Chapter 4 -  Youth Gangs  

Learning resources: (1) National Gang Center; (2) National Gang Threat Assessment; (3) Gang; (4) Female Gangs


·        Groups of mostly young adults being labeled as “gangs” date back to around the 14th century

·         Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century there was concern in every major city about the “gang problem”

·        But not until the 1980s did the media, along with politicians, begin to notice.

·        Much hype focused on Bloods and Crips and other minority “gangs”

·        Could this have anything to do with the deterioration of the inner-cities during this time?

·     More often than not, the true causes and the surrounding social context of social problems, like gangs, is totally ignored – I call this “de-contextualization.”

 Changing Context of Youth Gangs 

         Crime among gangs is nothing new, except for changes in technology and changing social conditions

         Gangs have become part of an emerging underclass of marginalized minority youth, as a greater percentage now remain with the gang well into their 20s and 30s (and beyond)

         In earlier times most moved away from gang life into jobs, the service, etc. as gang life was a transitory phenomenon.

         Not so today, because of worsening social conditions and opportunities. 

What is a Gang? 

         The main point in this section of the book is that there is little consensus on what a gang is.

         The word “gang” has both positive and negative meanings.

        The thesaurus gives such synonyms as “pack,” “group,” “company,” and “team.”

         In many studies researchers have often used whatever definition was used by the police.

         Many researchers have apparently confused the term group with the term gang and have proceeded to expand the definition in such a way as to include every group of youths who commit offenses together.

         Most definitions focus almost exclusively on delinquent or criminal behavior as the distinguishing feature that differentiates gangs from other groups.

        This is mostly taken from law enforcement sources where the main object has been not to understand the problem but to control or eliminate it.

         Similar problems emerge when trying to define a “gang‑related offense.”

        Not to mention problems related to determining who is a “gang member.”

 How Many Gangs Are There?

         This is almost impossible to know.

         Since federal dollars are flowing into just about every police department (large and small) it is in their interest to have a “gang problem.”

         Note in the chapter how the estimates vary and the problems associated with these estimates.

        Especially relevant is the recent “Rampart” scandal within LAPD.

        Over-estimates of black gang members, suggesting that one-fourth of all black males in LA  between 15 and 24 were members of the Bloods and Crips. 

Gangs and Crime 

         While it is true that gang members commit a lot of crime, most of it is concentrated in small geographic areas.

        They account for a very small percentage of all index crimes in a county or city.

         Gang members commit a “garden variety” or “cafeteria style” of offenses (for example, burglaries, petty theft, vandalism, fighting, and truancy).

         The major victims of gang violence are other gang members. Innocent bystanders are rarely the victims, despite claims from law-enforcement and other officials to the contrary.

        Homicide is the exception.

         Note the study by McCorkle and Miethe in Las Vegas and Reno

          During a 10-year period, gang members accounted for under 7% of all violent crimes and less than 10% of all felony drug defendants in District Courts

         Research does document that youths who are gang members commit more crimes than non-gang members.

        One interesting fact is that the first arrest for gang members typically came after becoming a gang member.

         Research sponsored by the LA District Attorney concluded that “the crimes themselves are not committed on behalf of the gang, nor are proceeds shared. The individuals (or groups, which may include non‑gang members as well as homeboys) who commit such crimes do so for their own reasons and by their own rules - and that includes drug dealing.”

         This fact is important to underscore, because it contradicts the theory underlying most gang‑enhancement statutes (which increase the punishment if the crime is gang‑related), which suggests that gang crimes are committed on behalf of the gang.

 What do Gang Members Do? 

         Noted gang researcher Malcolm Klein notes that gang life is rather boring and in fact “the only thing that is equally boring is being a researcher watching gang members.” 

         When they hang out it is usually by a park, by a taco stand, and they are “smoking, drinking, roughhousing, playing a pickup ball game, messing with a few girls, or sauntering up a street in a possessive, get-outta-our-way fashion.”

         When they do get involved in crime, it is either fighting (mostly with other gangs) or hustling, which included petty theft and drug sales.

         What about drugs?

        One researcher stated that drug selling “for most gang members is just another low‑paying job - one that might guarantee ‘survival,’ but not much else.” 

What Do Gangs and Gang Members Look Like? 

         Gang and Gang Member Typologies

        It is important to note that these are “ideal types” and not all gangs or gang members fit neatly into one or another category.

         Types of Gangs

         Hedonistic/social gangs

         Party gangs

         Instrumental gangs

         Predatory gangs

         Scavenger gangs

         Serious delinquent gangs

         Territorial gangs

         Organized/corporate gangs

         Drug gangs

 People and Folks  

         A formation starting within the Illinois prison system

         Mostly white Simon City Royals agreed to provide drugs to inmates who belonged to the Black Disciples in exchange for protection

        Folks (represented in graffiti by a six‑pointed star).

