Making Sense of Murder: The Reality versus the Realness of Gang Homicides in Two Contexts
2. Current Study
3. Study A: The Forgotten Village, The Hague (The Netherlands)
4. Study B: Regent Park, Toronto (Canada)
5. Making Sense of Murder
“What happened, and who did it?”: Pseudo-Investigations
“Before you know it, you are shaking hands with his killer”: Hypervigilance
A few days after a young affiliate was shot and killed one summer, Urbanik and another researcher12 pulled up to the apartment which served as her participants’ home base. The area was eerily quiet which was unusual given its vivacious drug trade. Urbanik text Booker—one of her key participants—that they arrived and he came downstairs with Matteo shortly thereafter. Both men appeared uneasy, looking around frequently, studying passing cars carefully, and staying close to the building entryway—atypical behaviours since they were usually relaxed in that area. When Urbanik asked why it was so deserted, Booker responded: “We’re all laying low at Ricky’s house. I told em you guys are here, they said they might come down later. Things are hot right now” Urbanik then probed whether it was related to the shooting, he responded: “Yea. This shit got us fucked up. Just trying to figure out whose who and the next play [response], you know? I’d invite ya’ll up but trust me- you don’t wanna be part of this right now”.“Anger! ‘Let’s go right now! like where’s he [killer] at, who did it?’…Everything is going through your head, you know? How you lost someone that’s really close to you, right? … There’s too much anger, you want to do anything just, you know? So they [killers] can know how you feel the pain, right? And you ain’t gonna heal nothing, it’s just—you get at them [retaliate]”.
Concerns that the killer may be a close affiliate with intimate knowledge about the men’s routines and potentially “planning on the next one” pushed them to withdraw from neighbourhood life and some group members until things settled. Frankie explained why they rarely ventured outdoors until they had had more information: “I’m out numbered, I’m out numbered, I can’t come outside…you don’t know who’s after who”. Once the men narrowed down or identified possible culprits (usually within a week) and eliminated their affiliates from the suspect list, they re-established their neighbourhood presence. However, the possibility of future ambushes meant they usually only ventured outdoors in large groups and only if at least one person was armed in the weeks following a homicide.“You think you’re next. Just cause it’s your community that they’re dropping close by, right? … This shit is happening in your backyard. And to find out you don’t know who the fuck the killer is? What if I’m chillin’ amongst the killer, and he’s just planning on the next one? Like, that’s what gets me triggered!”
Urbanik’s participants deployed other safety protocols during times of heightened risk. For example, they sometimes hung out in full-view of building security cameras in hopes of deterring assailants, rarely veered far from building doors and ensured doors were always open (sometimes breaking locks to ensure a speedy exit), and occasionally avoided funerals/viewings. They also paid residents in easy-access apartments/townhomes to keep their doors unlocked so they could run inside if necessary, increased group communication, and had Urbanik check around adjacent buildings/corners, run neighbourhood errands (e.g., trips to the convenience store), and drive them places.13 Similar to Roks’s study, peer fatalities in Urbanik’s field site sparked a “hidden state of emergency” (Green 1994, p. 228), despite their troubling frequency.“People would see fishy vehicles, or, fishy people, you know what I mean, and from there, you’d get that sense- like you’d know. We all know everyone from Regent Park. I know everyone who has braids in Regent Park. Someone walks around with braids I don’t know? I’ll be like ‘Look at this guy!’ And they would do the same thing…Altima, tinted, moving funny, driving funny. And we’ll just stand on our toes.”
