..The View from the Street
They are citizens
of a parallel universe, one in which the United States — “the
last, best hope of the earth,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words
— is a heartless, racist, police state controlled by corporate
greed and governmental neglect.
In the dimension
they inhabit, kids go to bed underfed and often untended and
learn to step over discarded hypodermic syringes and broken bodies
in unlit hallways and garbage-strewn streets as soon as they’re
able to walk.
TV is more
than a “vast wasteland” here; it’s an interactive learning
experience played out on 27-inch screens that’s turning the world
into a replica of hell itself — where violence is viewed, then
meted out in dizzying displays of brutality and unfocused rage
upon total strangers.
It’s a dimension
of crime and poverty and decay and politicians who blame the
victims for the problems that are swallowing up their lives.
It’s a world
where social programs are cut because they can’t capture a tidal
wave in a teacup, and the only governmental program that’s expanding
is the one to build bigger, more-secure fortresses for the largest
— and fastest-growing — prison population in the world.
It’s a home
to continual discomfort and disappointment, where dwellings are
too hot or too cold, people are too poor and too uneducated to
do much about it, where the odds of success are printed on the
backs of Powerball tickets, and the best anyone can realistically
hope for is to limit their dreams to contain their pain.
It’s a tough
place to grow up in, but it’s not a parallel dimension, after
in the first years of the 21st Century, or at least the way it
looks from the street — or, more precisely, from the point of
view of the street gangs that increasingly seem to run things
in the slums that form the core of our cities.
learned to ignore the outstretched palms of beggars 10 years
ago; lately, they’ve learned to flip their remotes past the victims
of drive-by shootings and the sullen faces that blur by in the
reports on gangs on the 10 or 11 o’clock news. But they can’t
flip past the reality of street gangs altogether.
It’s not that
kind of world.
What kind of
world is it? It’s a tough world, a post-modern jungle, where
the strong survive and the weak suffer in silence. It’s a world
with its own language, logic, history, and code of ethics.
Still, if you
think it’s just a mirror-image of the other, “decent”
world we all inhabit, think again. Because when you see it from
the street up, rather than the executive suite down, it’s not
that different from the “real” world, after all.
here, it may look different, at least on the surface, but underneath,
it’s so similar it’s scary. The crew at the top just has more
dirt under their fingernails, that’s all.
Oh, sure, drugs
get sold and people get killed — but the people who do the selling
and killing on the street think it’s kinder to kill somebody
all at once, instead of little by little, over a lifetime. That’s
the way they look at it, anyway.
of looking at it is from the vantage point of normal, straight
society. From here, gangs are plain bad, and kids ought to have
the gumption to just say “no” to them and the drugs
and easy money they can provide.
as it has a habit of doing — seems to lie somewhere in the middle.
aren’t completely misinformed; they have been dealt terrible
cards in the poker game of life, and their view of the inequities
in the distribution of money and power is pretty factual, as
far as it goes.
On the other
hand, today’s gangs aren’t Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and
gang members aren’t angels with dirty faces, either. They can
be tough and inhumane, even brutal. They honor a code of ethics
based on the giving and getting of respect, and those who transgress
the code — knowingly or not — are often executed on the spot.
No fear, no mercy, no apologies.
the “juice” of respect and carving out their version
of economic justice, gangs have turned the streets of our cities
into war zones and residents into hostages. Police have two roles
there now — as peacekeeping forces and targets. Residents of
the neighborhoods the gangs control have only one: innocent bystanders.
the world of U.S. street gangs, circa right about now.
here, through-the-looking-glass weird. Except the looking-glass
here is a broken crack vial on a city street and the Cheshire
Cat is a snarling pit bull, guarding a gang clubhouse.
we’ve put together this pamphlet.
though gang members are people and they are worthy of respect,
and even if gangs reflect, in many ways, the society that shaped
them, much of what they reflect is the least attractive, most
abhorrent side of American life — the competitiveness and materialism
and greed — stood on its head in front of a fun-house mirror,
and passed off as the real thing.
It’s not. In
fact, the brutality and violence that gangs embrace is, quite
simply, the opposite of who we are and what we value, and what
we must never allow ourselves to become.
