As a college student who has been working hard to obtain a job that involves working closely with troubled youth on a daily basis, youth gangs are related to my profession. While growing up in the rough streets of the New York, I encountered gang activity many times. Individuals in their early 20’s like myself, just entering middle school or high school, or even those who are younger have been exposed to the darker things in the world. Gangs can be seen and heard about everywhere in the music, social media, news, books and movies that we all consume daily. While there really isn’t a single definition used to perfectly describe youth gangs, the basic definition is: groups of young folks, ranging anywhere from their teen years to their mid-twenties, that cause trouble and wreak havoc on their friends, families, neighbors, and communities. The trouble these youth gangs commit can start as smaller crimes such as bullying, petty theft, or light property damage and escalate quickly to more violent and extreme crimes such as drug dealing, arson, arms dealing, robbing businesses and homes, and even murder. Looking at inner cities such as, Richmond, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, many youths seem to jump at the opportunity to join a gang and they have steadily gained more numbers into present day because they’re seeking a sense of structure in their lives and gangs seem to provide a sense of belonging.
Breaking down the demographic profile of youth gangs in American inner cities, those who tend to fall in and end up associating themselves into these gangs are mostly young males seeking structure. According to the 1999 National Youth Gang Survey, 90 percent of gang members are male. This could be due to the way gangs tend to be advertised to the general public with men constantly being the dangerous and driven top dogs in positions of wealth, power, fame, and business. 71 percent of these members are between the ages 15 and 24 with 16 percent of them the age of 14 or under. About 79 percent of the gang members are Hispanic or Black with a 14 percentage of them being white (” Gangs”, 2010). This high percentage of youths of color being involved has everything to do with the sickening way society treats and views folks of color and the lack of structure they are provided with. Racism, the poor and broken communities, lack of good education, the harsh thug and criminal stereotypes and even being called gangsters just because they may dress a certain way and have a different skin tone all contribute to this high percentage. People also tend to blame rap and hip-hop music – a mostly colored folk genre of music – for making the “gangsta” way of life seem entertaining, fulfilling, and wild through their colorful lyrics, and many music videos showing wealthy, respected, powerful colored folk involved with guns, blood, violence, alcohol, sexy women, and drugs.
Looking at the Demographic Profile of U.S. Youth Gang Members dated in 2004, the numbers seemed to increase a little with the number of males increasing by four percent. 86 percent are Hispanic and Black gang members, but the percentage of White gang members remained the same. The Demographic Profile of U.S. Youth Gang Members chart breaks down the ages to a longer scale; young adults (18 or older) at a percentage of 59 and juveniles (under the age of 18) at a percentage of 41. The difference in youth gang percentages between young adults and juveniles are not very big and seems rather worrisome. It feels like they may just continue with their gang association from their juvenile years into their young adult years.
There has been an increase of youth gang problems in the United States starting in the mid-1990s. In the 1970s, only 19 states reported having youth gang problems, but by the 21st century all the United States have reported to have a youth gang problem (Howell, 2010). Between 1984 and 1993, the number of homicides by juveniles increased by 169 percent, the biggest increase in gang crime ever recorded (“Gangs”, 2010). This was a time where youth gangs would try to copy the two powerful gangs, Bloods and Crips, or start working to be able to join them by committing acts and getting involved in situations no youth should take part in. Many inner cities started to see spikes in gang activity and death in youth gangs from the mid 80’s to the late 90’s. This also helped lead to a huge step in communities all over the U.S. receiving programs and funding to help keep the youth from getting involved in gangs and reduce the rising death toll.
The question that everyone was wondering at the time that youth gang involvement increased was, why were youth joining gangs? What was the appeal to become a part of something that was leading to our youth committing acts of violence and horror against one another, but also had such a high chance of death?
