Lawrence Heights, a neighbourhood in northwest Toronto, can be a dangerous place to live. One young man hopes to change that.
By Ryan Fernando | Featured image courtesy of Serge van Neck via Unsplash
On August 24, 2010, Dejazmatch James and 10 friends shot hoops at a net owned by a neighbour in Lawrence Heights, an area in the northwest of Toronto, much to the chagrin of the elderly Asian man who lived next door.
‘‘Hey, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. You guys go inside!’’ the man said.
‘‘Shut up! We’re not going inside,’’ a few of James’ friends said as they played for at least another hour before heading home.
Later, the teenagers spent the balmy and sunny afternoon and early evening on one of the group’s front yards. Summer break was drawing to a close and James would soon return as a senior at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy, a public high school in Lawrence Heights.
As James and his comrades lolled about, a car skulked towards them. The teens immediately became alert. ‘‘Whenever we see a car drive, we literally stop whatever we’re doing and we just pay attention,’’ James says. ‘‘We start asking, ‘Who’s that? Why are they driving so slow? Has anyone seen that car before?’ All these paranoid questions. And sometimes, the reality is that the person driving the car is just a taxi driver or a lost Uber driver looking for a number. But sometimes it’s exactly what we’re anticipating.’’
When the car stopped, a man stepped out. At first, it seemed like he was heading straight towards the teens, but he veered to his right and started shooting his gun. Some of the teens ducked for cover, others retreated inside a friend’s house. But James and a Somali friend, Bashiir (a pseudonym), vaulted over a fence and ran as fast as they could away from the commotion. Running for their lives, their calves burning, James and Bashiir made a beeline for the latter’s house. Bashiir’s mother, having heard the shots, quickly ushered the boys inside.
‘‘Come! Run in here!’’
James hyperventilated from exhaustion and pulsating adrenaline as he continued to hear gunshots. As it was Ramadan and almost time to break fast, Bashiir’s mother offered James samosas to calm his nerves, and he graciously wolfed down the fried pastries. Ten minutes later, when the shots ceased, James and his friends, all unharmed, reconvened at their friend’s yard where they bantered about who ran the fastest. But then, one of them spotted a body on the ground a few yards away. They found a young black man whom they hadn’t noticed earlier. His head had been pierced by a bullet and he was bleeding profusely.
The young man, 24-year-old Randy Malcolm, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition but later died. A security camera near the shooting captured the suspect, a black man dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, running and getting into a Nissan Maxima. At home the following day, seeing the news of Malcolm’s death on TV, James’ dark brown eyes brimmed with tears and his usual ear-to-ear smile curled into a frown.
This turbulent episode from a decade ago is one of many instances on now 27-year-old James’ ever-growing list of experiences with gun violence in Lawrence Heights, a diverse neighbourhood in North York. This area is where James spent years meticulously planning at which hours he should go out and what routes to take, choosing his friends wisely, looking over his shoulder, flinching at loud noises or sudden movements and mourning deaths in his neighbourhood.
Despite being located near Toronto’s famously bustling Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Lawrence Heights is beset by poverty, drug trafficking and gun violence. In 2020, Toronto police reported 449 firearm shootings, resulting in 39 people dead and 174 injured.
Toronto police often attribute shootings to animosity between city gangs, who typically form as a response to socio-economic troubles. ‘‘It’s about the convergence of poverty, neighbourhood, education, socioeconomic disadvantage, life choices, options, mentorship and safety,” Carmela Murdocca, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology of York University, says. “These factors in our city lead people to being more susceptible to violence as they are more susceptible to social determinants of health.’’
Marcell Wilson understands how such complex factors contribute to gun violence. The tall and heavyset 42-year-old (195 cm, 99 kg) is the founder of the outreach organization, One By One, and the former leader of the Looney Toons gang, a Toronto offshoot of the Bloods gang. Of mixed race, Wilson grew up in the community housing complex of Swansea Mews in southwest Toronto near Parkdale.
