Fist Stick Knife Gun by Geoffrey Canada


The subtitle of this book is “A Personal History of Violence.” This is a personal story of Canada’s experiences growing up in a very poor neighbourhood in the Bronx in New York City, then, after university, returning to the same city and working with the youth of the Bronx and Harlem. I suggested this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club after hearing it recommended by one of the duo who wrote Freakonomics, during one of their podcasts. These guys are incredibly interesting and tell great stories, so if it was good enough for them, then that was a good enough recommendation for me.

Canada grew up in the 60s, before anyone had guns, and before many had knives. He tells of how he learnt to fight on the street, and how he learnt to avoid fights on the street where possible. He explains how violence becomes a part of life in areas blighted by poverty. He also explains that one boy was unlikely to fight another boy who seems to be much bigger or stronger than him. But that was then. He tells us about when he gets older and knives become available, and he tells us about his own knife, and why he felt he needed it. Canada must have been a remarkable boy, although I do get the feeling that he is only telling us stories where he come out looking very good, since after all, all of us make mistakes, but Canada does not tell us any of that kind of stories.

This boy did exceptionally well in school, highly unusual for a child from his neighbourhood, and went on to become very well educated, and he returned to New York City to become employed in a program closely working with schools to help teach children how to function without violence in their lives. It seems that while Canada was away getting his education, the kids on the streets of New York City got themselves some guns and everything changed. The previous self-preservation rules of not fighting a boy who is bigger than you no longer apply when you have a weapon. Guns change a lot of the other rules of the street, too.

The story of the modern-day American ghetto is sobering. Canada points out that the USA leads the Western world in killing it’s own children. The spiral of poverty, crime, violence and prison seems a difficult one to get out of, but he has many ideas and suggestions, and he outlines them in this book. He and his colleagues are constantly innovating and proactive in helping these children to leave this life of poverty, if they want to. The programs that he runs from the school seek to involve the whole community, and he makes the excellent point that as a result of these programs the whole community benefits from so many people being outside, walking on their streets, instead of scared and inside their homes to avoid any stray bullets.

My worry is that there are just not enough wonderful people like Canada and his colleagues to fight this tide of violence in the US. He tells us that the data about deaths from firearms show that it is more dangerous to be a four year old in the USA than to be a law enforcement officer. How ever will America get itself out of that situation?

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