Joining a gang seems enticing to mostly males because of the structure that gangs provide and the sense of family belonging. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, there are five reasons as to why people join gangs. The number one is identity or recognition, being able to accomplish a level of status within the gang that a person can’t accomplish outside of such group. Number two is protection; some people join gangs because they live in the area that the gangs oversee. This would engage juveniles to join a gang because it “guarantees support in case of an attack and retaliation for transgressions” (“Why Young People Join Gangs”). Number three would be fellowship and brotherhood, meaning that a gang can feel like a family. Number four is intimidation. For example, this could be some members are forced into the gang because their family has or are a part of a gang already or because it’s the social norm within that neighborhood. Lastly criminal activity; this could be a person joining a gang in-order to benefit from any profit they might make (stealing drugs or weapons). The two most well-known gangs in the United States that youths either mingle with and even dream of joining when they get older, are the Blood and Crips. The youth feel these rival gangs will provide them with structure and a sense of belonging. It was believed in the late 1980s by public and law enforcement agencies that gangs were racially, ethnically segregated and organized fighting groups. This didn’t change until 1988, when a study of two gangs (Crips and Bloods) showed that the gangs had become highly organized and entrepreneurial. This study took place right around the time that drug trade interest increased, along with the increase of violence by members within gangs.
Looking at graphs and statistics provides a snapshot of a general understanding of youth gangs, their history, how they become affiliated with their groups, the dangerous acts they commit during their time involved, and what that kind of life can ultimately lead to. However, the best source of information and most optimal way to try and perceive youth gangs is through their personal stories. Starting with someone who joined a gang while they were in prison in 2003. Richard Gonzalez joined the Trinitarios for the whole time he served in prison and later become the leader in the Bronx and Manhattan for a time before being caught by police. Gonzalez made a plea that he would give the police an inside of the gang’s customs and ended up sending five people to prison for his testimony. In the meeting he had, Gonzalez said, “When you become a member of the Trinitarios, if you have any outstanding debts, they are paid for. If you have any problems with any individuals or any type of conflicts, they are resolved, whether it is diplomatically or with violence. These are the people that look out for you, that take care of you when you go to prison.” (Ransom, 2018)
According to Gonzalez in-order to be an official member of the Trinitarios gang, you would need a sponsor to join. New members receive a rule book, take an oath, and swear to abide by the gang’s constitution (Ransom, 2018). There is a weekly member fee of five dollars that is used for bail, weapons, parties, drugs, pampers, etc. This is done by attending a weekly chapter meeting and at the end of the meeting there is always a prayer, to which a former law enforcement official said, “There really is a sense of brotherhood”.
During Gonzalez’s testimony, he stated that there were layers of leadership; first, second, and third in command. Three of the members also serve as heads of security (which means they secure the gangs weaponry and maintain good standing with other gangs). There is a member that is the central committee who governs the chapters (meaning they are the “in charge of war”). “Soldiers” are ones that carry out orders and if there is a death, then that is an acceptable outcome. Heads of the gang keep soldiers in line (so if they’re not doing what their supposed to then the heads of the gang hand out fines and/ or beatings). The heads of the gang make sure that everything is in order. This includes hashing out any problems that occur within their own gang or with other gangs and discuss troubles in the weekly meetings (Ransom, 2018).
Chicago also has seen an increase of 25 percent of homicides cases regarding gangs which has been the highest rate in years (Smith, 2012). There has been interviews with people that have been in gangs in Chicago and how difficult it is to get out. You have the story of Jessica whose nickname is “Jussi Pooh”, who joined the Chicago gang, Black Disciples, because she was seeking a sense of love. Jessica, who is now 21, said in an interview, “ you need to find something else better to do to occupy your time because the streets don’t love you, they take away from the people who do…I joined a gang to be loved and I had to find out the hard way that streets don’t love you” (Smith, 2012).
Jessica’s involvement with gang life was spent with her trying to get “fast money” by stealing cars and drugs. “Only things the streets go to offer is money, death or incarceration—because they (gang members) don’t want to end up in jail, so they going to give you the gun and tell you to go out and shoot somebody”. Jessica stated while also saying, “Second, when it comes to the money, trying to make a fast dollar, you going to be out here doing some of everything.” (Smith, 2012). During this interview, Jessica told reporters that she is trying to turn her life around by going to school to become a prohibition officer and even goes to church on Sunday’s. Her main goal is to work on herself and bring a positive change to her life.