Wilson first experienced gun violence at a young age. While he was play-wrestling with friends, a short Jamaican man in his early twenties, only a few centimetres taller than Wilson, challenged the nine-year-old to wrestle him. When Wilson grabbed the man by the waist, he felt something hard and metallic and stopped immediately. The man laughed, pulled out a handgun and shot several clapping rounds above the kids’ heads. Wilson didn’t play outside for a month.
Growing up in poverty and in a troubled single-parent household, Wilson ran away from home, became homeless at 13, found himself in parts of downtown where he met other lost, abandoned or abused kids. ‘‘There were a lot of Neo-Nazi skinhead groups in this era in the early nineties, like the Heritage Front, who’d walked in big groups of 50 in the city and beat up minorities,’’ Wilson says. ‘‘Us kids were terrified and made our own protection groups. And that’s how the ball started rolling.’’
As an activist with direct experience of violence, Wilson says that when addressing gun violence in marginalized neighbourhoods such as Lawrence Heights, it’s imperative to understand the unique circumstances of communities and their inhabitants. Wilson believes that too many programs are futile if they don’t meet the needs of communities and are operated by people with no personal experience with marginalization. ‘‘Contact is one of the hugest things,’’ he says. ‘‘The city pays all these people for community engagement, who make 90 grand a year with benefits, but have never talked to a community member their whole goddamn life. Even getting into a position where you can have a conversation is just half of the battle.’’
Jahtara Hutchinson-Bobb, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, shares the same sentiment. ‘‘You can have a hundred programs, but if they’re not meeting the needs that people want, they’re useless,’’ she says. ‘‘It becomes tricky when you don’t represent the people you’re trying to offer service to because they’re less inclined to accept.’’
It’s no small wonder, therefore, that people wouldn’t be thrilled at Mayor John Tory’s proposed $6-million budget for anti-violence. In response to such initiatives that promise big bucks but little effectiveness, Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement says, ‘‘You can’t design programs by bureaucrats and politicians. The chance of success is like buying a lottery ticket. We don’t trust the academics or politicians to come up with the right answers if they do not engage the community. The first word in community safety is community, not police or politicians.’’ Dejazmatch James agrees.
James, a black male of Jamaican descent, has a lean, athletic frame and short, kinky hair. Articulate, outspoken and amiable, he wears his beaming white smile as if he never grew up in the rough Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. He understands the importance of good programs in marginalized communities because basketball, while he was growing up, helped him avoid the dangers of the streets. It opened the door to him attending George Brown College on a basketball scholarship, which further led James to Algoma University, where he graduated cum laude.
James says that basketball helped him develop skills in leadership and teamwork, taught him hard work and tempered his occasional unruly attitude. ‘Silvia Skoutarou, a case worker at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, concurs. “How many times have I heard people say, ‘Sports saved my life,’” she says. “These things build confidence. You see your skillset. You see yourself contributing to a community. You’re literally a part of a team.’’
James’ positive experiences with sports and post-secondary education, as well as having been exposed to gun violence, have helped him understand the inner workings and sentiments of his community. These factors have galvanized him into becoming an ambassador of change in Lawrence Heights, where the second youngest of working-class Jamaican-born parents has lived since his birth in 1993.
James’ father worked in a store that sold West Indian food products and he undertook intermittent factory jobs to make ends meet, while James’ mother remained home to take care of him and his six siblings. For the James family, it was either having a home of their own in a neighborhood fraught with danger or languishing on the streets. ‘‘It’s kind of like, pick your poison and this is the poison we pick, the slow dying poison,’’ says James.
On top of contending with financial struggles, several people in James’ community, including Malcolm and others James knew personally, have either been shot at, incapacitated or killed in shootings. James lost three close friends, 18-year-old Abdikarim Abdikarim in 2008—‘‘Name so nice, mama named him twice,’’ says James, 24-year-old Marvin Engelbrecht in 2012 and 22-year-old Said Ali in 2017.
James also recalls walking to his factory job in 2012 during his last year of high school and stopping to chat with a 38-year-old neighbour, Paul Fitzgerald Benn.
