Street Gangs: A Sociological Perspective

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Truths About Street Gangs

In another article about Chicago street gangs I target specific popular gangs in that area and give advice to parents, teachers, law enforcement, or anyone else that works in the community about what to look for. This article, however, will focus on the larger picture of street gangs. I want to take a very broad brush and paint a picture of how and why young people join gangs in the first place and give possible solutions to stop these groups from prospering in our communities. There are of course many sociological theories that attempt to explain why people align with criminal groups and anti social circles however we’re still left scratching our proverbial heads wondering why kids continue to find these groups appealing. In order to address the issues we have to dig to the core or root of the problem(s). Unfortunately, there is not just one reason why youth join street gangs. There are many reasons and so explaining these problems and possible solutions will be my strategy.

During my time as one of Kane County’s Intensive Probation Officers I realized a few truths that could not be disputed. The first truth is that street gangs are a sub culture. They live in secret while sucking the life out of thriving communities. They have their own language, dress code, rules and regulations, hierarchy, accountability, and revenue streams. These characteristics are true for every gang that intends to survive. Truth number two I realized is that a great majority of members come from broken homes. This can be one parent households, kids living with grandparents, parents are in jail, prison or actively abusing drugs and/or alcohol, abusive homes, or other households with families that provide little or no positive support. The third truth I realized was gangs prey on the weak. They destroy families and communities through violence, abuse, intimidation and creating fear. These truths combined create a very powerful negative force that can be difficult to contain.

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An Interesting Take on Street Gangs

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Why Join a Gang?

Young people join gangs for various reasons and I’ve found in my experience there is generally more than one reason why an individual joins. I had a defendant on my caseload a few years ago that was 16 years old convicted of a felony for Unlawfully Discharging a Firearm. He was convicted as one of the shooters in a drive by shooting. Upon visiting this teen’s home, I found neither parent understood English and both seemed indifferent about their son’s behavior and possible future in prison if he failed probation. I placed him on electronic monitoring and informed him he was on house arrest until he could obtain employment or enroll in school. He ended up finding a job and worked part time 3rd shift at a factory for about a month before running away. Prior to this and after being around his family 4 times per week for several months, I realized he had no positive support. His father abused alcohol and seemed intoxicated at every visit and his mother seemed fed up and disengaged from the whole process. Neither one knew what gang he was apart of and wasn’t really interested to learn. Multiply this experience by 10 and that seemed to be my caseload at any given time. Now, in these cases the issue was a language and culture barrier. This family immigrated, illegally, to the U.S. from Mexico and so their son fit in well with the large Hispanic population in this city. Unfortunately, he lived in the wrong neighborhood where gang violence was an everyday occurrence and fell into it as well. His parents didn’t know what he was up to and didn’t seem to really care. This young person had no positive support and as a result he found a sub culture that accepted him.

Another defendant on my caseload lived with his grandmother. He seemed to have a relationship with his mother but she had kicked him out of the house several years before entering my world of probation. She was fed up with his choice of friends, drug use, disrespectful behavior and constant trouble with law enforcement. He made some mistakes while I supervised him however he started working at his grandfather’s business and changed his friends. I also believe he grew tired of going to jail and the constant harassment from police because of his affiliation as a Gangster Disciple. As a result, he matured and became a contributing member of his community. Unfortunately, he has several close family members still affiliated with the gang which will always create friction if he leaves that lifestyle behind permanently.

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How Gangs Function Socially

Gang members come from all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, families and neighborhoods but it seems like most of them have very similar traits. I’ve helped several members leave the gang life behind and pursue a higher quality life while others I have helped go to prison. The difference between the two is the ones with a positive support system in place will probably succeed over the ones that have negative role models or families that are involved in the gang’s lifestyle as well.

When we look at how gangs function on a sociological level we can see the mentality is much different than when you speak to one of its member’s one on one. The group collectively will create violence and instill fear in communities because if you anger one member you have the whole group to deal with. It’s not surprising when family members or community members fail to testify against the gang in court for fear of retaliation. These are not paranoid delusions but based on past negative experiences with the gang either directly or indirectly. The gang as a whole will sell drugs and guns to bring in revenue which is used to purchase guns, drugs, help out fellow members in jail or prison, or to throw parties, and even pay bills. The Latin Kings for instance have sections spread out all over the country and monies collected from the different regions can be shipped off somewhere else to help a struggling area.

