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GANGS Essay, Research Paper


Originally the word gang had no negative connotation. In Old English, gang simply referred to a “number of people

who went around together-a group.” Today a gang can be defined in four basic ways:

? an organized group with a leader

? a unified group that usually remains together during peaceful times as well as times of


? a group whose members show unity through clothing, language

? a group whose activities are criminal or threatening to the larger society.

Gangs are one of the results of poverty, discrimination and urban deterioration. Some experts believe that young

people, undereducated and without access to good jobs, become frustrated with their lives and join gangs as an

alternative to boredom, hopelessness and devastating poverty. Studies have attempted to determine why gangs

plague some communities but there has been no definitive answer. As a result, people working to solve gang

problems have great difficulty. They find the situation overwhelming, and the violence continues.


No groups completely fitting the above description of gangs existed in America until the early 1800s, but from the

beginning of the European settlement in America there was gang-like activity, especially when class distinctions

came into being. Gang members tended to be from the poorer classes and tended to be from the same race or ethnic

background. They banded together for protection, recreation or financial gain.


In the early 1900s the U.S. economy worsened, the population grew at a rapid pace, and the gap between the rich

and poor widened. All across the nation gangs appeared where poor, hopeless people lived. The dawning of the 20th

century also brought with it a widespread use of firearms.


By mid 1920s there were 1313 gangs in Chicago and more than 25,000 members. Gang warfare in Chicago was

widespread and fighting took place along ethnic, cultural and racial lines. Some gangs had no noticeable cultural,

ethnic or national ties and consisted mostly of whites.

Chicano Gangs

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of Chicano (Mexican-American) gangs in Los Angeles. By the 1940s Chicano

gangs established their place in Los Angeles-their zoot suits (a style of dress incorporating tapered pants, long wide-

shoulder coats and broad-brimmed hats) had become a familiar sight. Fighting back against harassment of white

residents and visiting soldiers during the so-called zoot suit riots in 1943 strengthened their cause.

Post World War II

After World War II gang membership:

1.became younger,

2.the nationality of the membership became largely non-white (though Italians, Irish and other white ethnic groups

still made up a percentage),

3.drugs became a more publicized concern,

4.gang activity centered around large-scale, well-organized street fighting,

5.fire-arms were used more often,

6.the structure of organization became more rigid,

7.and society at large became concerned with gangs as a social problem and worked toward rehabilitation.

Changes in Ethnic Populations

The 1950s During the 1950s gang fighting rose to an all time high in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston,

Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland. Gang members were usually in their teens. Codes of dress (black

leather jackets were popular) and mannerisms were an important means of identification. Body language said a lot

about the nature of the gang. When a gang decided to become a fighting, or “bopping” gang, its members

immediately took on a different way of walking. A rhythmic gait, characterized by the forward movement of the

head with each step. Terms for fighting were: bopping, rumbling, jitterbugging. Gang members used guns, knives,

and homemade weapons. Most common drugs-alcohol, marijuana, heroin. New York gangs fought along racial

lines-African-American, white, Puerto Rican. Usually they fought over girls or turf. Turf could be anything from a

few blocks to an entire neighborhood. Gang members believed it was essential to protect the honor of their girlfr!

iends. And in the late 1950, girl gangs, with strong ties to boy gangs, began to form. Revenge was required by an

inflexible code of gang loyalty. It was from such incidents that gangs drew their sense of pride, of “being

somebody.” In order to combat the rise of violence, organizations like the New York City Youth Board sent social

workers into the slums to form relationships with the gangs. In some cases it worked; in many it did not.

The 1960s

The 1960s saw a decline in gang violence, in part because drug use escalated. Where there was more drug use there

was less gang violence. America’s attention also shifted to the civil rights movement, urban ghetto riots, Vietnam

War protests. A new racial consciousness had its effect on local street gang, creating organizations that were more

involved in communities. The Black Panthers arose in Oakland in 1968, the Black Muslims gained national

prominence in the ’60s and a Puerto Rican gang, the Young Lords, formed in the early ’70s.