In comparing StudyA’s and StudyB’s findings, a third common response to peer murder emerges: how gang members ‘make sense of’ what occurred. Once the men in the Forgotten Village and in Regent Park identified the probable killer(s), they shifted their attention to the deceased’s actions preceding their murder.14“They trusted someone they shouldn’t”: Attributing Blame to the Victim
This comment offers a window into the daily practices of the Dutch Crips and how they navigate street life. For their own safety, the men were expected to share their whereabouts with other gang members. Raymond maintained that Sin may have prevented his murder if he had adhered to this “code”. The ambiguities surrounding Sin’s death were obfuscated by depicting Dutch gang life as guided by clear-cut conduct rules. However, instead of seeing this specific ‘code’ as a concrete determinant of behaviour, the central argument put forth by Copes et al. (2013) is that “telling the code” (Wieder 1974) illustrates how Dutch gang members give meaning to the world around them, explaining their behaviour both to themselves and to others.“That’s why I always say: let me know your whereabouts. That shit can keep you alive. Let me know where you are and let me know when you’ve made it home. I know it sounds childish, but that shit can keep you alive. It’s fucked up, but this has to be a lesson for the young homies. This is not a joke, this shit is serious. Fucked up that a homie like Sin has to be the example.” (23 August 2012, excerpt from fieldnotes)
“It’s like, you already know these guys are all talking what they’re living…So, every time I tell them, "Please keep your head up, please. I want to see you tomorrow, stay safe." Everybody. Ask them. They say ‘Yeah’, but they’re not always keeping an eye on their head. "Be safe, be safe." They don’t know. Tomorrow’s never promised. They be walkin home, getting smoked. It’s crazy”(Asad)
In this context, “keeping an eye on their head” refers to “staying on your Ps and Qs,” the opposite of being “caught slipping” (see Berardi 2018, pp. 123–37). The men’s careful dissection of the deceased’s alleged role in their own demise betrays that they perceive and convey gang homicides are preventable, if potential victims operate accordingly. The upshot here is that by being “caught slipping” and not successfully evading victimization (including unprovoked, unanticipated violence), Urbanik’s participants regarded being murdered as a choice: “They picked their own poison. They choose to go out [die] when the fuck they chose to went out. If I told you to do something, and you went and did opposite and you end up dying, I’ll feel like, ‘fucking dumb mofucker. You should have listened to me’”.“They slipped up, they trusted someone they shouldn’t, and guess what? Lights out!”(Jefferson)
6. Residual Effects: The “Realness” and “Reality” of Gang Homicide
“The homie is dead man, please keep it real!”: The Transformative Realness of Sin’s murder
Sin’s murder was a defining moment that impacted all Crips, albeit in different ways. For example, while older members claimed that they had lost close friends to violence before and a few even asserted they “were used to it”, others openly shared that they cried frequently and had trouble sleeping since the homicide. For some members, Sin’s murder revealed who and what was “real”. In this sense, Sin’s death had a “transformative magic” that brought “comic-book symbolism” to life (Katz 1988, pp. 129–31; Van Hellemont 2015, pp. 191–224), (re)affirming the “realness” of the Rollin 200 Crips. For others however, the murder ignited or cemented growing doubts about the reality—or realness—of belonging to a Dutch gang. Members who left reported being drawn to the gang because of their violent representations and street reputation; they had certain ideas about the realness of Dutch gang life, in part inspired by media accounts of the Dutch Crips and influenced by stereotypical representation of American gang life in movies, documentaries, and YouTube (rap) videos. For them, beliefs about the realness of Dutch gang life were shattered by the day-to-day realities, which usually consisted of spending long hours in the h200d doing nothing.“After Sin was killed, the shit became too real for them. Then they couldn’t bang anymore, because they suddenly had a job or something. But you know, the police also knows this. That’s why they see us as the core members. But many have left, man.” (20 December 2012, conversation with Rick)
Similar to others living in impoverished communities characterized by stigmatization, limited services, and neighbourhood violence (see Aspholm 2020, p. 217), peer murder was an unfortunate lived reality for Urbanik’s participants and all considered it unavoidable. However, while the men were heavily traumatized by losing their first peer to gun violence (usually at 10–12 years old) they all reported becoming accustomed to affiliate murder, referring to it as “normal”, “an everyday thing” and “just a part of life”. The normalcy and near predictability of peer murder meant that even when Urbanik’s participants sat around ‘doing nothing’ like the men in The Forgotten Village, they needed to remain vigilant and always be prepared to defend themselves, their crews, and their turf. Unlike Roks’s participants who experienced peer fatality as signifying or demystifying the ‘realness’ of gang life, the materiality and ‘realness’ of gang life in Regent Park was never in question. Instead, Urbanik’s participants conveyed that the troubling routineness of peer fatality both accustomed and benumbed them to losing loved ones. Booker succinctly described this desensitization: “You just get over it [the murder] much faster now than before…You lost people, after people, after people. It becomes like, you know, a common thing. When you get used to something, it’s not as bad as the first time, right?” As Asther reflected upon his best friend’s murder one afternoon, Urbanik asked whether subsequent losses affected him similarly. He responded: “No, they don’t. Cause like, since that happened, it’s like [snaps fingers to denote frequency] you get used to it…it’s easier for me this time”. Claims about becoming habituated to murder are consistent with literature which has found youth exposed to community violence may become emotionally desensitized to it as a form of pathological adaptation and/or a coping mechanism (See Fowler et al. 2009 for a review).“Out here everyone thinks they’re next”: The Reality of Gang Homicide in Regent Park