Damien, also known as “Pacman”, was only nine years old when he got involved with the Chicago Two-Six gang. Damien, 28 years old, is lucky to be alive considering he got shot six times leaving a rival gang neighborhood. Damien stated, “He thought I was flashing gang signs, you know, with the signs that I have (tattoos on his face) that he started pointing a gun at me with a read beam…all hell broke loose. He started shooting us. I got shot six times, in the stomach, in the thigh, the sides” (Smith, 2012). Damien has a long list of a crimes recorded dating back to when he was 17 years old when he was charged with his most serious offense. Damien has a 16-month son who he hopes never follows his footsteps. Damien hopes to rid himself of the gang lifestyle in the following years and pursue a career as a mechanic.
Deandre, known to his friends as “Dre” is at the time, a 20-year-old young man who was kicked out of school because of fighting. Deandre has been a part of the Chicago gang, Black P Stones, since 14-years-old. Deandre states, “I joined that gang to make my name well known and do something…just make my name known somewhere” (Smith, 2012). Deandre considered himself part of the gang, but in the back of his head he wanted to further his education and find a job. “It wasn’t really one event that made me change my mind…it was basically that I just decide all the things I did wasn’t making no sense. So, it was going to be me continue to do that and not go nowhere or me stepping up and trying to be a man, and trying to do something for my family, and trying to do something positive” (Smith, 2012). Deandre believes that for the gang violence to end, people must be given chances to succeed. With that in mind, Deandre wants to help people and open his own business because he loves to cook. “The crime will calm down if you all give my people opportunities…that’s all I got to say. Give people some opportunities out here. Don’t knock them because of who they are or how they dress or how they look. ‘Cause there’s people wat worse than I am out here” (Smith, 2012).
Lastly, you have Michael whose known as “puppet”. Michael joined the Two-Six gang at the age of 13 by getting beaten up as part of the initiation. Michael stated, “You got to take a beat down by your homies just to show them you’re tough…and either you’re in or you’re not. That’s it” (Smith, 2012). Michael grew up with her brother, sister and mother. He said he “didn’t have a father really”. This makes you wonder if having multiple siblings and one parent to try and do it all led to him wanting to join a gang to be noticed and really feel like he had a whole family? Maybe try to fill the void of not really having a dad by joining a gang and trying to find a place to fit in and feel whole?
When youth consider structure when joining a gang, they don’t consider risk factors. There are many risk factors to joining a gang. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, antisocial behavior can be a reason for an individual to join a gang. A child whose antisocial behavior increases is more likely to join a gang. Behaviors can include, alcohol or drug use, violence, aggression, etc. Alcohol and drug use are other factors because they greatly increase the likelihood of later gang involvement. Drugs are one of the easiest and quickest ways gangs make profit, while alcohol is the social and brotherhood/family bonding aspect. They are both also highly addicted substances that can lead to acts of violence and rage. Mental health problems can also increase the risk of youth joining gangs. Gang members in juvenile corrections facilities are often admitted because of “history of physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, psychiatric disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive deficits, poor self-esteem, and other problems.” (Howell, 2010) Victimization is another reason for youth to join a gang. This can involve a child being a victim of abuse within his or hers home or neglect from parents. This can cause an individual to seek a “family culture” within a gang setting. Negative life events can also cause individuals (particularly boys) to join because they can feel like they joined a sense of control over their lives. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these risk factors will cause individual to join gangs, but it increases the likelihood that they mean join.
Digging deeper into risk factors, some family risk factors can come into play because of weakness in family structures, such as single-parent household, caretaker changes, and even multiple family changes. Poverty and possibly financial stress can be potential risk factors as well. Lack of supervision and control from parents – even losing a family bond – are all factors that can lead youth to join gangs. One major family risk factor is having a family member involved in a gang or criminal behavior which can easily lead to the youth following in their footsteps. (Howell, 2010).
