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I was in Syracuse, N.Y. for a wedding last weekend, just in time to read about a vigil organized by Mothers Against Gun Violence on the very street where a 20-month-old named Rashaad Walker Jr. was shot and killed last month and, oh yes, about the funeral for Kihary Blue, a gentle 19-year-old high-school basketball star who was killed a few days later, on Dec. 2, in a drive-by shooting.

Why, it could have been Toronto (there's a group of furious, aching mothers of slain kids here, too, many of those murders unsolved), or Vancouver, (where a west-side neighbourhood was awakened to spraying gunfire early Sunday morning) or just about any big city in North America.

Rashaad, who was sitting in his car seat when a shooter fired at the van carrying his young parents, wasn't the target of gang violence, but he died because of it just the same.

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Ephraim Brown, the 11-year-old Toronto boy at the centre of a murder trial that ended Monday with two acquittals, wasn't a target either, but still he took a bullet at a cousin's birthday party and still he's dead.

Kihary Blue wasn't a gang member, but Syracuse police say his death was a result of gang violence and he was, according to one of his former teammates, struggling to escape the influences of his neighbourhood.

And if the 10 folks wounded in Vancouver - eight of them still remain in hospital - were at a private party for gang members and at least had gang connections, this according to Vancouver deputy chief Warren Lemcke, it seems to have been but a happy accident that no one was killed: Police, after all, discovered an assault rifle on the street.

The very word "gang" not long ago was forbidden in some Ontario courtrooms by judges who feared the prejudicial effects of the label upon jurors.

But in the Ephraim Brown case, the judge allowed the jury to hear that the suspects in the boy's killing, Akiel Eubank and Gregory Sappleton, were allegedly members of two rival gangs, the Five Point Generals and the Bagdad Crew - and to no deleterious effect for the two accused men.

After a little more than two days of deliberation, the jurors still managed to find them not guilty of second-degree murder in Ephraim's July 22, 2007, slaying.

(Mr. Eubank's lawyers had admitted their client was a 5PG member - well, he did have the logo shaved into his hair - but Mr. Sappleton's lawyer denied he was a member of the Bagdad Crew. There were other complicating factors in the case, including inconsistent evidence from a key eyewitness.)

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In Toronto, the toll taken by gangs has been particularly fierce on young black men, who most years make up the majority of both victims and alleged shooters.

But skin colour isn't the key to the puzzle here, or anywhere else, though it seems young black men in this city are to some degree the canaries in the coal mine, the first to die just as theirs were arguably the first families to fracture and to suffer the myriad effects of social housing (in Syracuse and much of the rest of the United States, such places are more honestly called projects) and poverty and drugs.

Generally speaking, the police appear to be doing their share of the heavy lifting, with special gang units and proactive work now common.

In Vancouver, for instance, just a week before the weekend gun fight, the RCMP's Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit made a half-dozen arrests of gang members after lengthy investigations, and even issued a warning, where they pointed to rising tensions and instability in Metro Vancouver and urged residents to be aware.

As CFSEU spokesman Sergeant Shinder Kirk told The Globe and Mail Monday in a phone interview, each gang shooting - and there were a series of these this fall - is followed by speculation about who was responsible and why, the potential for "public violence" growing with the rumours.

"We were able to get ahead of much of it," Sgt. Kirk said, but police issued a warning because "we're not so naive as to think even these efforts will eradicate gang violence."

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Worth noting is that he said it is "extremely premature" to link anyone arrested in the unit's sweep earlier this month with the weekend incident.

Sgt. Kirk's view is that enforcement isn't enough, and that the better approach is the holistic one aimed at intervening sooner with vulnerable youngsters, and "taking the shine off gangs."

In all the coverage I read about Kihary Blue and the toddler Rashaad, the line that rang truest to me came from Derrick Thomas, who was speaking at a community meeting called to grapple with the rising violence in Syracuse.

Mr. Thomas had dropped out of school and was on the fringes of joining that troubled world, when his son was born, and he changed direction. "You're not getting that love at home," he told the Syracuse Post-Standard, "so you look for love on the streets." I think his assessment is absolutely correct; I just don't know what to do about it.



cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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