And the only
way to prevent it is to understand it.
gangs, though, is something that’s easier if we look backward
before we try looking forward.
a historical perspective, gangs and gang-related violence are
as American as, well, the Boston Tea Party.
the Revolutionary War, outlaw groups (with names like the Sons
of Liberty and the Green Mountain Men) banded together throughout
the colonies to meet and grumble about British rule.
won their “turf war” with the British, but not before
they formed their own version of a “supergang.” That
gave them the muscle they needed to “front off” the
British dudes, who thought they could get away with “dissing”
the homeboys, but who turned out to be punks instead.
to the nation our “forebangers” founded increased,
ethnic gangs became a fact of life in American cities.
the most part, urban gangs of the 19th and early 20th Century
were transitional — groups of young men who banded together
for companionship and petty crime, but which faded as their members
were assimilated into the larger society.
But that was
then. This is now.
of America as a melting pot of cultures and beliefs has itself
melted down. The operating metaphor today is America as a pressure-cooker,
where anxiety and rage alternate as prevailing emotions in a
society seemingly held together only by law and the fear of chaos.
reality lurched into being sometime between the ’70s and now,
as politics and lifestyles heated up and the American economy
cooled down. Living conditions in the inner cities — never rosy
to begin with — deteriorated even further, as American politics
shifted from “Great Society” initiatives to “Contract
with America” cutbacks, and the short-lived “War on
Poverty” gave way to a never-ending “War on Drugs.”
it was early, short-term successes by the government in the drug
war, combined with a faltering economy and declining job opportunities
in the inner city, that set the stage for the explosive growth
of street gangs in the 1980s.
the “War” escalated, drug prices soared so high that
gangs simply couldn’t stay out of the action.
only added to the problem. The new, easily-made, smokable form
of cocaine turned what had long been a “rich man’s drug”
into an affordable luxury on the street, and provided enormous
wealth to tough, well-connected thugs who were ruthless enough
(and immune enough from pangs of conscience) to destroy anyone
who got out of line or in the way.
And there were
thousands ruthless and connected and conscienceless enough to
do that, and thousands more who got in their way.
how we got to where we are today.
are virtually everywhere — in inner cities and suburbs, in small
towns, even Indian reservations. Signs of gangs’ influence are
everywhere, too: “tags” of graffiti shriek a mindless
message of turf and machismo from sea to shining sea, while gang
apparel — T-shirts and baseball caps, baggy pants and bandannas
— have achieved critical mass acceptance in the marketplace
and the minds of young people as a defining aspect of today’s
gangbangers make ends meet with drug-dollars, and others resort
to other illegal ventures, while still others just hang in “clubs”
or “sets” because they like the glamor of gangbanging.
(as members refer to participation in a gang) is glamorous —
to some people. One reason is the influence of pop culture in
recent years — as movies and “gangsta” rappers have
milked gang culture for all it’s worth, extending the influence
of gangbangers far beyond the dismal city slums that gave them
So what’s up
today with street gangs?
That’s a complicated
question, because gangs aren’t all the same and can be a lot
of different things to the people whose lives they touch.
In fact, gangs
are complicated enough — and touch upon so many complex social
issues — that they’re easier to examine and understand by breaking
up that central question into smaller questions — and looking
at them one question at a time.
..What is a gang?
That’s a good
place to start. The FBI defines a gang as “a group of three
or more individuals bonded together by race, national origin,
culture, or territory, who associate on a continual basis for
the purpose of committing criminal acts.”
a lot of ground and includes a lot of people that most of us
wouldn’t normally consider gangsters — white-collar criminals,
for example. Probably a more useful distinction involves the
different forms gangs can take.
..How many kinds of gangs are there?
Gangs are as
different as their members, but in general, they fall into one
of three categories.
- “Hedonistic” gangs. Mostly social groups, the main focus
of these gangs is partying and getting high. Members may commit
property crimes, but not usually as a gang activity. If they
fight at all, it’s more often for the right to party than for
gangs. These gangs are
more likely to commit crimes against property (car theft, burglary,
etc.) than crimes of violence against people. They may do drugs
and deal them individually, but their main motivation is money,
- “Predatory” gangs. Social predators commit the violent
crimes — drive-by shootings, carjackings, and organized drug
dealing — most often associated with gangs. They may use “disinhibitory”
drugs like crystal meth and crack, which can fuel a tendency
toward violence, and feed on the fear they inspire, using it
as a means of domination and control.
gangs are a product of a specific neighborhood or locale, in
recent years a number of predatory gangs have gone national,
establishing “franchises” far from their home bases.
