Rethinking the Role of Gangs

photo by lanier67 on Flickr

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.

John Hagedorn

John Hagedorn

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.


7 thoughts on “Rethinking the Role of Gangs

  1. Thanks John: You’re walking a very tight wire here, I think. The idea that we should encourage “identities of resistance,” I can fully embrace (especially when contrasted with “identities that glory in violence, bigotry, or greed.”) But I know , for example, that the Latin Kings (perhaps not in Spain but certainly in USA neighborhoods) have too often drawn other people out into the seductive streets of violence and away from other forms of potential (and positive?) resistance. I believe, and you seem to as well, that the challenge here is to offer something that will be as exciting and seductive as the voice of the gang leader, but creative rather than destructive. I think CLTL plays a role here, offering, through reading interesting stories and through energetic conversations about those stories, another place for people to go. When CLTL is working well, it creates a neighborhood which can be exciting and inspirational, and can serve as an alternative to the sorry streets of the gang leader. It too can create “identities of resistance”–literature has that power.

  2. Gangs are a very capitalistic group. They have a strong pyramid structure of their own society. They thrive when they are making more money and growing past their competition. A gang should be looked at as a firm in a market. They are producers of a good, drugs or protection, and they charge people for those goods. Much like a cigarette company produces tobacco, and sells them to their consumers. People look negatively upon gangs due to their violent nature. If gangs wanted to truly “help” their local community they would. They have a large amount of capital at the top of the pyramid. Instead of shooting their competition they can out price them. Gangs could easily be a legitimate business selling illegal goods, but they go about their process completely wrong.

    If communities want the help of their local gangs, and gangs want to help the community they need to stop breaking “socially unacceptable” laws like killing. Selling drugs can be looked at in many ways a legitimate business plan, but the act of killing another person sets them apart. Gang leaders are very powerful and influential people. They have business and social skills comparable to the elites of the world. The gang leaders just need a better direction on how to use their capital.

  3. First off I think we need to look at the situation and look at why people are in gangs and how these things got started. Gangs are not a new thing and a lot of the uprisings are because people are being oppressed and discriminated against. We look at these people who have this choice to go into a gang and get involved or take the righteous path and get a good education and live a successful life. The problem is that when it comes down to it there is no choice for a lot of people. When you have broken homes, terrible school systems and are being treated like society is against you, why wouldn’t you join a group that accepts you for who you are. It is no wonder why youths are joining gangs. By eliminating these problems you will reduce violence and hatred that is being spread as well as the ignorance that is fueling the fire. after the riots with Rodney King in LA, there was a movement called RLA where the city was determined to rebuild Los Angeles (hence the name). It actually brought the bloods and the crips to a truce. The two biggest rival gangs at a truce where they have murdered 15,000 people. This lasted a whole year until the RLA shut down because of lack of funding and the cycle of violence repeated itself. Gangs do what they do because they feel that they have not because they are war mongering idiots with only a taste for blood. They are people who are not much different than anyone else. They only had the misfortune of being born into drugs, poverty, and into discrimination and racism. Gangs are not businesses they are people who are trying to survive by the best way they can. There is no reason for anyone to belittle or hate anyone for trying to survive.

  4. Will I think as I look at gang members most of them are low classes, which they happen to be that way due to their background. They are raised in a low class family which suffered from financial ways, and had hard time with their families. But ignoring them would not be a option to get rid of gangs or even change them. I think we should all accept the part of gangs as a society. So that even though they are gangs, they can be good gangs with no violence. I think as a society treat the gangs as a normal people than I think they can change. Just like the article says, even the gangs are just like us, they are sons or daughters to their parents, they have hobby like watching sports, or listening to music and they can have religion and have their own opinion. I mean they are not different from us, they are just acting differently because they grew up differently than us.
    Just because they act so dangerously and try to harm other people, we can’t just leave it alone and do nothing about it. Well by people doing this would harm them more and they become more violent and worse than what they are now. We have to accept them and treat them as any other people as well. I think that even treating them differently is same thing as being racist. I mean what’s the difference being racist and treating gang members differently. We can’t always blame those who are bad, we have to realize that some part is society’s fault, I mean I don’t want to blame everything on the society but part of it is. There are six billion people in this world living today, and 1.2 billion people are living on less than a dollar a day. When people are living under a dollar a day, that is just tough thing to do and we have to realize how hard they are living their life and maybe support them and try to understand why these people grow up to be such a bad people. I mean if these people grew up in a background with the parent’s support and with no financial problem, than I think they wouldn’t have been the same. So the solution to the role of gangster is to understand them and accepting them as a part of the society.

