About Me

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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Home Mental Health Care for Gunshot Victims

Here is a link to a special guest blog that I've written for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Human Capital Blog.  The post is called "Home Mental Health Care for Gunshot Victims," and is inspired by my fieldwork in Philadelphia with surviving gunshot victims.  I'd be curious to hear what you all think.

Hope you enjoy.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Jessica Ghawi and the National Shift Spotlight on Victimization

Although I'm always reading, writing, and thinking about gun violence, these past few weeks have provided me with an overwhelming amount of stuff to think about.   

Mainly, I've been following news coverage of the mass shooting at the Dark Knight Rises premier in Aurora, CO.  I've listened to numerous firsthand accounts of the shooting and seen virtual reenactments of how everything went down.  My thoughts and prayers go out to all families who have been affected by this shooting.  This was a terrible tragedy and quickly remind me of just how fleeting and precious life can be.  

But, in thinking about the news coverage, I'm struck by how the Aurora tragedy has sparked national interests in victimization.  I usually feel that victims of violent shootings don't get enough news coverage.  I often feel like we as a society do not pay enough attention to the many lives that are shattered after a fatal shooting.  

Jessica Ghawi and a little furry friend
But, this time around, I gotta say that I'm pleasantly surprised by the news.  In my opinion, news coverage of the Aurora shooting has done a good job covering victim stories.

Some of this interest might have been initiated by the tragic death of Jessica Ghawi, a young woman who was killed in the Aurora premier--just a month shy of escaping a similar public shooting in Toronto's Eaton Centre.  The details surrounding her death are extremely tragic and quickly became national news.  In the days after the shooting, it was nice to see the news cover her story and the stories of so many other victims who were killed in Aurora.  

Since then, folks like Anderson Cooper have begun to focus national attention onto the family members and loved ones of victims in Aurora.  I caught snippets of an hour long special in which he interviewed family members who reflected on their loss and experiences just days after learning that their sons, daughters, friends, and loved ones were murdered.  Along the way, I've also caught smaller news pieces about victim's families that have made me feel like Jessica Ghawi's story has helped place victim's stories into headlines.

As expected, the left and right have jumped all over these tragedies and are using them to further political aims around gun control.  In the wake of Aurora, liberal policymakers have begun to push for tighter gun laws.  Many are pointing to the fact that James Holmes (the shooter) purchased his AR-15 assault rifle, his .40 caliber Glock pistol, and his shotgun legally.  The left is also quick to point out that he purchased thousands of rounds of ammo and an extended magazine for his assault rifle legally.  They argue that if such guns were not available for civilian ownership, such tragedies could be avoided.

Meanwhile, the right has invoked a familiar constitutional stance on gun control. By and large, they argue that the 2nd Amendment (the "right to bear arms") is a sacred and inalienable right, much like the right to free press and speech.  They also argue that gun control isn't the real issue here; the main issues revolve around developing better ways of stopping certain people--criminal offenders, the mentally ill, etc.--from having legal access to guns.

I won't comment here on my political beliefs on gun control.  It's a contentious issue and one that I'll save for another day...when I feel more resolved about inconsistent logics on both sides of the aisle.

But, while bigger moral and political issues around gun laws continue to grab national headlines, it's nice to see that the news is also reporting on the little people whose lives are directly impacted by mass shootings.  

In the months to come, news will inevitably find other tragedies and events to report on; news coverage will also probably shift to forthcoming trials and hearings for James Holmes.  As the news coverage shifts away from those directly affected by the shooting, it's incredibly important for everyone to remember the victims and the collective forms of grieving and pain that encircles their families and friends.  Families and friends of murder victims have a long road ahead of them.  Healing from such tragedies is something that takes a long time and the continued attention, care, and support of multiple institutions and people.  While victim stories are front-and-center now, we as a society need to resist the temptation to "move on" and figure out better ways to help the families and friends of fatal gunshot victims.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What are your top 5 Hip Hop songs of all-time?

Most Hip Hop heads I know have had this conversation at some point: Who are your top 5 favorite artists of all time?  And why?

I'll leave that list for another day, but I wanted to write a post on a similar question: What are your top 5 favorite Hip Hop songs of all-time?  For some reason, I find it easier for me to think about particular songs instead of artists (who occasionally have crappy albums or albums that include a couple of heaters and a bunch of filler)...

