In 1989, the Montreal police launched a war on Black street gangs – a war that has only intensified in the years since then. This paper examines the conditions that led to a moral panic about gangs in 1989 and the beginning of a multi-faceted war on gangs. The panic began, I argue, with changes in immigration in Canada in the 1960s and the emergence of vibrant Black diasporic communities in the 1970s and 80s. These communities faced various forms of racial discrimination and violence, including police and white vigilante violence. When they fought back through protest, mutual aid, and the creation of self-defense (“gangs”), it enflamed long-building white francophone fears of demographic and socio-political decline. A full-blown panic emerged in late 1987, when the police killed a Black teenager and a dynamic multi-racial movement for justice took to the streets and halls of power. For white ethnic nationalists, the growing far right, and the police brotherhood, both Black protest and Black gangs in Montreal signified the ostensible threat of white francophone “disappearance” and socio-political marginalization. In this context, the police brotherhood and allied media outlets mobilized a moral panic about gangs and pressed for a new police operation that, in complex ways, would target Black gangs and weaken Black protest. The paper, while focused on the 1980s, aims to provide a broader analysis of how forces of white supremacy inside and outside police departments respond to anti-racist and anti-police protest, including the racial backlash to the second Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020.
About Professor Rutland
I am a human geographer and interdisciplinary scholar focused on municipal politics, urban planning, and urban security in Canada. I approach this work with an interest in social and racial justice, and often draw on relevant work in Black studies and Black geographies to document how ideas about "race" shape dominant urban policies and practices, and how social and racial justice movements imagine and seek to create different urban worlds. Most of my work can be grouped into two broad categories:
- Urban planning and anti-blackness. Inspired by the long history of Black struggle against urban planning in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I have traced how anti-blackness (or simply anti-Black racism) has shaped urban planning ideas and practices in Halifax from the late 19th century to the present. This work is best represented in my book Displacing Blackness: Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax (University of Toronto Press, 2018). Recently, I have extended this work to Montreal, examining how new urban planning ideas and new tenants' rights in the 1980s were ultimately used to evict Black tenants in an emerging war on drugs and gangs.
- Urban security and policing. In a variety of studies, I have sought to document the prevalence of racial profiling and violence in policing and security practices, as well as the containment and repression of movements to transform the police. This work, all of it focused on Montreal, includes a participatory-action research project with racialized youth in the neighbourhood of Saint-Michel, various reports and media articles on policing and crime, a history of efforts to combat racial profiling and violence, and an ongoing project examining how Montreal's war on street gangs since the late 1980s has transformed policing and urban security.
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