         In response to this alliance, the Latin Kings aligned themselves with the Vice Lords and the El Rukns

        People (represented by a five‑pointed star).

         Currently about 110 gangs with 30,000 – 50,000 members

         Many have spread to other parts of the country, as families and individuals move

        No evidence of “franchising”

 Ethnic and Racial Typologies 

         In a class and racially diverse society it should come as no surprise that there is great diversity among gangs

         Chicano Gangs

        Longest known gangs in So. Calif. with more than 500 varieties

        Two main groupings in California emerging from the prison system

         Norte 14 – Northern Calif.

         Sur 13 – Southern Calif.

        based in neighborhoods where Chicanos have lived for several generations, esp. in So. Calif.

        Arise from the many “stressors” in their lives which often leads to “multiple marginality.”

 Chicano “Families” 

         Joan Moore describes these gangs in the following way:

        “The age-graded gang is one among many barrio structures in which boys play a role; it may be the only structure in which they play a reasonably autonomous role.”

        She also notes that the Chicano sub­culture is more than just “machismo,” as there is a sense of belongingness, a feeling of family.  “The isolated individual is a rarity in the barrios...It is no accident that gang members refer to each other as homeboys.  Even in adulthood, when two strangers discover that they are homies they open up to each other as if they were, in fact, members of the same family.”

         She described two of the oldest gangs in East Los Angeles: White Fence and El Hoyo Maravilla

        Started in the late 1930s and early 1940s as sports groups

        The early Hoyo gang was more like a modern gang than the original White Fence group. 

        These were the “zoot-suiters” or “pachucos” and their neighborhood was one that was invaded by white servicemen during the Zoot-Suit riots in 1941.  Like the original White Fence group, the war separated them and left many younger kids to carry on the tradition

 Age-graded “cliques” 

         These are the “building blocks” of Gangs

        They develop as older members mature and break with the gang and younger kids form their own cliques

        White Fence and Hoyo Maravilla still have “sets” living in the LA area

        Similar process occurs with other kinds of gangs, such as black gangs.

        Over time these gangs reproduce themselves

        Many generations of gangs exist, where it is not uncommon to find men and women in their 50s or 60s still claiming some affiliation, although not very active

        One reason is the importance of “turf” or “barrio” as well as “family” (“barrio” and family often used interchangeably)

        Many feel the need to continue these traditions

        Prison experiences (some starting with “juvi”) usually reinforce gang affiliation

         Depicted in the film “American Me”

 Asian Gangs 

         Police find that Asian gangs are difficult to penetrate, as they are extremely secretive.

         Asian gangs generally victimize people from their own culture; therefore, the victims usually fail to report the crimes to the police.

         Also, most members are clean-cut and polite and act with respect toward law enforcement.

         The gangs are highly entrepreneurial in nature

         Most are relatively recent immigrants, from very poor backgrounds, and subjected to much racism and discrimination. They developed gangs partly as a response to these conditions.

         Many Vietnamese-Americans “keep large amounts of cash and gold within their homes.

         Knowing this, the youth gangs survey a residence and enter the home armed with handguns, usually in small groups of four or five persons.

 Chinese gangs  

         They are closely associated with powerful community organizations.

         They tend to invest in legitimate businesses and spend a lot of their time in these pursuits.

         Many have national and even international networks.

         They have been heavily influenced by Chinese secret societies.

         They are involved in serious forms of mostly property crimes, and they control large amounts of money.

         Monetary profit is their main goal.

         They most commonly victimize local businesses.

         Differ from African-American and Hispanic gangs in three ways.

        not based on youth fads or illicit drug use; instead, they are closely related to their community’s social and economic life.

        do not operate in deteriorated, poor neighborhoods.

        are embedded in the legendary Triad subculture and thus claim legitimacy in the Chinese community

 Filipino Gangs 

         similar in structure and operation to Hispanic gangs and often affiliate with them in the Western United States

         Began in the 1940s in the prison system of California.

         Many left the Philippines during the 1970s and early 1980s at the height of political unrest in that country.

         As the children of these immigrants began to attend school, there were cultural confrontations and confrontations with street gangs.

         To defend themselves, they began to form their own gangs with other members of their families.

        These family groupings became cliques or sets within each gang

 African-American Gangs 

         These youth are drawn into gangs in order to develop a sense of belonging, identity, power, security, and discipline

         The Crips and Bloods have so influenced African-American street gangs in Los Angeles that the only distinction between the thousands of gang members is the blue and the red colors.

         Crips do not use words starting with the letter “B” and Bloods do not use words starting with the letter “C.”

        Crips often refer to themselves as “cuzz,” while bloods often call each other “Piru.”

         Typically African-American gang members will ask the question, “What set you from?”

