apersThe Effects of Gangs
What is a gang? According to Steven Sachs, a probation officer since 1978, it is “a structured, cohesive group of individuals, usually between the ages of eleven and twenty-five, who generally operate under some form of leadership while claiming a territory or turf,” (Sachs XV). Distinctive clothing, the use of special street names, language, symbols and signs, and the committing of organized and spontaneous criminal acts describe some of the characteristics of a gang. Gang members can be male or female, but they are most often male. Jeffery Fagan and Joan Moore, researchers who primarily use self-reports and observations in the field, estimate that female participation in gangs may be as high as 33 percent. In the first national survey that was conducted by Walter Miller in 1975, he estimated that 48 percent of gang members in the six largest cities in the United States were black, 36 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white, and 7 percent Asian. A few years later, in a more extensive survey in nine of the largest cities, Miller found that 44 percent of all gang members were Hispanic, 43 percent black, 9 percent white, 4 percent Asian. Based on these statistics, he speculated that illegal Hispanic immigrants may have contributed to the increasing number of gangs in California (Kinnear 76). Gangs are often rooted in the historical experience of discrimination and economic struggle. White gangs exist mainly to promote and act on racist beliefs, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Skinheads. Black gangs, Blood and CRIP, formed mainly for protection from other gangs. Hispanic gangs like Latin Kings and Sureno are typically concerned with the self-respect and integrity of their neighborhood. Asian gangs including Chinese and Korean are perhaps more organized than the Hispanic or Black gangs and have been associated with gambling, prostitution, and narcotics on a more sophisticated and profitable level than other types of gangs. They are also more mobile (Landre, Miller, Porter 4). As a result of gangs, increased use and dealing of drugs, a person’s sense of belonging to a gang, and gang related crimes have had negative effects on society.
Many of the images of gangs, based primarily on media reports, include the use of alcohol and drugs. People tend to believe that gangs sell drugs to make extra money or even that many of them are structured as mini-corporations and are heavily involved in the drug trade. However, some research suggests that this is not generally the case; while many gang members use alcohol and illegal drugs, most are not heavily involved in selling drugs (Kinnear 18). Studying Hispanic gangs in southern California, James Vigil found that gang members generally started using drugs at the age of 12 years and that the use of more than one drug was common, but that gang members were not heavily involved in drug sales. Explaining the popularity of drug use among gang members, Vigil said that “drinking and drugs act as a ‘social lubricant’ to facilitate the broadening, deepening and solidifying of group affiliations and cohesiveness,” (Kinnear 18). The use of illegal drugs among gang members ranges from casual use of marijuana to addiction of heroin. Some gangs take control of vacant properties and have turned them into drug houses where gang members can come to use drugs. Ira Reiner, former Los Angeles County district attorney, reports that in Los Angeles more than 70 percent of all gang members use drugs, which is four times the percentage of non-gang members, and seven times more gang members sell drugs than non-gang members. Older gang members lean more toward selling drugs than other activities usually important to gang members, while younger gang members tend to focus their time and energy on intergang rivalries and see drugs only as a source of employment (Kinnear 18).
Another effect of gangs is a sense of belonging to a family unit. Members receive a sense of identity and recognition from being in a gang. It sets them apart from their peers and gives them a sense of power and success. Alone these youth may feel small, powerless, and inadequate. They lack direction. Belonging to a gang, however, makes them feel strong and invincible (Sachs 42). Gangs use this recruitment pitch sometimes, “There is another family waiting for you- all you have to do is join. This pitch particularly appeals to children from single-parent families” (Sachs 43). In many cases, there is no positive role model. They look to other gang members and see them as people who will pay attention to them. In a gang everyone is accepting and works together for the common goal of the gang. It provides them with a sense of meaning and direction. “The need for family, for those who love and accept us, is a powerful human need. Either as parents we supply it, or the gangs will” (Sachs 44).
Crime plays a big role in gangs. Most gang related crimes are committed between members of opposing gangs, although innocent citizens are often hit by stray bullets. They may also be victims of gang crimes such as robbery, burglary, and auto theft. Gang members participate in all forms of criminal activity, either for personal or economic gain, for revenge against another gang, or out of hate for the victim. Crimes committed include, among others, assault with a deadly weapon, arson, grand theft, sale/possession of narcotics, and murder. The weapons in theses crimes have become more sophisticated in recent years, evolving from hands, feet and knives to automatic handguns, automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns, and in some cases, pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, and hand grenades (Landre, Miller, and Porter 8). The majority of gang-related homicides can be blamed on drive-by shootings, which is the type of crime committed most frequently by gangs. In some gangs the drive-by is the rite of initiation for new members. Full acceptance into the gang might include the shooting of a rival gang member. In general the drive-by offers the gang the chance to commit a crime and flee the area before the police can be summoned. Some gangs steal cars to use in drive-by shootings. Afterward, the car is dumped, leaving few, if any, traces to the identity of the suspects. The sawed-off shotgun is the weapon of choice for most gang members because it offers the best odds of hitting a mark (Landre, Miller, and Porter 9). In some cases male shooters will meet a carload of female gang members after the shooting and transfer the weapons to the females’ car in an attempt to hide their involvement if stopped by a police officer. Many gangs also perform acts of vandalism, including writing graffiti, which is often the first sign of gang presence in a community. A gang uses graffiti to advertise its existence and its claim on a particular territory. Hispanic gangs are known for displaying the most sophisticated and artful graffiti. Their writing is often in block letters or in something similar to Old English. Black gangs prefer graffiti that is spray painted or written in either red or blue. Perhaps the most primitive graffiti is that of white gangs. Crude and often written in a hurried and sloppy manner, white gang graffiti is not as prevalent in most communities as the graffiti written by other gangs. Until recently there has been little graffiti written by Asian gangs. They have been more secretive in nature, and have just begun displaying their gang names and monikers to the public (Landre, Miller, and Porter 9).
Gangs are not a new problem, and they are not likely to disappear anytime soon. Drug use creates addicts who are not productive members of society. Drug dealers support the habits, and make a living in a highly illegal manner. When people feel a deep sense of belonging to gangs and not to a family, values and morals tend to decline. Lastly, increased crime due to gang violence and other gang activity hurts everyone involved, including innocent bystanders. Their effects on society are long lasting and have negative impacts in communities across the country.
Kinnear, Karen. Gangs. ABC-CLIO. Denver: 1996.
Landre, Rick and Mike Miller and Dee Porter. Gangs: A Handbook for Community Awareness.
Facts on File. New York: 1997
Sachs, Steven. Street Gang Awareness. Fairveiw Press. Minneapolis: 1997.
apersThe Effects of Gangs