Similarly, Stefano described that while the group is “Edgy for a couple of days” after a member’s homicide they “Have to get back to life…This is not the 1st time- this is not gonna be the last time. It’s not the 3rd time, it’s the 100th time”. These descriptions align with Urbanik’s field observations. While the men spent the initial weeks post-murder openly mourning their loved ones and being hypervigilant, these behaviours largely dwindled thereafter. This was not because Urbanik’s participants were unaffected by their peer’s passing or questioned the ‘realness’ of gang life (like Roks’s participants). They continued to commemorate them, engaging in several memorial processes including “pouring some out for the dead homies,”16 producing commemoratory rap videos, and honouring them on social media (Urbanik forthcoming). However, they believed they had to “get back to life” and “cool off” for survival; they needed to decompress quickly in anticipation of and preparation for subsequent murders and/or their own potential victimization.“Like [when] someone dies, like yesterday, yeah-we all mourning them. Just give it like a week later, people probably forget and people be all happy, laughing and doing their own thing. But when it happens again, we’re back mourning them, then back to our normal life. We lose so much people that it just, it’s like an everyday thing.”(Leon)
Having lost many peers to gun violence and having been set up and shot, Leon was chronically wary of his “allies,” explaining how this eroded his trust in other group members: “I know how to move now. I watch my surroundings. I don’t chill with no one, I only chill with who you see I’m here with every day. That’s it. I don’t need no new friends. Friends will get you killed, they say…” In Toronto’s street milieu, “the violent threat and militaristic response exist in the same social circle” (Katz 1988, p. 218).“He was on a block-- that was supposed to be allies…He thought he was ok, you know? The same allies hit him up [killed him]. So, you know…As much as people might be your allies, you still can’t trust them, right?”(Leon)
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Conflicts of Interest
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Gang homicides are more likely to include multiple offenders, to occur in public settings, to have different spatial characteristics, to involve younger persons, and to involve strangers than nongang incidents (Curry and Spergel 1988; Decker and Curry 2002; Howell 1999; Maxson et al. 1985; Pizarro and McGloin 2006; Pyrooz 2012).
See (Urbanik et al. 2017) for a discussion of how street codes can also limit violence.
For an extensive overview of both ethnographies, see (Urbanik and Roks 2020).
Except for Quincy “Sin” Soetosenojo, all names are pseudonyms. Some details have been altered to protect participants’ identities.
Upon comparing field experiences with Roks, Urbanik returned to the field and conducted “problem-centered interviews” (Witzel 2000), specifically focused on how participants experienced and navigated peer fatality.
Though 2018 was an unusual year given high-causality events, there was still an increase.
Urbanik was in a local community center when the shooting occurred.
Those targeted immediately left the area to stay safe and avoid police interaction.
In instances where no eye-witnesses were available, Urbanik’s participants had to gather information through other sources, including: social media posts, news media accounts, and details provided by friends and family.
While this strategy can result in fatal misunderstandings and errors, it is nevertheless a critical component of neighbourhood life post-shooting.
The researcher was a co-investigator on a separate ongoing study.
As a white woman, Urbanik was unlikely to be targeted in the neighbourhood.
Though this emphasis was often on the moments immediately before the killing (e.g., who they were with), this could also include earlier actions (e.g., behaviors ‘inviting’ victimization, like filming a rap video on a rival block).
This was particularly true given broad distrust in police and perceptions of their ineffectiveness, with many participants attempting to protect themselves in a milieu of police racism, brutality, and corruption.
A ritual of pouring alcohol out of freshly opened bottles on to the ground whilst reciting the names of murdered friends in a show of respect.
Whilst our participants spoke of how traumatic peer homicide is, they likely understated these effects given normative expectations about masculinity and gang narratives emphasizing toughness.
For many Black men/youth in Regent Park, “staying out of the life” does not necessarily protect them from violent victimization.
Their distrust must also be understood in relation to their broader distrust across their lives, and particularly, in broader social institutions which have often served as a source of institutional violence (see also Goffman 2015).
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Urbanik, M.-M.; Roks, R.A. Making Sense of Murder: The Reality versus the Realness of Gang Homicides in Two Contexts. Soc. Sci. 2021, 10, 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10010017
Urbanik M-M, Roks RA. Making Sense of Murder: The Reality versus the Realness of Gang Homicides in Two Contexts. Social Sciences. 2021; 10(1):17. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10010017Chicago/Turabian Style
Urbanik, Marta-Marika, and Robert A. Roks. 2021. "Making Sense of Murder: The Reality versus the Realness of Gang Homicides in Two Contexts" Social Sciences 10, no. 1: 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10010017