Don Clairmont comments on swarmings

Criminologist was hired to study violence in Halifax

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There has always been violence on the streets of Halifax, but from about 2005 to 2007, there was a disturbing spike in the level of unprovoked attacks on innocents, culminating with a series of swarmings in and around the Halifax Common and the murder of American sailor Damon Crooks on Argyle Street.

That was enough to get people to pay attention, in a meaningful way. After some fits and starts, mayor Peter Kelly convened the mayor’s Roundtable on Violence, and retained Dalhousie criminologist Don Clairmont to oversee the writing of a report, ”Violence and Public Safety in the Halifax Regional Municipality, published in April, 2008.

The Clairmont Report, based on the work of the roundtable, thousands of hours of interviews and several extensive polls, is exhaustive, and makes 64 recommendations ranging from race relations to late night taxi and bus service to prostitution to restorative justice and drug courts. As such, it has been widely praised. Halifax councillors, for example, repeatedly urged adoption of the recommendations.

But then a curious thing happened: the swarmings mostly stopped, so Clairmont’s report was no longer newsworthy and the city moved on to get worked up about other things.

This past weekend, however, swarmings have returned with a vengeance. At least eight attacks have occurred since last Friday, and several people have been hospitalized.

With swarmings back in the news, I figured this would be a good time to talk with Clairmont, and to see what’s happened with his report and the recommendations it contains. So I went over to Dalhousie and met with him in an anteroom to his cluttered office, which is on the upper floor to an old house next to the library, scheduled for demolition in coming weeks.

Wildings vs swarmings

“One of the things that I should’ve put in that report is that 25 years ago we used to have something called wilding,” says Clairmont. “Wilding was essentially the same as swarming---a group of people would get together and they’d beat the shit out of someone and steal their running shoes or their jacket or things like this.

“And if you compare wilding and swarming 25 years later, the commonalities are fantastic. You have a group of people, predominately black---the same racial thing there---the level of the theft of the theft involved is minimal---it’s running shoes, it’s jackets, whatever the person is carrying around with them---and to some extent the violence is egregious in relation to the utilitarian value of the act.” [This interview was held before several swarmings which were perpetuated by white attackers.]

Both wildings and swarmings have their roots in the urban ghettos of the US, says Clairmont. He attributes the phenomena to a mass consumerism hyped unrelentingly by mass media.

The difference, says Clairmont, is that both the level of violence and the value of stolen goods have increased; before, random people on the street might be wearing running shoes that were potential targets of theft, but now people are carrying cell phones and the like, often worth many hundreds of dollars.

This is important, because in past times, when people got their jackets or shoes stolen, they might not report it to police, but now they will. And these sort of attacks get classified as “robberies,” which, says Clairmont, are, after murders, the most worrisome kind of crime that people report in surveys.

That increased citizen concern may also have lead to the police not initially publicizing the first few attacks. Only after the sixth attack, when a victim was seriously injured, did the police issue a release about two of the swarmings, and only after that victim told the media that he had been told by hospital staff that there were four other swarmings, and only after the media raised the question with police, did the police department acknowledge the earlier swarmings. Since then, three more swarmings have occurred.

“Clearly you can see that if people have this concern about robbery, and if you define swarming as robbery, and robbery’s up, then people are going to be raising a hell of a lot of questions,” says Clairmont. “So you can see where there’s a lot of issues here. A lot of issues for police---how do they respond to all this? And a lot of issues for the public---how should police respond?”

I should note that the non-reporting of swarmings wouldn’t be an issue if, as is common practice with every police department in the United States, the entire police blotter, listing each and every police call, was made available to reporters every day. I’ve argued this before, here, but as this week’s events demonstrate, full reporting of police work leads to more accountability.

The social development response to violence

Clairmont is an interesting study---he moves from cynicism to hopefulness and back again, sometimes several times in the same sentence. He takes the long view---the very long view; we’re not going to reduce violence simply by whacking some delinquents around.

“This isn’t just a joke,” he tells me. “People are being hurt, they’re robbed---this fellow the other day suffered severe injuries, surgery’s required, he may not have use of a limb into the future. I don’t think we should ever play that down. The point I would emphasize is that robbing and swarming is wrong; there’s no question about it---if there’s a subculture that sustains it, then we’ve got to destroy that subculture. But we’ve got to have programs in place to provide people with a meaningful way to operate in society.”

Much of our conversation is a detailed exploration of those programs, and in future posts I’ll be talking more about those programs. But it’s easy to get lost in an argument over the value of those programs, versus the old-school “knocking heads” approach. Clairmont seems to recognize this danger, and as we’re discussing programs that help prisoners find housing when they are released from prison, he interrupts himself to tell a story:

I’m impressed, Tim. I read a book the other day called something like “Drug Dealing in Spanish Harlem.” It’s by an anthropologist who lived for three years atop a laundromat in Spanish Harlem. The laundromat was just a front for a drug dealer. He got to know the people very well, and that became his life-- just understand how the system operated. [I believe Clairmont is talking about “In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio” by Philippe Bourgois.]

A person’s really dedicated to do that for three years [laughs]--- he had his family with him too, and there were a lot of threats and things like that. But what really impressed me about the book was that, as he got to know them, he had all these conversations with them.

Here were these guys, hardened criminals, and every three or four months they’d come and talk to him and say, ‘you know, I’ve got to get out of this shit. I’m not getting any money’---there’s a myth that these guys are well-paid, but it’s like the mafia soldiers, they’ve got nothing. Sometimes, he’d describe a situation where you’ve got five or six guys, they’d be working all night, and after they paid for the drugs, they’ve got maybe 45 bucks to split between them. So, you’re not getting anywhere near the minimum wage, you’re doing a risky thing--- the cops are gonna always nail you, you’re the vulnerable guy selling, so every time they want to get some arrests, the officers go down and knock you off. Plus, you’ve got internal stuff- gangs and stuff going on.

So, these guys say, “I want to get out of this, and I want to try to get a job.” And he traced a few of these situations. Guys would go down to the employment office, they’d be out of their depth. They wouldn’t be able to articulate anything to the employment counsellor, they wouldn’t be able to read the forms. And so, a week later, where are they? Back in the laundromat, selling the drugs, taking them and so forth.

But the idea of the human spirit, that even these guys frequently were saying, “I want out of here, I’m gonna go down and fill out the forms.’”You know, that speaks a lot to the situation. And what we’ve got to do is figure out how to work with them.

I’m still waiting for mayor Peter Kelly to call me back, ahem, but next post I’ll get into some of the specific recommendations that came from Clairmont’s report, and what successes we’ve had, and what still needs to be worked on. The balance, I can say now, is this: Clairmont feels we’ve made progress, and that the work now being done is not simply mouthing the same-old speeches that were made in the past. He’s frustrated by the slow pace of these changes, but they are real, and substantive. Still, there’s much more work to be done, as the recent swarmings attest.

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