Fighting words

Editorial by Bruce Wark.

"I know something about crime," said judge Joseph Kennedy in a low, gravelly voice. "I have seen the situation change in Halifax in the last 10 to 20 years." Kennedy was addressing the Mayor's Roundtable on Violence last week at City Hall. There was dead silence in the council chamber as he spoke of "mindless, gratuitous violence—most committed by the young—violence for the sheer, perverse joy of doing harm." These young criminals, he said, "are alienated, amoral, under-educated and adrift. Their lives are a violent video game...dominated by drugs, violence and stupidity."

The 62-year-old Kennedy, now Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, reminded the Roundtable he has spent nearly 30 years on the bench. One day, he said, two young women were talking and laughing in his court during their sentencing. He stopped the proceedings and asked them: "Do you have any interest in what we're doing here?" And one of them answered, "Not a bit, not one bit."

Then Kennedy launched into what he described as his "rant." "Too many young people are not being raised the way they should be," he said. "What in the hell is a 13-year-old doing on the streets of Halifax at two o'clock in the morning?" Parents, he added, are failing to discipline their kids, failing to instill the self-discipline required for success in school and at work. "There's a significant crime problem in this city," he said. "It's going to take a long time to correct." Stiffer sentences alone are not the answer, he added. Canada already has more people in jail than any country except the US. And besides, "you cannot lock up a whole generation."

During the question period, Timothy Crooks, executive director of Phoenix Youth Programs, reminded the judge that one in five Nova Scotia kids lives below the poverty line—one of the highest child poverty rates in the country. "Many of the youth we work with are from unsafe homes. It takes a huge amount of discipline to leave such a home in the middle of the night to seek help," Crooks said. He added later that many kids have contempt for the courts because the legal system is "the absolute embodiment" of a society that has failed them by not providing fundamental things like safe homes and financial support.

The Crooks/Kennedy exchange illustrated the immense usefulness of the Mayor's Roundtable as smart, articulate and well-informed people from an amazingly wide range of fields spent two and a half days discussing how to grapple with crime and violence. Police chief Frank Beazley talked about increased foot patrols, but also called on governments to address social problems such as poverty, illiteracy and racism. During a break, he spoke of his deep opposition to the Guardian Angels, the US vigilante group that threatens to start patrolling Halifax streets next March. "Who will protect citizen's rights," Beazley asked, "from a group that reports to no one?" Meantime, members of the newly formed Halifax Student Alliance told the Roundtable that of the 1,260 post-secondary students who filled out an online survey, only half think it's reasonably safe to go out in the evening. Nearly two-thirds of those who said they had experienced crime didn't report it to police—some because they felt police either could not or would not help.

Don Clairmont, director of Dalhousie's Atlantic Institute of Criminology, now has the tough task of sifting through the Roundtable discussions, his own research and comments from the previous public meetings, to come up with a comprehensive report this winter. As the discussions ended on Saturday, Clairmont's Dal colleague, sociologist Chris Murphy, seemed optimistic.

Murphy, who called violent crime Halifax's "dirty little secret" during an interview for a Coast cover story last year, said the Roundtable enlisted "a large, diverse group of people to do something we haven't done before: work collectively as a community to solve our crime problem."

Liquid paper: In last week's New Music issue, we questioned rockers Rule of Thumb about their ability to play "slick riffs." The question makes sense, but was also a typo. We meant to write "sick riffs." In any case, Rule of Thumb are capable of pretty much anything. Our apologies.

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