OVERVIEW OF GANGS
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:
• an organized
group with a leader
• a unified group that usually remains together during peaceful times as well as times of
• a group whose members show unity through clothing, language
• 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
plague some communities but there has been no definitive answer. As a result, people working to solve gang
have great difficulty. They find the situation overwhelming, and the violence continues.
EARLY GANGS IN UNITED STATES HISTORY
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 20TH CENTURY GANGS
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,
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
gangs established their place in Los Angeles-their zoot suits (a style of dress incorporating tapered pants, long
shoulder coats and broad-brimmed hats) had become a familiar sight. Fighting back against harassment of white
and visiting soldiers during the so-called zoot suit riots in 1943 strengthened their cause.
Post World War II
After World War II gang membership:
2.the nationality of the membership
became largely non-white (though Italians, Irish and other white ethnic groups
still made up a percentage),
became a more publicized concern,
4.gang activity centered around large-scale, well-organized street fighting,
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.
Changes in Ethnic Populations
The 1950s 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
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 girlfr!
iends. 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
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
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
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.
membership grew and the potential for violence was far greater for the gangs had access to weapons that no gang
had before. They did not make their headquarters in public places, but in private places. Gangs also acquired
legal and political sophistication. When it is apparent that someone must be arrested for a crime, often the
a minor because his prison sentence will be shorter. Serving a term in jail helps boost his reputation.
Since the 1980s, as the ghettos become more and more overcrowded, a gang's territory has become no
more than a
single corner or a block. Guns decide arguments quickly and gang wars today are usually fought like guerrilla
warfare with sniping from rooftops and quick shots from speeding cars replacing face to face confrontations.
have been reported in all 50 states and come from many backgrounds. Some gangs still form in immigrant
for example, by recent arrivals from Vietnam, El Salvador and Haiti. Others cultivate
members in neighborhoods consisting
of families who have lived in the United States for generations. Members are
still usually male, between the ages 13 and
Geography of Today's Gangs
Although gangs are more common in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago and
New York, gang activity
also occurs in midsize cities such as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Albuquerque, New Mexico and Louisville,
1984 there were an estimated 450 gangs and 40,000 members in Los Angeles, today there are twice as many gangs
and more than 100,000 members. In 1987 Louisville reported 1000 gang members, Albuquerque 1757 members and
Reasons for Gang Membership
Gangs are still largely populated by young people from disenfranchised neighborhoods
overcrowding, high unemployment, high drop out rates, lack of social and recreational services, and a
feeling of hopelessness. Some experts estimate than more than 80% of gang members are illiterate and find it nearly
impossible to get a job.
Earning a Living
Young people turn to gangs as a means to earn a living through drug trafficking, illegal weapons
sales, robbery and
theft. The need for protection draws some young people who live in communities where non-gang members
continually harassed by gang members. Some young people join gangs as a way to gain the respect they lack at
and in the community. Or they may join gangs because all their friends are doing it; it just sseems like a
to do. Some experts say that young people from troubled homes attempt to find substitute families in
gangs. Abuse, neglect,
and loss seem to be common themes among many gang members.
Gang structure varies. The largest gangs, some with as many as 2,000 members, break up into smaller
clubs and cliques. Clubs typically bring more territory to a gang-they are branches of the gang that move
into a new
neighborhood to develop new business (usually drug trafficking). Cliques assemble new gang members and unite
them along similar interests (street fighting, burglary). In the 1970s many small gangs changed their names to create
an association with the reputation of two Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Today Bloods and Crips can
found all across the United States.
Some gangs operate informally, with leadership falling to whoever takes control. Other gangs have
and highly structured gangs have officers, much like a corporation. The president might direct the gang's
dealings and the vice president might keep members in line, overseeing the gang's communication network,
car phones, walkie-talkies, pagers and beepers. Gang members use these devices to coordinate drug deals
and to protect
themselves from arrest. The warlord keeps order at gang meetings, plans fights against rival gangs and
controls the gang's
arsenal. Highly structured gangs can be found all around the country, but are most common in
New York where competition
for drug money and status is high