To blame the violence on the black community fundamentally ignores the deep structural inequality in the city.
Between April 17 and April 23, three young men were shot and killed in Halifax and the surrounding areas. Tyler Richards, who I knew, was shot in the city's west end, Naricho Clayton was shot on the northern edge of Halifax's downtown, and Daverico Downey was killed outside a home in North Preston, a historically black suburb. There have been seven murders in Halifax in 2016, a city of fewer than 400,000 people that has a disproportionately high violent crime rate. Winnipeg, a city roughly twice the size of Halifax, has had ten murders this year.
Recent violence in Halifax has disproportionately affected the city's black community. However, to blame this violence on problems that are internal to that community fundamentally ignores the deep structural inequality built into Halifax's economy, its politics, and even its geography. If you aren't from Halifax, it is hard to understand just how segregated along lines of class and race this city is. Understanding that segregation and the limits it places on those born into the wrong neighborhoods is necessary for understanding how violence shapes the lives of many of the people who live here.
Halifax is a city facing an affordable housing crisis. It's a city just a few years removed from a bloody feud between two families, the Melvins and the Marriotts: two drug dealing, biker gang–connected families from the poor, mostly white suburb of Spryfield. It's a city where some bosses won't hire employees who have to take public transit to work. It is also a city in the midst of huge condo boom and a city where despite widespread opposition, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments have committed a combined $400 million [$310 million USD] to help build a privately owned convention center that no one wants.
The construction of towers downtown and the expansion of subdivisions in the wealthier suburbs have led some to claim that recent violence is an anomaly that is overshadowing the positive impact of urban renewal. But that rhetoric ignores the obvious question: Who does urban renewal serve?
To look at a moment when a young black man was gunned down in North Preston and not connect it to the uneven distribution of wealth in this city is astounding. North Preston was an area settled by black loyalists in the 1700s and 1800s and is largely cut off from the rest of the city due to its distance from the peninsula and a lack of proper public transit access. Importantly, many of the descendants of those initial loyalists have never been given proper legal title to land that has been in their families for centuries. The result is legal instability and the inability to sell land (or even transfer it to family members) at a time that downtown and suburban property owners are making huge profits buying, developing, and selling property. We have overwhelming evidence from the United States that the inter-generational wealth gap between white and black is tied directly to home ownership and government policy.
Blindly praising urban renewal requires one to ignore a number of facts: While a wealthy developer received hundreds of millions of dollars to build a hotel and convention center from all three levels of government, Nova Scotia's ruling Liberal Party has cut funding from a 33-year-old African Nova Scotian–run community organization that helps people in Preston and Cherrybrook find jobs. In recent budgets, we've seen no new funding for public housing, no new money from the province to improve public transit to Halifax's working class and poor suburbs, and no additional support to create jobs in predominantly black or poor neighborhoods. The province refused to provide help to Harbour City Homes, a north end Halifax co-op that provides co-op housing for low income residents. And in a huge battle waged by community groups for access to a closed-down public school—largely organized by black and indigenous community members—the developers won.
Halifax's segregation and uneven development cannot be divorced from the structural racism woven into the fabric of the city and the province. This is the city where our newspaper of record published this monstrosity just a few weeks ago, stoking the flames of racist and xenophobic hate. This is a province where the education system continues to fail black students. A province where an interracial couple had a cross burned on their lawn and where African Nova Scotians face an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent and are less likely to have a university or college education when compared to the population as a whole.
Halifax is a city where former world class boxer Kirk Johnson had to file a human rights complaint against the Halifax Police Department after being pulled more than 28 times for the crime of being a black man with a nice car and where international students still find themselves subject to racist taunts and overcrowded and illegal housing. This is a province where African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities are far more likely to suffer the impact of toxic industrial and government pollution. This is a city where overwhelmingly white dog owners organized themselves to fight for the right for their dogs to literally shit all over the land where Africville once stood. And most obviously, this is a city where three black men were gunned down in one week. In short, this is a city that is plagued by white supremacy.
I knew Tyler Richards. I didn't know him well, but I knew him in the way that you know people in a small city like Halifax. I've been sickened in the last few week with comments I've heard and read insinuating that, because the most recent shooting deaths in Halifax involved people allegedly involved in the sale of illicit drugs, they brought it upon themselves. I heard it when Jefflin Beals, who I played basketball with when we were kids, was murdered during Toronto's Nuit Blanche in 2011. I heard it two years ago when Dan Pellerin, who was a teammate on my high school soccer team, was stabbed to death in Dartmouth. Every time I hear it, I know that it's bullshit. We make choices, but those choices are constrained by the structures we live under. The choices I've made that make me safe—to go to college (twice), to live in downtown Halifax, to work for political organizations that pay me a living wage—are choices that were available to me. Those choices aren't available to everyone.
The politics, economics, and geography of this city put hard constraints on the choices people get to make and to pretend otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand what violence is and the way that it intersects with class and race.
I am sick of hearing about a murder and wondering if it will be someone I know. But more than that I am sick of hearing about another murder in Halifax at all. This city, a city that I love, is destroying people, and we need to do something to stop it. Until we recognize that this violence is bigger than the individual choices of its victims and perpetrators, we will continue to fail to understand it, let alone stop it.
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