A prime example
is the Jamaican drug-dealing “posses,” but the Los
Angeles gangster “nations,” the Bloods and Crips, and
the Chicago-based Black Gangster Disciples have also cloned “sets”
throughout the nation.
..How many gangs are there?
That’s a hard
question to answer, mostly due to the secrecy of gangs and the
difficulty of factoring in all the middle-class “crews”
and gangbanging “wannabes” on the street, posing as
gangs and gangbangers.
recent survey set the number of U.S. gangs at about 23,000, with
an estimated membership of 665,000.
about right, if you figure in an estimate by the Los Angeles
District Attorney’s office, which put the number of gangs in
L.A. County alone at 1,000, with as many as 150,000 members.
..Why do people join gangs?
For a lot of
reasons, but mostly because gangs fill a need, or appear to,
that isn’t being met in members’ lives in some other way.
That need can
be any one of a number of individual drives, but more likely,
it’s a knot of needs so pervasive and so unmet that the person
would probably even have a hard time untangling all the strings.
Still, the most common factors that pull people towards gangs
- Poverty: For many inner-city
kids, gangs are one of the only available ways of making money.
It’s no coincidence that gangs surged in the 1980s as the number
of decent jobs in the inner city declined.
- Emotional Needs: A number of
factors — including overcrowding, single-parent (or even no-parent)
families, and poverty — make it hard for many young people to
have normal ego needs met, including the need for status, excitement,
and power. Gangs — and gang rituals and camaraderie — satisfy
those needs, at least in part.
- Protection: In many ways, gangs
are the human equivalent of the “safety in numbers”
herd-survival mechanism seen throughout nature. But gangs do
more than just protect members; they drive up the ante so high
that challenges to members are reduced.
- Social Support: Gangs are social
structures in places where there are few competitors. And even
though they’re based more on tribal values than family values,
the feeling of belonging that gangs provide is one of the strongest
ties binding members. Also, gangs are so entrenched in some areas
that membership is now a family tradition. Kids join the set
or posse or crew that their father or uncles or cousins joined
..Why are gangs so violent?
There are a
lot of answers to that question, including a lengthy analysis
of what happens to people in overcrowded, hostile environments
who have next to nothing and virtually no chances at improving
But the fact
is that gangs have always tended towards violence. It’s part
of what happens to individuals in groups — especially loosely-structured
groups that prize toughness and the ability to fight and command
is one thing; murder is something else.
And gang violence
has never been deadlier than it is now, thanks to drugs and guns.
They’ve pushed gang violence into the stratosphere over the past
decade as gangs have warred over the drug trade with assault
weapons and other deadly firearms.
Not all gang-related
violence is drug-related, though. In fact, probably a majority
are simple fights over everyday events that go over the top.
The primary sources of conflict are primeval: turf, status, respect,
revenge. An instigating incident can be as minor as a bump or
even making eye contact with the wrong person in the wrong frame
But when justice
is meted out with a “deuce-deuce” (.22 caliber pistol)
or a Tec-9 (semi-automatic 9 mm handgun), it can set in motion
wars that play out for months or even years and that echo for
eternity — when the original transgression is all but forgotten.
In fact, one
war between rival Crips factions in Los Angeles was traced back
to a conflict over a junior-high romance. Before it was over,
some two dozen people had been killed in the crossfire.
..Are gang members worth saving?
Yes. In spite
of their tough-guy (and bad-girl) posturing, it’s important to
remember that gang members are kids — or, at least, started
out that way.
have much of a choice — or didn’t know they did — when they
were coming up. Gangs were like the Boys’ Club or the “Y”
in their neighborhood, and they joined because it gave them something
to do and a place to be.
create the crumbling community they were born into and they didn’t
choose the poverty and squalor all around them. Kids who join
gangs are often just trying to adapt and, if anything, they’re
only guilty of obeying the laws of survival.
mean gang members ought to be excused for criminal acts. What’s
wrong is wrong, period. And crimes — particularly crimes of
violence — shouldn’t go unpunished.