‘‘Where you headed?’’ asked Benn.
‘‘To work. I’m saving up for a basketball tour in Europe this summer,’’ James said.
‘‘Keep it up,’’ Benn said. ‘‘I’m happy to see that the path you’re on is different from the conventional Lawrence Heights life.’’ That was the last time James spoke to Benn. He was shot dead the following day.
Even when James was studying Community Economic and Social Development at Algoma University, in Sault Ste. Marie, the impact of gun violence remained with him. James’ instincts once kicked in when he was sitting on a bench in a courtyard with a white friend. Upon seeing a black kid running, James immediately shot upwards, fixing to run away. Then he realized, ‘‘Wait, I’m in Sault Ste. Marie.’’
‘‘What was that?’’ James’ white friend asked.
‘‘Honestly, if I was in Toronto, whoosh! I would’ve ran.’’
In 2020, his final year at Algoma University, James wrote as his thesis: The Qualitative Impacts of Gun Violence in Lawrence Heights. This capstone research paper focused on, and included, the testimonies of residents from Lawrence Heights and the effects of gun violence on their life. James would be up at 4 a.m. writing in the computer lab, rivulets of tears hitting the keyboard as he remembered those murdered in his neighbourhood.
‘‘People who’ve passed away before, their energy lives on with me forever,’’ he says. ‘‘Whenever I do certain things, I think of them. Even my thesis on the impacts of gun violence, I did it because of the life that I lived and the people I’ve come across and lost.’’
James’ paper, which received an A, showed him that he had been mum for too long. After graduating in 2020, James became a member of the Lawrence Heights Changemakers, a grassroots organization comprised of Lawrence Heights residents with diverse skillsets, and parents who had lost a child to gun violence.
On September 22, 2020, James coordinated a safety walk where he, Marcell Wilson, Louis March, Councillor Mike Colle and Lawrence Heights residents marched through Lawrence Heights to address gun violence, the lack of youth programming and the need for improved safety measures, like better speed bumps, lighting and cameras. Wearing a gray mask, James led the procession and chanted into a megaphone: ‘‘Humanize the hood.’’
Yusuf Ali, a high school friend of James, says, ‘‘There’s a stigma in our neighbourhood that we’ll only either be rappers, ballers or gangbangers, but Dejazmatch exceeded all of those stigmas. We needed someone that grew up in our community and understands our community to talk about our community.’’
Two weeks later, on October 8, 2020, at 7:30 a.m., James awoke to three missed calls from a coworker at a summer youth program called 37 Kids. Anxious, he texted her, ‘‘Hey, sorry I missed your call.’’ No sooner had the text been sent, the coworker called him.
‘‘They got Shane. They killed him,’’ she said.
‘‘You mean Shane right across the street from me?’’
‘‘Yes, they killed him last night.’’
Hours before, he had heard news of a shooting in Lawrence Heights, but he didn’t imagine the victim was 33-year-old Shane Stanford, a close friend and brotherly figure to James who worked as a personal trainer, camp counselor and aquatics specialist at a downtown YMCA.
After coming home from the YMCA, Stanford was shot dead on the night of October 7 in his Acura sedan. Despite the arrests of two suspects and a search for a third, the motive for Stanford’s murder remains unclear; police believe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
After weeks of mourning and talking to media outlets about Stanford, a fatigued James cancelled another safety walk that was to happen on November 6. After conferring with Councillor Colle about honouring Stanford, James created a petition on change.org to name a future park in Lawrence Heights after his friend. It garnered over 2,000 signatures.
‘‘We don’t know why these things senseless acts of violence [happen], but all I can say is that I’m taking the strength from [Shane’s passing] and I’m going use it to become the best person I can be,’’ says James. ‘‘We got to keep looking at the positivity and realize if we’re still here, we’re here for a reason, and that’s what keeps us going, what keeps us hopeful and resilient and praying that one day things will change around here.’’
Ryan Fernando, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org