When naming is not shaming

Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob. Photo by Darren Bahaw
Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob. Photo by Darren Bahaw

AS HE lamented murders that took place over the long holiday weekend, acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob asserted some of these killings were related to gang violence and were reprisals between specific groups.

However, he made a point of not identifying the gangs involved because, in his assessment, this would risk glorifying them.

It’s worth carefully considering the top cop’s stance on not naming gangs because it points to a deeper problem in the State’s approach.

Anti-gang legislation straddles governments, with various acts passed in 2011, 2018 and as recently as last year.

Throughout, a key evidentiary problem has been how to prove the existence of a gang in the first place. Gangs are simultaneously clandestine in their operations while also being outwardly oriented. They are concerned with image and reputation.

Mr Jacob is correct to suggest trying to name and shame gangs might achieve the opposite effect. Instead of putting pressure on these organisations, such a course of action would simply highlight their activities and give more weight to their intimidatory tactics. Fear is a key asset for any underground entity.

But an argument can be made suggesting the State’s very criminalisation of gangs, coupled with the problems involved in implementing the law, is tantamount to official recognition and, hence, a kind of glorification of these criminal blocs in the first place.

The lure of a gang, we imagine, is its status as a powerful, subversive organisation. In a society that clings to toxic masculinity and other expressions of patriarchy, it is not difficult to understand why some young men might wish to become gang members and why others succumb to peer pressure to do so.

This is especially so if we accept the social and economic factors that could render some more vulnerable than others to the lure of gangs.

It is worth asking: has the State got it all wrong when it comes to this problem? Should fighting gangs be regarded primarily as a law-enforcement matter, underpinned by legislation and surveillance? Or do we need to take a deeper look at the social dynamics that may be at play, including the State’s own posture through legislation?

Mr Jacob may be on the right track, but perhaps he should go further.

For example, the invocation of “gang-related” motives whenever a murder occurs has many effects. On the one hand, it potentially glorifies gang culture, from the perspective of gangsters. It also makes the State look weak and as if it is grasping at straws to explain its own failure to control violence.

Equally, invoking the bogeyman of the gang leader risks unfairly painting all murder victims as being tied to illicit activity.

Unless there is some compelling evidentiary reason to do otherwise, it might be worth retiring all mentions of gangs in connection with murders.

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"When naming is not shaming"

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