I started thinking about this post a few weeks ago while riding the subway in Toronto.  When I first started thinking about my list, I had to initially fight the urge to make a list that would "sound good" or that would make me look like a seasoned Hip Hop head.  5 years ago, my list might have looked a lot different.  It might have included certain artists/songs that I knew were well respected amongst underground and mainstream cats alike.
Maybe it's a sign that I've exited early adulthood, but at 31, I don't feel the need to front like this anymore...So, the following list is a very honest attempt at the 5 Hip Hop songs that I most enjoy listening to...What are your top 5 songs?

1. Canibus--No Return

2. Nas--Represent

3. The Game--Dreams

4. Outkast--Atliens

5. Del--Mastermind

The Texas Killing Fields and Political Differences on the Local Environment

Last night I was at home reading 50 Cent's autobiography, From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a time in Southside Queens.  While reading about 50 Cent's past as a street hustler, I became intensely interested in a story on 48 Hours Mystery.  I usually don't watch 48 Hours Mystery, but found myself immediately drawn to the story that they were covering.

Photos of victims who were found in the Texas Killing Fields
Last night's episode was about an area that locals have nicknamed the "Texas Killing Fields," or the "Highway of Hell."  The area earned this nickname because of its grisly past.  Since 1970, law enforcement have recovered 30 dead bodies (mostly of whom are young girls) in this vast, desolate stretch of bayou.  On a sidenote: This story inspired a recent film called The Texas Killing Fields.  I'd be curious to know if anyone out there thinks that the film is worth seeing. 

Anyways, at one point in the show, a detective reflected on how this area was an ideal place for someone to do evil.  He described how The Killing Fields were immediately next to a freeway, providing offenders easy access to a dark and dense area where they could rape/torture/kill/dump bodies without ever being seen.  In other words, the local environment provided a kind of "natural cover" for criminals to do/get away with crimes that would be more difficult to do in other environments.
A movie adaptation of the area

During this part of the show, I started to think about the different ways in which local environments create opportunities for people to commit/get away with crime.  Although I disagree with some aspects of the theory, Wilson and Kelling's highly cited "Broken Window's" theory is one version of how social scientists have been thinking about the local environment's role in crimes.  For those who are unfamiliar, the Broken Windows theory basically suggests that criminals are more likely to commit crimes in areas that look dilapidated and unkempt.  At the heart, the Broken Windows Theory is an interpretive theory of crime; criminals assess local environments and choose particular areas in which they feel that they can get away with things.  A dilapidated and bombed out community with broken windows signals that residents in the area are less likely to intervene or even care that different kinds of crimes are occurring in their area.

Over time, the Broken Windows theory has been replaced by more systematic analyses that link environmental characteristics and crime (see Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush's pioneering work), but the Broken Windows theory has still had a tremendous influence on policymaking, particularly as it relates to community redevelopment/gentrification.  Policymakers feel that if they can put various amenities into down and out areas (e.g. coffee shops, community centers, mixed-income housing), that they can create an environment that is unfriendly to criminal activity.  While gentrification is typically condemned in social science circles--particularly amongst the more liberal factions of social scientists--policymakers and law enforcement maintain that these methods are proven ways to decrease crime.  Critics, meanwhile, argue that redevelopment/gentrification often displaces the most vulnerable populations and also simply encourages criminals to relocate where they commit crime.  

Natural Cover in the vast Texas Killing Fields
I've never felt totally resolved on this debate and feel even more conflicted after seeing the Texas Killing Fields story.  While watching footage of the vast and undeveloped area where dozens of little girls have been recovered, I kept thinking "How would this have worked if the Highway of Hell was littered with small communities and areas that didn't provide a natural cover for people to do these things?"  I have felt similar tensions while conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Philadelphia with a stick-up boy, who remarked on how the poorly lit and bombed out areas near dive bars provided him with a natural cover to "get the drop" on unsuspecting victims.

In the end, I feel that there is really strange tension between law enforcement/policymakers and social scientists on the issue of redevelopment/gentrification.  Both sides seem to agree that crime is a bad thing and that the best research/policymaking should figure out how to reduce crime and increase community safety.  But, in spite of this shared sentiment, both sides are typically very far apart when it comes to redevelopment/gentrification.  My sense is that empiricism isn't the only thing separating these two views on the environment.  It would be nice if politics didn't prevent various parties from coming together and developing testable and replicable strategies to design environments that discourage crime.