.Corp Comm Connects

As violence escalates, community leaders worry about feuds fuelled on social media

July 3, 2018
Jennifer Pagliaro and Samantha Beattie

A missing gold chain, rap videos brazenly shot in rival neighbourhoods and other examples of what observers call signs of disrespect are fuelling online rhetoric as violence escalates across downtown.

It is worrying community workers and challenging city officials over how to police a youthful, impressionable culture rooted in social media and the grudges playing out on those networks over several months. How it relates to the real-world violence remains murky. How to stop it, even more so.

Long-standing rivalries, documented by police and local criminologists, have existed between some Toronto communities, including Alexandra Park and Regent Park. What’s changed, officials and others with knowledge of these communities say, is that beefs previously centred around more traditional turf wars involving the illegal drug trade have evolved into conflicts over respect and pride of place --a more ambiguous drama that is difficult to keep tabs on.

“At the end of the day these are artificial borders between neighbourhoods,” said Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) where many of the recent shootings have happened, including that of popular Regent Park rapper Jahvante Smart outside a nightclub on Queen St. W. on Saturday.

“After the caution tape is taken down and after the news stories end, the hard work of community building is what needs to happen.”

Community workers point to the larger-than-life personas of some involved in the online conflicts who have thousands of followers and millions of views or likes online. How, they wonder, can police or youth workers compete with that kind of reach? There is also concern about the pressure online to retaliate “hard” against rivals.

“When something erupts, it’s fast. It’s all over within seconds,” said Councillor Jon Burnside, a former member of the Toronto Police Service. “We’re seeing the results.”

One example of escalating conflict began more than a year ago, community workers noted, when a gold chain bearing the numbers “416” and apparently belonging to the recently killed rapper Smart, better known as “Smoke Dawg” --the 21-year-old whose music was earning him acclaim and recent gigs alongside celebrity Toronto rapper Drake --was reportedly “snatched.” That alleged theft was later claimed by another rapper, affiliated with those who call Alexandra Park home, who flaunted the chain in his own videos posted to YouTube.

Social media chatter, shows others waited to see how Smoke Dawg would respond to being “disrespected” and taunted Smart for having not yet done “something” about it.

In a video published June 25 --just days before Smart was gunned down --Smart is seen rapping under the familiar green awnings of the social housing in Regent Park on the north side of Queen St. Also prominently featured in the video is the Atkinson Housing Co-op in the heart of rival neighbourhood Alexandra Park.

“Social media is one of our biggest challenges,” said one community source who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Social media is like their reality . . . They can’t be seen as what they call a ‘punk’ online.”

It’s not clear how the online war relates to Smart’s shooting, if at all. Nor is it known what prompted other shootings over the long weekend, including one that injured four in Kensington Market. One community source said it appeared to have little to do with anyone from the nearby Alexandra Park community or the ongoing rivalry with residents of Regent Park.

“Young people’s lives are complex and no one sector of human services can respond to the diverse needs,” said Scott McKean, manager of the city’s community safety and well-being unit, who has a background in crisis response. “It really takes a multi-sector lens to support not only young people but their families in dealing with the complex realities of their daily lives.”

Cressy and other leaders agreed building more community supports to increase youth employment and build stronger mentorship programs should be the focus.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Mayor John Tory said his office is currently taking an inventory of programs to support communities and at-risk youth to establish those that were successful but may need additional funding.

“The bottom line is they all work,” former councillor and police board member Shelley Carroll said of programs to support youth. “Open up the things you shut down. That’s been going on through the Ford and Tory administration --reducing every hour, reducing every program, reducing every grant. It’s real simple. They all worked together.”

She noted a full-time youth outreach worker also costs far less than a uniformed police officer. The work they do, she said, “is longer lasting and touches more youth in positive ways.”