Gangs are a violent reality that people have to deal with in today\'s cities. What has made these groups come about? Why do kids feel that being in a gang is both an acceptable and prestigious way to live? The long-range answer to these questions can only be speculated upon, but in the short term the answers are much easier to find. On the surface, gangs are a direct result of human beings\' personal wants and peer pressure. To determine how to effectively end gang violence we must find the way that these morals are given to the individual. Unfortunately, these can only be hypothesized. However, by looking at the way humans are influenced in society, I believe there is good evidence to point the blame at several institutions. These include the forces of the media, the government, theatre, drugs and our economic system.
Originally the word gang had no negative connotation. In Old English, gang simply referred to a \"number of people who went around together-a group.\" Today a gang can be defined in four basic ways:
"žh an organized group with a leader
"žh a unified group that usually remains together during peaceful times as well as times of conflict
"žh a group whose members show unity through clothing, language
"žh a group whose activities are criminal or threatening to the larger society.
Gangs are one of the results of poverty, discrimination and urban deterioration. Some experts believe that young people, undereducated and without access to good jobs, become frustrated with their lives and join gangs as an alternative to boredom, hopelessness and devastating poverty. Studies have attempted to determine why gangs plague some communities but there has been no definitive answer. As a result, people working to solve gang problems have great difficulty. They find the situation overwhelming, and the violence continues.
No groups completely fitting the above description of gangs existed in America until the early 1800s, but from the beginning of the European settlement in America there was gang-like activity, especially when class distinctions came into being. Gang members tended to be from the poorer classes and tended to be from the same race or ethnic background. They banded together for protection, recreation or financial gain.
The earliest identified American gangs formed after the Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783. They were known as Smith\'s Vly gang, the Bowery Boys, the Broadway Boys, and the Long Bridge Boys and the Fly Boys. The first three were white and the last two were African-American. Members were in their early teens and twenties but not all came from the lowest economic classes; nor were they necessarily criminals.
It was not until the 19th century that \"criminal\" gangs first formed. As the result of a worsening economy and growing population that increased competition for jobs, gangs began to specialize in crime and became a part of America\'s cities.
Irish immigrants formed the first American criminal gangs in New York City. Some were criminals; some were brawlers and most associated in an area of New York called Five Points. They had dress codes and called their members by code nicknames. (Many of the gang rituals of today have their roots in this period.) The first Irish gang to have a recognized leader was the Forty Thieves, organized by Edward Coleman in 1826. Gangs also arose in the Bowery. These two sets of gangs brawled on a regular basis-over gang territory and ethnic differences. Sometimes the battles were so long and intense that the army had to be called in to stop them.
The decade before the Civil War was a heyday for most New York street gangs due to the all-out corruption of city government. Gang membership swelled. Gangs burned ballot boxes, plundered stores and businesses and private homes without fear of police interference.
After the Civil War in 1865 New York records indicate a presence of Jewish, Italian, African-American and Irish gangs. With the increase in immigrant populations, so grew gang membership. Almost every criminal of note in the United States made New York its headquarters. Chinese gangs appeared in California in the mid-1800s. Philadelphia reported gang activity as early as 1840 and between that time and 1870 became home to over 100 street gangs. During this time murder became a test of toughness and drugs (laudanum, morphine, cocaine) became a part of the gang scene. The level of violence escalated. The Whyos of Five Points used murder as a membership requirement. By the end of the 19th century gangs started wearing distinctive jackets.
In the early 1900s the U.S. economy worsened, the population grew at a rapid pace, and the gap between the rich and poor widened. All across the nation gangs appeared where poor, hopeless people lived. The dawning of the 20th century also brought with it a widespread use of firearms.
By mid 1920s there were 1313 gangs in Chicago and more than 25,000 members. Gang warfare in Chicago was widespread and fighting took place along ethnic, cultural and racial lines. Some gangs had no noticeable cultural, ethnic or national ties and consisted mostly of whites.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of Chicano (Mexican-American) gangs in Los Angeles. By the 1940s Chicano gangs established their place in Los Angeles-their zoot suits (a style of dress incorporating tapered pants, long wide-shoulder coats and broad-brimmed hats) had become a familiar sight. Fighting back against harassment of white residents and visiting soldiers during the so-called zoot suit riots in 1943 strengthened their cause.