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, one of the strongest risk factors for gang membership is engaging with peers who are involved with delinquency. Being around peers that are aggressive during childhood and early adolescence is a strong risk factor for youth to join a gang. This goes along with living within a community that has very high gang activity. Youth can be influenced to join a gang just because they live in the neighborhood of nearby gangs. Negative conditions such as, greater level of criminal activity, access to firearms and drugs, abuse, poverty and loneliness can cause youth to be pressured to join a gang to have a sense of belonging and support.
According to the Juvenile Justice Bulletin of 1998, Decker and Van Winkle had viewed youth joining gangs in two ways; a pull and push effect. They stated that the “pull” to join a gang was the attractiveness of the gang. This attraction may seem questionable to some, but for many youths, they see it as an opportunity; a quick way to get everything they seem to believe they want and need to succeed in life. Being at that young age and in an easily impressionable state with the constant stress of wanting to fit in and be in with the “cool crowd”, some youths find it difficult to resist such an offer. These opportunities once seized can bring them money, power, fame, protection, friends, women, and status. All very attractive and rather enjoyable things to many people – especially young people who want to be “cool” and “respected” among their peers. However, the methods of ceasing these opportunities and becoming part of the “gang” include acts such as: selling drugs to make money, gaining and maintaining relationships and dangerous connections, keeping a strong and trustful family dynamic, and always doing whatever it takes to get the job done no matter what the cost without fear. The “push” was regarding the idea that youth were getting involved with gangs because of friends and/ or family that were already in a gang. Peer pressure and living up to family expectations are unfortunate occurrences that can push many young people into joining a gang – even if it’s against their wishes. Another reason for “push” is the area in which the youth may live, this could be the individual believing joining a gang is the norm within his or her community and is “just the way of life”. (“Why Do Youth Join Gangs?”, 1998).
Inner cities like Boston and Richmond created prevention programs in-order to decrease the amount of youth involvement in gangs. In 1990, in Boston, MA, because of the increase of gang violence, the community created a strategy for at-risk youth in-order to prevent them from considering joining a gang. This led to interventions and gun control laws to be enforced. Because of this “program” youth homicides dropped from 80 percent from 1900 to 1995. Salinas, CA experienced the same as Boston, MA but with a 200 percent increase of homicides from 1984 to 1994. After receiving federal funding, the city created programs which resulted in a decrease of 23 percent, and the homicide level fell by 62 percent (“Gangs”, 2010).
According to the OJJDP’s gang reduction program, Richmond, Virginia created a gang reduction and intervention program that targets suburban-type communities of single-family homes and apartments. These communities have had an increase of diversity and have also increased in gang activity. The prevention activities of this program are aimed to families of youth who are at risk of becoming involved in gang and delinquent activities. Some of the activities provided are; prenatal and infancy support, one-stop resource center, class action summer camp, English as a second language for Hispanic residents, and gang awareness training to community and service providers. The invention activities within the program are supported by an intervention team is involve case-management activities that include street outreach (supporting youth already involved with gangs) with the hopes to provide an alternative to gang membership. These activities include; role modeling and mentoring, mental health and substance abuse programs, truancy and dropout prevention programs, community service projects, and even tattoo removal (“Best Practices To Address Community Gang Problems: OJJDP’s Comprehensive Gang Model”, 2010). They go to the root of the problem and provide youth with structure in a different way other than gang involvement.
Most gang members in the United States are young males and males of color, this is because of possible situational backgrounds. As seen in Chicago and Los Angeles, youth join gangs because gangs provide a sense of structure that they are not receiving at home or in their community. In-order to prevent gang involvement, we can bring more awareness to youth through prevention programs such as the ones in Boston and Richmond, that provide such information. This could include providing at-risk youth with resources that can help them with their basic needs and help resolve any family related issues that would prevent them from joining gangs.
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