The communication and organization of these groups is stunning because at the drop of a hat hundreds of members can show up to the party without an invitation. The hierarchy is amazing as well. Most street gangs have some kind of set of rules or “bible” the gang lives by and if any member breaks one or more of those rules then consequences are handed down swiftly. The Latin Kings have a hierarchy of leadership which will make decisions concerning major rule violations almost like a court. They even have a process to appeal decision made by the Cacique and Inca which are the top leaders in the gang. This type of organization can have significant influence on younger potential members because they may lack structure and love at home and instead find it through the gang. Recruiters for the gang will entice young members by showing them what the possibilities are for joining the gang. Recruiters show off their money, cars, girlfriends, power and prestige in this underworld to make the recruits buy into the lifestyle. The truth is, the money was probably stolen, the car is a rented, borrowed or stolen one, the girlfriends are bought with money or intimidation and the power and prestige are fleeting in a world ruled by the next drive by shooting.

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Why do Gangs Thrive?

There are various reasons why street gangs flourish in some areas and other areas they are strangled out of existence. I think one of the main differences is larger cities tend to have more problems. A city only has a certain amount of resources allocated to crime prevention and law enforcement while street gangs in theory have an infinite amount of resources available to recruit more members, buy more drugs, sell more guns and police simply can’t keep up. The other difference is a city with a highly effective police force trained in street gangs can infiltrate the gang and kill it off from the inside out by targeting leaders. By breaking up the leadership you cut the head off the snake. Someone will probably step up and take over, but the organization and communication will be broken.

Another major reason why gangs flourish in some areas is because police deny they have a gang problem. Look, if your city has graffiti on buildings containing gang signs you have a gang problem. There may not be violence, drive by shootings or gun smuggling but you have a problem and if it’s not addressed head on, it will only worsen. The cities that have dedicated gang officers and report to the public crimes that are gang related and are accountable to the people will succeed.

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Solutions

A lack of community resources and jobs will also contribute to the youth joining gangs. When children are neglected by a community the negative consequences compound over time. It also creates boredom and when kids are bored they can become restless, seeking adventure or stimulating activities which can lead down the wrong path.

The solutions I have found that make the biggest impact are intervening in the lives of children and families early on. By the age of 12, boys have solidified many core values and morals which become difficult to change as they age. If communities can capture at risk youth from broken homes and provide positive networks of support and activities to keep them busy, the chances of them participating in criminal behavior is less likely. The problem many communities face trying to implement these tactics is selling it to the community members and board members. City, town and village boards want to see results in a relatively short time period and want the ability measure the success of an intervention. This tactic takes time and becomes a long term investment.

An alternative is to set up mentoring organizations like Big Brother, Big Sister and teach mentors the art of Motivation Interviewing to help their mentee find their own solutions to problems. Simply having a positive network of peers that care and support you will make an incredible difference. The best part is the cost is minimal and learning Motivational Interviewing is fairly simple to learn and use. If communities make a huge push to set up mentoring programs for youth and adults then progress can occur in reducing crime and the chances of gang recruiters being successful. The idea is to target the youth because that’s when most people will join a street gang if they ever decide to. I can recall when I was 12 years old many of my peers talking about joining gangs and the image the street gang members portrayed was very appealing. We have to make this image unappealing.

Next time you have the opportunity to mentor a young person from a broken home, offer to spend some time with him/her. You never know how that interaction will impact their lives and who knows maybe you could prevent him/her from considering joining a street gang.

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Comments 2 comments

yeagerinvestments profile image

yeagerinvestments 4 years ago from Wisconsin Author

Yes, job opportunities are crucial as well to prevent poverty. Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting.


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

"It’s not surprising when family members or community members fail to testify against the gang in court for fear of retaliation. These are not paranoid delusions but based on past negative experiences with the gang either directly or indirectly." - That is true. Then, there are those who simply do not trust the judicial system: courts, law enforcement, etc.

As You well explained, the street has its own rules and enforcement: "The Latin Kings have a hierarchy of leadership which will make decisions concerning major rule violations almost like a court." The rules are unwritten but well known by those in the game.

You have given many reasons to why people join gangs and why gangs may or not flourish but I did not see the financial argument: with no jobs, many people have to create their own jobs. Gangs and organized crime in general focuses on making money. The more impoverished an area is, usually the more violence, drugs and such will be around. That is actually a reason why gangs strive in cities - there are large groups of people living together in poverty and sooner or later poverty drives many to get involved in the underground economy.

Positive networking can help but it will not do much if people continue to live in the gutter.

Thank You for sharing your perspective.

All the best!

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