After World War II gang membership:
1. became younger,
2. the nationality of the membership became largely non-white (though Italians, Irish and other white ethnic groups still made up a percentage),
3. drugs became a more publicized concern,
4. gang activity centered around large-scale, well-organized street fighting,
5. fire-arms were used more often,
6. the structure of organization became more rigid,
7. and society at large became concerned with gangs as a social problem and worked toward rehabilitation.
Between 1941 and 1945 over half a million Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States, most settling in New York City. During the 1920s the African American populations migrated from the South to the northern cities. Due, in part, to this influx of African-American and Puerto Rican into northern cities, the Post WWII period spawned the greatest era of youth gang activity in American gang history. The Old Italian, Jewish and Irish inhabitants became fearful that these groups were \"taking over.\"
During the 1950s gang fighting rose to an all time high in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland. Gang members were usually in their teens. Codes of dress (black leather jackets were popular) and mannerisms were an important means of identification. Body language said a lot about the nature of the gang. When a gang decided to become a fighting, or \"bopping\" gang, its members immediately took on a different way of walking. A rhythmic gait characterized by the forward movement of the head with each step. Terms for fighting were bopping, rumbling, jitterbugging. Gang members used guns, knives, and homemade weapons. Most common drugs-alcohol, marijuana, heroin. New York gangs fought along racial lines-African-American, white, Puerto Rican. Usually they fought over girls or turf. Turf could be anything from a few blocks to an entire neighborhood. Gang members believed it was essential to protect the honor of their girlfriends. And in the late 1950, girl gangs, with strong ties to boy gangs, began to form. Revenge was required by an inflexible code of gang loyalty. It was from such incidents that gangs drew their sense of pride, of \"being somebody.\" In order to combat the rise of violence, organizations like the New York City Youth Board sent social workers into the slums to form relationships with the gangs. In some cases it worked; in many it did not.
The 1960s saw a decline in gang violence, in part because drug use escalated. Where there was more drug use there was less gang violence. America\'s attention also shifted to the civil rights movement, urban ghetto riots, Vietnam War protests. A new racial consciousness had its effect on local street gang, creating organizations that were more involved in communities. The Black Panthers arose in Oakland in 1968, the Black Muslims gained national prominence in the \'60s and a Puerto Rican gang, the Young Lords, formed in the early \'70s.
By early 1972 gangs were making headlines again. Drug use seemed to be decreasing and violence increasing. Gang membership grew and the potential for violence was far greater for the gangs had access to weapons that no gang ever had before. They did not make their headquarters in public places, but in private places. Gangs also acquired greater legal and political sophistication. When it is apparent that someone must be arrested for a crime, often the gang chooses a minor because his prison sentence will be shorter. Serving a term in jail helps boost his reputation.
On the surface, peer pressure and greed cause gangs. Many teens in gangs will pressure peers into becoming part of a gang by making it all sound glamorous. Money is also a crucial factor. A kid (a 6-10 year old, who is not yet a member) is shown that s/he could make $200 to $400 for small part time gang jobs. Although these are important factors they are not strong enough to make kids do things that are strongly against their morals.
One of the ways that kids morals are bent so that gang violence becomes more acceptable is the influence of television and movies. The average child spends more time at a TV than she/he spends in a classroom. Since nobody can completely turn off their minds, kids must be learning something while watching the TV. Very few hours of television watched by children are educational, so other ideas are being absorbed during this period of time. Many shows on television today are extremely violent
and are often shown this from a gang\'s perspective. A normal adult can see that this is showing how foully that gangs are living. However, to a child this portrays a violent gang existence as acceptable. \'The Ends Justifies the Means\' mentality is also taught through many shows where the \"good guy\" captures the \"bad guy\" through violence and is then being commended. A young child sees this a perfectly acceptable
because he knows that the \"bad guy\" was wrong but has no idea of what acceptable apprehension techniques are.
Gore in television also takes a big part in influencing young minds. Children see gory scenes and are fascinated by these things that they have not seen before. Older viewers see gore and are not concerned with the blood but rather with the pain the victim must feel. A younger mind doesn\'t make this
connection. Thus a gore fascination is formed, and has been seen in several of my peers. Unfortunately kids raised with this sort of television end up growing up with a stronger propensity to becoming a violent gang member or \'violent-acceptant\' person.
\"Gangs bring the delinquent norms of society into intimate with the individual.\"1, (Marshall B Clinard, 1963). So, as you can see if TV leads a child to believe that violence is the norm this will manifest itself in the actions of the child quite often in a gang situation. This is especially the case when parents don\'t spend a lot of time with their kids at the TV explaining what is right and what is wrong. Quite often newer books and some types of music will enforce this type of thought and ideas.