The 1970s

By early 1972 gangs were making headlines again. Drug use seemed to be decreasing and violence increasing. Gang

membership grew and the potential for violence was far greater for the gangs had access to weapons that no gang

ever had before. They did not make their headquarters in public places, but in private places. Gangs also acquired

greater legal and political sophistication. When it is apparent that someone must be arrested for a crime, often the

gang chooses a minor because his prison sentence will be shorter. Serving a term in jail helps boost his reputation.


Since the 1980s, as the ghettos become more and more overcrowded, a gang’s territory has become no more than a

single corner or a block. Guns decide arguments quickly and gang wars today are usually fought like guerrilla

warfare with sniping from rooftops and quick shots from speeding cars replacing face to face confrontations.

Gangs have been reported in all 50 states and come from many backgrounds. Some gangs still form in immigrant

communities populated, for example, by recent arrivals from Vietnam, El Salvador and Haiti. Others cultivate

members in neighborhoods consisting of families who have lived in the United States for generations. Members are

still usually male, between the ages 13 and 24.

Geography of Today’s Gangs

Although gangs are more common in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, gang activity

also occurs in midsize cities such as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Albuquerque, New Mexico and Louisville, Kentucky. In

1984 there were an estimated 450 gangs and 40,000 members in Los Angeles, today there are twice as many gangs

and more than 100,000 members. In 1987 Louisville reported 1000 gang members, Albuquerque 1757 members and

Fort Wayne 50 members.

Reasons for Gang Membership

Gangs are still largely populated by young people from disenfranchised neighborhoods characterized by

overcrowding, high unemployment, high drop out rates, lack of social and recreational services, and a general

feeling of hopelessness. Some experts estimate than more than 80% of gang members are illiterate and find it nearly

impossible to get a job.

Earning a Living

Young people turn to gangs as a means to earn a living through drug trafficking, illegal weapons sales, robbery and

theft. The need for protection draws some young people who live in communities where non-gang members are

continually harassed by gang members. Some young people join gangs as a way to gain the respect they lack at

home and in the community. Or they may join gangs because all their friends are doing it; it just sseems like a

natural thing to do. Some experts say that young people from troubled homes attempt to find substitute families in

gangs. Abuse, neglect, and loss seem to be common themes among many gang members.

Gang Structure

Gang structure varies. The largest gangs, some with as many as 2,000 members, break up into smaller groups called

clubs and cliques. Clubs typically bring more territory to a gang-they are branches of the gang that move into a new

neighborhood to develop new business (usually drug trafficking). Cliques assemble new gang members and unite

them along similar interests (street fighting, burglary). In the 1970s many small gangs changed their names to create

an association with the reputation of two Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Today Bloods and Crips can

be found all across the United States.

Gang Leadership

Some gangs operate informally, with leadership falling to whoever takes control. Other gangs have distinct leaders

and highly structured gangs have officers, much like a corporation. The president might direct the gang’s business

dealings and the vice president might keep members in line, overseeing the gang’s communication network,

including car phones, walkie-talkies, pagers and beepers. Gang members use these devices to coordinate drug deals

and to protect themselves from arrest. The warlord keeps order at gang meetings, plans fights against rival gangs and

controls the gang’s arsenal. Highly structured gangs can be found all around the country, but are most common in

New York where competition for drug money and status is high.


Although there are no easy solutions to the gang problem in this country the following are some ideas that have been

put forward by sociologists, social workers, law enforcement personnel and citizens from battered communities.

1.Create jobs for young people.

2.Develop community programs in the arts, sports, etc.

3.Make sure young people receive a good education.

4.Prevent children from joining gangs in the first place by providing other challenging opportunities.

5.Create alternate living situations for children who cannot stay at home.

6.Provide counseling services for families and young people.

7.Society as a whole must look at problems of poverty and discrimination.

8.Individuals can fight prejudice by beginning to appreciate cultural differences.

9.Young people can do their part by being open to alternative activities.

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