John Hagedorn is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His most recent book is A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture.
We read every day about the arrest of gang members or statements by police that some bust “crippled” the local gang. Zero tolerance policies in schools and communities have as a goal the complete elimination of gangs. In several Central American countries, a policy of “mano dura” or the iron fist, aims to smash gangs.
But despite these policies, filled jails, and one police campaign after another, gangs haven’t gone away. In fact, a quick glance at press reports from around the world finds gangs everywhere. What’s up with this? Do the failure of “hard line” policies mean that we should ignore gangs or treat them nicely and they will go away? What should we do?
Here’s what I think: Gangs aren’t going away no matter what we do. In other words, no matter if we crack down or lighten up, gangs are with us to stay. Let’s examine first why I’d say something outrageous like this and then think about what it means for what we should do.
There are six billion people in the world today and half are under the age of 24. More than a billion are between 18-24, prime gang age. In a world that has 1.2 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, the UN’s standard for extreme poverty, there are a lot of poor, and understandably angry, young people. The sad truth is the 21st century is not so much a century of hope but one of shattered dreams. It’s not that individually, you or your friend can’t make it — hard work, determination, and getting a few breaks can give even the most “down and outs” a way up and out. But looking at the big picture, for the one billion plus people living in extreme poverty, the good life will remain out of reach for this lifetime, at least.
That’s really where gangs come in. Gangs are destructive and violent, alienated and armed young men and sometimes women. But they are also rebels in the face of a world that is even more violent, unforgiving, and cold. Unfortunately the response gangs most often choose is one that only makes things worse.
But not always, and this is the key to understanding how we should deal with gangs. When you look at US history as well as take a global look at the different kinds of gangs growing up in ghettoes, barrios, townships, and favelas, we find examples of gangs that have “changed their colors” and have become pro-community. That’s what the Latin Kings in Madrid, Spain have done, following a path set by their namesakes in New York City in the 1990s. The gang I have been researching, the Conservative Vice Lords in the 1960s started legitimate businesses, cleaned up their community, and created jobs in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood.
The common denominator in most of these stories of transformation are social movements. When they take hold, like the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, gangs can gravitate away from crime and violence. In other words, gangs and gang members can change if we pull them with us into movements of resistance and rebellion against racism, poverty, and police abuse.
No, that’s not easy. Drugs, violence, and the street life can be seductive as well as lethal. The police can be counted on for brutality and abuse. But gang members, like all of us, are not just one thing: they are not frozen forever into criminality or a violent life-style. Like us, they are sons or daughters of mothers and fathers; maybe they are religious, perhaps Muslims or Catholics; sports fans or athletes; musicians or avid listeners to hip hop or other beats. The secret to working with gangs is to encourage identities of resistance not identities that glory in violence, bigotry, or greed.
So while gangs, like poverty and racism, aren’t going away soon, they can change. I doubt any movement for real change will succeed unless those on the bottom of society — the more than one billion living in desperate poverty — join the struggle. And that includes their gangs.