        This is asking for the individual’s gang affiliation

 White Gangs 

         White youths make up only about 10% of the nation’s gang population

        However this may stem from a racial bias where white kids are less likely to be labeled as “gangs” even though they often act like a gang (see note 117)

         Since the late 1970s white teenagers have been forming groups based on an interest in punk rock music and the social attitudes it represents.

        These attitudes include helplessness, anger, and rebellion.

        Many view the world as offering scant opportunity for individual self-expression.

        Both the listeners and the performers in the punk rock scene exhibit behavior that is both angry and violent, mostly for shock value.

        There are, however, groups of punkers who are very involved in drugs and alcohol, which leads to more involvement in crimes.


         Started in the early 1980s.

         Skinhead gangs in the US rooted in a similar movement in England during the late 1950s (one group called the Teddy Boys), but the original skinheads were black Jamaica immigrants to England (“Rude Boys”) who had close-shaven heads and a music style that was eventually adopted by white working-class youth in Britain.

        While not avowedly racist, these skinheads adopted a very conservative, working-class view of the world.

        By 1972, with police harassment and political pressures, the British skinhead movement diminished, only to be replaced with the emergence of “punks” as the new form of skinheads.

        These groups were even more flamboyant than the original skinheads, as they sported boots, jeans, and suspenders and added the swastika as a prominent tattoo

         There are racist and non-racist subgroupings.

        the racist skinheads advocate white supremacy

        the non-racist Skinheads have a multi-racial membership.

        Examples of the former include the SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) or SARs (Skinheads Against Racism)

         Some are “separatists” groups (survivalists)

        An example of racist groups are “political skinheads” like the White Aryan Resistance or the Aryan Brotherhood

 Skinheads Southern California  

         Modeled themselves after British skinheads.

         The music was an important component, with music bands like Sham 69, Skrewdriver, and The Four Skins

         Resembled other gangs via identification with specific turfs.

          “Punk rock” provided a subcultural foundation for the development of skinheads.

        Most of the original skinhead groups came directly from the punk scene.

        A key belief was that white youth were victimized by several outside social forces (e.g., minority street gangs, affirmative action programs, etc.).

        Many skinheads began to construct a racist ideology that included, in part, neo-Nazism.

         Many ended up in prison - further solidifying their commitment to skinhead values

        Mostly from their association with powerful and notorious prison gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), who were already a strong force within the California prison system before the skinheads emerged.


         Mostly white suburban youths from a higher socioeconomic background than most other gangs.

         Study by Wooden of stoners in the CYA is one of the few done

        Above avg. IQ, yet not of the 72 graduated from high school

        Most had work histories

        Heavily involved in drugs and alcohol

        into heavy metal music

        Some into Satanism

        Mostly white and from So. Calif.


         Use a form of graffiti known as “tagging.”

         Not done to mark “turf, but rather is a way these mostly white and middle class youths call attention to themselves.

         Police estimate that in Los Angeles County there are at least 600 tagger “crews” with about 30,000 youths

         Younger taggers (10–15) usually tag around school grounds.

         Older youths will go after bigger targets, such as freeway overpasses or bridges, public transportation (especially buses), streetlight poles etc.

         Types of graffiti vandalism, each with different motivations

        Hate crime graffiti

        gang graffiti

        Tagger graffiti

 Recent Data

         A recent report found that 80% of the towns and cities where gangs are found reported no gang homicides in 2004

         A Justice Department study found that, “gang-membership tends to be short-lived, even among high-risk youth…with very few youth remaining gang members throughout their adolescent years.” 

        Law enforcement estimates of nationwide juvenile gang membership suggest that no more than 1 percent of youth aged 10-17 are gang members.

Getting Tough not working 

         Incarcerating gang members does not necessarily curb re-offending.

        A 2004 Illinois report on recidivism rates of gang members found that more than half (55 percent) of the gang members were re-admitted to prisons within a two-year follow-up.

        A study of youth in the Arkansas juvenile justice system found that prior incarceration was a greater predictor of recidivism than carrying a weapon, gang membership, or poor parental relationship

     Recent study by the Justice Policy Institute:

 Some Concluding Thoughts 

         As evidenced by the discussion on “dance and party crews” and “skating crews” law enforcement has a tendency to label all sorts of youth groups as “gangs” or similar labels

         There should be some very specific criteria to distinguish among the literally thousands (perhaps millions) of teenagers who engage in skateboarding and rollerblading in virtually every city and small town in the country.

         Similarly, one should have some very good criteria to distinguish street gangs bent on criminal activity and kids who go to parties.

         Certainly kids will attend parties and engage in activities that incur the wrath of many adults.

         Given the elusive definitions of “gangs” and “gang members” plus the millions of dollars in funding to fight gangs is there a tendency on the part of some law enforcement agencies to add every sort of teenage grouping and activities to the term “gang,” whether or  not it is warranted?