Once this mentality is installed in youngsters they become increasingly prone to being easily pushed into a gang situation by any problem at home or elsewhere. For instance, in poor families with many children or upper-middle class families where parents are always working, the children will often feel deprived of love. Parents can often feel that putting food on the table is enough love. Children of these families may often go to the gang firstly out of boredom and to belong somewhere. As time goes on, a form of love or kinship develops between the gang members and the child. It is then that the bond between the kid and the gang is completed because the gang has effectively taken the place of the family.
The new anti social structure of cities also effects the ease in which a boy/girl can join a gang. \" The formation of gangs in cities, and most recently in suburbs, is facilitated by the same lack of community among parents. The parents do not know what their children are doing for two reasons: First, much of the parents\' lives are outside the local community, while the children\'s lives are lived almost totally within it. Second, in a fully developed community, the network of relations gives every
parent, in a sense, a community of sentries who can keep him informed of his child\'s activities. In modern living-places (city or suburban), where such a network is attenuated, he no longer has such sentries.\"2, (Merton Nisbet, 1971).
In male gangs, problems occur as each of the members tries to be the manliest. This often leads to all members participating in \"one-up-manship\". Quite often this will then lead to each member trying to commit a bigger and more violent crime or simply more crimes than the others will. With all members participating in this sort of activity it makes for a never-ending unorganized violence spree (A sort of Clockwork Orange mentality). In gangs with more intelligent members these feelings end up making each member want to be the star when the groups commit a crime. This makes the gang much more organized and improves the morale of members which in turn makes them more dangerous and very hard for the police to deal with and catch (There is nothing harder to find and deal with than organized teens that are dedicated to the group). This sort of gang is usually common of middle or upper class people
although it can happen in gangs in the projects and other low rent districts too.
This \"one-up-manship\" is often the reason between rival gangs fighting. All gangs feel powerful and they want to be feared. To do this they try to establish themselves as the only gang in a certain neighborhood. After a few gang fights hatred forms and gang murders and drive-by\'s begin to take place. When two gangs are at war it makes life very dangerous for citizens in the area. Less that 40% of drive-by\'s kill their intended victim yet over 60% do kill someone. This gang application is one of the many reasons that sexual stereotypes and pressure to conform to the same must be stopped.
Lastly one of the great factors in joining a gang is for protection. Although from an objective point of view, we can see joining a gang brings more danger than it saves you from, this is not always the way it is seen by kids. In slums such as the Bronx or the very worst case, Compton, children will no
doubt be beaten and robbed if they do not join a gang. Of course they can probably get the same treatment from rivals when in a gang. The gang also provides some money for these children who quite often need to feed their families. The reason kids think that the gang will keep them safe is from propaganda from the gangs. Gang members will say that no one will get hurt and make a public show of revenge if a member is hurt or killed.
People in low rent areas are most often being repressed due to poverty and most importantly, race. This often results in an attitude that motivates the person to base his/her life on doing what the system that oppresses them doesn\'t want. Although this accomplishes little it is a big factor in gang enrollment.
So, as you have seen gangs are a product of the environment we have created for ourselves. Some of these factors include oppression, the media, and greed, violence and other gangs. There seems to be no way to end the problem of gangs without totally restructuring the modern economy and value system. Since the chance of this happening is minimal, we must learn to cope with gangs and try to keep their following to a minimum. Unfortunately there is no real organized force to help fight gangs. Of course the police are supposed to do this but this situation quite often deals with racial issues also and the police forces regularly display their increasing inability to deal fairly with these issues. What we need are more people to form organizations like the \"Guardian Angels\" a gang-like group that makes life very tough for street gangs that are breaking laws.
American Psychological Association. Internet Web-Site. Is Youth Violence Just Another Fact of Life? 4 April 2000.
Graves, Chris. Â¡Â§Research to Guide Crackdown: Study Analyses Explosion in Violence.Â¡Â¨ Minneapolis Star Tribune 17 June 1997: 01B.
Haskins, James. Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today. New York: Hastings House, 1975.
Lewis, Yablonsky. Gangsters: 50 Years of Madness. New York University Press, 1997.
Opinion. Â¡Â§Urban Perspective: The Peace Process Network.Â¡Â¨ Los Angeles Sentinel 25 November 1998: A7.