“KASH Heed attending the anti- gang event meant a lot to me. He reminds me of my past but in a positive way. He pushed people hard to get them out of the gang life.”
These are the sentiments that one former gang member expressed to me after the anti–gang event on Monday at Vancouver’s Fraserview Hall that former Vancouver Police Department inspector Kash Heed, who was solicitor general, attended.
The event, which I moderated, was aimed at empowering youth to shun a gang lifestyle and informing parents about gangs and how to identify the red flags. The audience got a rare treat of real life experiences of former gang members Moe Bhatha, Scott Magri and one other who wished to remain anonymous. They were genuinely honest and pulled no punches.
The questions they answered included sharing their background, how they got involved in the world of gangs, their lived experiences and how they exited the gang world. Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the anti-gang Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – BC (CFSEU-BC) gave a powerful presentation on the truths and myths about gangs and filled a much-needed gap by including female gang members and women who are seduced into this world. His presentation was a real eye-opener and I noted a few youth shaking their head in awe as they watched the images on screen.
Those who attended represented a wide range of people, including youth, parents, representatives from gurdwaras, community organizations such as South Asian Family Association (SAFA) and CORSA, academics, police officers and political leaders. In fact, Suzanne Anton , MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview, who is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, gave a very informative and supportive short speech on what the government is doing to reach out to youth and their ongoing support for community initiatives to tackle the gang issue.
Heed, a familiar face, not only in his capacity as a former solicitor general, former MLA, former police chief, academic and specialist on the subject of gangs, but also as a former police officer known to some of the former gang members on the panel, also attended, something which the panellists really appreciated.
At the event, when Moe spoke about how he got out of the world of gang life, he turned to Heed and said: “I never thought I would say these words that police are my friends. … Guys like Kash, we did not like him at the time he was harassing us, pulling us and cuffing us and asking us questions, but he would still say the same thing [ask why they were in this lifestyle and spell out the consequences to them]. We never disrespected him. We understood they are doing their job and that this is a cat and mouse game.”
After the event, I asked Moe for his thoughts about the event and he said he was very touched that Kash took time on a holiday to sit and listen to their stories and reflecting on the past, said that he was the cop that understood the problem of gangs and knew a lot of the people involved. He often told them up straight what would happen and added: “There was a trust with Kash which was not easily won by gang members. He was the most experienced cop with such a pool of knowledge and you could sense he genuinely cared about public safety. He went out of his way and on his free time approached us to talk. He spoke with respect and today I respect him for genuinely wanting to help people.”
EACH panellist responded to the questions I posed and shared their stories about their involvement and association with gangs and violence. Their stories engaged the audience on multiple levels. Scott shared his life stories with a focus on the lessons he learned, how easy it was to slip into this world of gangs and the circumstances that drove them in that direction. He put pen to paper and wrote a book titled “Lessons: Crime, Games and Pain” – an honest and compelling story about his experiences and the world of crime.
Following the panel discussion, there were a range of questions asked by the audience about legalization of marijuana, the nature of brutal gang violence, drugs, exit strategies, red flags to look out for in your kids and the big topic of denial.
Moe said: “There is not time for denial. The community has to realize there is so much we can do, starting a rehabilitation centre, getting Sgt. Houghton to give talks at the gurdwara regularly and more.”
He added that at the moment we are not getting this message out to the kids as we should. He said: “Many are dropping out of sports. If they are not involved in sports or music, where are they? They are at home playing grand theft auto which teaches kids to rob, steal, pimp and sell drugs and that is the top game that is being sold.”
One panellist asked the audience: “You want to know what a hero looks like?” He asked an elder Sikh to stand and told the audience that he fought in a war, he does service for the community cleaning up at the gurdwara everyday because he knows it makes a difference in someone’s life. “That’s a role model,” he said.
Indeed, the audience learned a lot at the event and showed much appreciation as one woman stood up and thanked them for their beautiful stories and how wonderful it was that they had the courage to be so open: “You were open with your life story and showed that there are bigger things than ourselves,” she said.
The event closed with a short closing statement in which I reminded the audience about how much courage it took for the former gang members to speak out publically and the value of the event because it “makes us remember what we often forget, that life matters which many of us take for granted.” I told the panellists: “You gave back to the community because you were given a second chance. This makes your words exceptionally valuable.”
On that note, I end with Moe’s words: “If people want to get out, we are living proof and are fortunate to be alive. So, if people want to get out, they can.”
BY INDIRA PRAHST
Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
& Race and Ethnic Relations Instructor,