What it does
mean is that, contrary to the images we see in the media, a majority
of gangbangers really are worth saving — if we have the will
and the compassion.
..How do we do that?
We could start by acknowledging our stake in the quality of life
for residents of our inner cities.
We might even
stop calling our inner cities “inner cities” altogether
(as if the misery there were somehow a function of geography,
rather than history and sociology and economics), and start calling
them what they are: “ghettos” and “slums.”
We could stop
letting politicians play games with race and poverty, and make
them begin the work of redeveloping our cities and empowering
the people who live there to build their future.
We could enact
serious measures to crack down on gangs and gang-related crime,
balancing them with equally-tough measures to eliminate the factors
that contribute to the appeal of gangs and the allure of crime
among poor people.
A good place
to start would be to provide recreational facilities for kids
both inside the city and out, and making sure they’re safe —
and not just extensions of the gangbangers’ turf.
We should expand
social services, not do away with them. And in spite of the political
rhetoric, we should pay for what’s needed by asking people who
profit most from the status quo to pay a bigger share to help
those who profit from it least.
If we can’t
do it because it’s right, maybe we can do it because it’s cheaper.
look a kid in the eye and tell him that we can’t spend a thousand
dollars on him when he’s 12 or 13 but that we’ll be happy to
reserve a jail cell for him and spend a hundred grand a year
on him later,” argues North Carolina Attorney General Mike
not just bad policy; it’s bad arithmetic.”
..Increasing the Peace
sign is that many gang members see membership as a means to an
end — often, an economic one. Gangbanging isn’t a lifetime calling,
and gangs fade as members change and their lives evolve.
That fact puts
the ball back where it belongs: onto the court of the larger,
“decent” society, where we can do something to help
— if we have the courage and the humanity.
though gangs have long been part of the background of city life,
they broke out at the same time that social forces were deserting
the inner cities, as factories shut their doors and social services
The jobs may
not have been fast-track, but they provided paychecks — and
self-respect to the people who earned them. The programs may
not have been perfect, but they did offer evidence that society
cared about inner-city residents — at least a little.
If we expect
respect for the rule of law, we need to pay attention to a more
basic law — that of cause and effect, especially when it plays
out so plainly in front of us. Because ultimately, the only way
we can increase the peace is by jacking up the supply of “juice”
(or respect) that flows from “us” to “them.”
mean turning our cities over to gangs. They’re a symptom of a
disease we have to cure. But to do it, we have to get serious
about providing jobs, education, and basic services for all our
people, especially those who have nothing.
answer to the problems that gangs pose is as old as the jungle
and as obvious as the victims on tonight’s late-night news:
respect if you don’t give it.
..Sidebar | GangSlang:
Talking the Talk
Due to the
success of “gangsta” rap and films in recent years,
even little old ladies know bits and pieces of gang slang —
usually everyday words like “homeboy” and the “‘hood.”
a lot more to the language of gangs than the buzzwords that filter
into pop culture. In fact, gangslang is a form of mental shorthand,
in which group values are codified and collapsed into words and
phrases that are meaningless outside the group, but loaded with
import for people on the inside.
Since the world
view of gang members is shaped and reinforced to such a great
extent by language, we present the glossary that follows not
as a definitive guide (because like any other form of insider-speak,
gangslang changes constantly, as outsiders learn the code), but
as a way of glimpsing the values that gangsters share and the
complex, violent world they inhabit.
|cap, “bust a cap”
||to shoot someone
||alternative gang name
||small gang, usually organized around criminal activity
||show disrespect or disdain for
||in-your-face confrontation or challenge
||fellow gang member
|“jumpin’ in”, “courted in”
||going through gang initiation
||partying, kicking back
||gang-related incursion into enemy territory
||challenge or physically attack
||regional or national gang confederation
||original gangster (founding or long-time member)
||junior member or “little gangster”
||to shoot someone
||subset of a larger gang
||challenged by another
||apprentice G or a pretender