, there are five titles like the newly released 50 Cent: Bulletproof, a game in which the half-dollar rapper battles assorted gangs of New York with pals Dr. Dre and Eminem. In short, whether you play or just follow the news, it is going to be a thoroughly engrossing 360-odd days of video-game land”. I’ll add to his thought… And political angst, outrage and bewilderment at rising levels of youth gang violence in our schools and on our city streets.

Editorials in most mainstream newspapers continue to take the well-trod path of blaming communities for the wall of silence blocking police access to leads. Their own lucrative revenues from advertisements for these forms of entertainment are conveniently overlooked. Margaret Wente did call race the elephant in the room (Globe and Mail, 20 Nov. 2005). Although it is no secret that most of the perpetrators and victims of shootings in Toronto are young blacks, her main point is hardly groundbreaking. Promoting black teachers, motivating kids, and turning around failing schools, as she suggested, are necessary, but so is addressing the increasingly pervasive, socializing influences of popular culture that compete with teachers of all colours and races. This includes television, movies, music, video and computer games, all of which help inculcate value systems and life styles for the young. Indeed, the extent to which children, from a very early age, are now targeted by those who market these commodities is tantamount to ideological child abuse, all well funded and encouraged by the same hand wringing politicians and pondering journalists casting about for solutions to escalating youth violence and alienation.

We have had not only enough gun violence, but enough myopic navel gazing by people who are shirking their responsibilities and abusing the public trust. Their short memories on the harmful effects of violent entertainment, well covered in the mainstream media in recent decades, can easily be refreshed with a simple stroke of a key button on the Internet. They can start with the website for Canadians Concerned About Violence In Entertainment, www.c-cave.ca and follow up through links with dozens of similar websites, many of them professional and university-based organizations. For these leaders to continue to look the other way, simply because the entertainment industries bring in so much economic revenue to our largest cities, is merely a stalling tactic and only ensures that the shooting and killing will continue regardless of whether or not we have had enough.

Rose Dyson is chair of the Media Working Group, Science for Peace, and of Canadians Concerned about Violence in Entertainment

Bibliography

Scott Colbourne, “Approach of new consoles has game makers drooling,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), p R1, 22 Nov. 2005
John Goddard, “ Funeral attack sparks outrage,” Toronto Star , 19 Nov. 2005
Shawn McCarthy, “Life imitates art in N.Y. hip-hop trail,” Globe and Mail, p.A11, 21 Nov. 2005.
Michael Valpy, “Pastor calls for `war measures’ to combat shooting,” Globe and Mail, p..A1, 21 Nov. 2005
“The wall of silence in Toronto’s killings,” Globe and Mail, p. A22, 22 Nov. 2005
Margaret Wente, “Race is the elephant in the room,” Globe and Mail, p.A22, 22 Nov. 2005.