  5. This article is interesting to me because it talks about how gangs have been able to change and evolve into something positive. Even though the majority of gangs are violent, sell drugs, and destroy communities it is interesting that this article talks about how some have started doing positive projects in communities. I think this is something that needs to be looked at closer as a way we can help groups of people that tend to be drawn towards gangs. I think that if we figure out a way to influence gang members through education and the prospect of earning an income in other legal ways gang members lives will improve and they will be able to be productive citizens. Another problem that gangs face is that these individuals see a gang as the only acceptable way to live their lives by their peers. I read one article about a young man who was from a ghetto in Chicago and he was part of a gang but also ended up going to college. After he went to college and got a degree in business management he was unable to get a job that would provide the amount of money that he was making dealing cocaine in his gang. Therefore he went back to the gang and ended up in jail. So I also think that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much education that people receive they still may go back to doing their gang activities.

  6. I read the “Rethinking the Role of Gangs” article, and I believe that harsh criminal prosecution and long periods of incarceration for these young kids and adults is not the answer to preventing gang violence. All over America there are zero tolerance policies when it comes to dealing with gangs, but they have proven to be ineffective in stopping youths from joining gangs and committing crimes. I believe that we need to help rehabilitate and educate these troubled youngsters in America and show them that through hard work they can achieve whatever they want. Incarcerating these young Americans in institutions is detrimental to them because they ultimately have to fight everyday to protect themselves from being assaulted and harmed with violence. America needs to do itself a favor and work hard to better the lives of her youth versus helping to contribute to the process of making them harden criminals.


    By: Mike (Ali) Raccoon Eyes Kinney

    As a Cherokee Native American Activist and a former member of the Richmond California Violence Prevention Movement, I have seen close to 515 homicides in the City of Richmond from 2001 to the present.

    The declaration of a ‘war on violence’ by the Richmond city government was not the panacea, instead it failed miserably.

    I have often stated in town hall meetings and on television, the best way to win the ‘war on violence’ in Richmond is to ‘TEACH THE VALUES OF PEACE’.

    In the killing fields of Richmond, most of the victims of homicides are youth or young adults. Teaching the values of peace begins with our youth and young adults. From a Native perspective, winning the war on violence begins in the home with a strong, spiritual belief and value system.

    We believe that Creator made all generations, past, present and those of the future, holy people. This is what our Elders teach us from the time we are born.

    Our families and Elders teach our young people that they must tear away the images and stereotypes that mainstream society has placed upon them as Native peoples.

    Violence and killing is not traditional in Native culture, it is a learned behavior from mainstream society.

    We teach our youths not to attack, punish or beat themselves up for crimes that they have never committed in regards to racism. Our Elders and families teach our young people to have good self-esteem, self-worth and self-value, for as the original holy people this was Creators plan.

    Native people know that it is both family and community responsibility to teach the values of peace to our young people.

    We teach our young people honesty and accountability concerning violence. It begins with accepting responsibility for self and acknowledging any past use of violence.

    Admitting any wrongdoing, communicating openly and truthfully to renounce the use of violence in the future places our youth on the right path. We place a heavy emphasis that all life is sacred.

    The final lesson in teaching the values of peace is quite simple. It is helping young people understand their relationship to others and all things in Creation.

    Be responsible for your role, act with compassion and respect, and remember ALL LIFE IS SACRED. Native culture is prevention!

    Mike (Ali) Raccoon Eyes Kinney

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