Good Gangs

By Michelle Chen Sep 01, 2009

Over the past few years, the phenomenon of youth gangs has spawned its own field of criminology—part social science, part political spectacle. Police have been declaring war on gangs for decades, officials have deployed social workers, teachers and "gang specialists" in the fight; think tanks have churned out reams of research on the sociology of gang violence… and yet gangs continue to proliferate and thrive. Sarah Garland, in an article in the American Prospect (an excerpt of her book Gangs in Garden City), parses the roots of the gang boom, focusing on the burgeoning Latino community in Hempstead, Long Island. The story of Jessica begins with a stereotypical pathology:

Until middle school, Jessica had lived in a house that neighbors dubbed the "crack house" for its often drug-addled residents and visitors. Her uncles were members of Mara Salvatrucha, a gang originally formed in Los Angeles by refugees of Central America’s civil wars, and Jessica’s living room was one of their main hangouts.

But Garland reveals deeper layers in Jessica’s story. She started school in a class for English language learners, since her teachers overlooked the fact that she spoke fluent English. She continued to struggle in school and earned a reputation as a troublemaker. She joined Salvadorans with Pride in seventh grade “as a gesture of defiance” against the man who sexually abused her—an uncle who belonged to a rival gang. The lure of gang life, according to Garland, isn’t just a product of economic hardship, a desire for excitement, or social frustration, though all of those may play a role. In many cases, gangs are a pathway to self-determination when every other road is a dead end.

the truth was that the gangs’ rise to power revealed not what they offered to a new generation of immigrants and their children but what America did not: safety, dignity, and a future.

Garland notes that Salvadorans with Pride is an offshoot of an earlier group that had sought to protect the community. In response to threats from local American gangs, as well as fears of police, Latino immigrants formed a collective as an ad-hoc self-defense force. But their hopes of becoming a grassroots security and self-help organization were eventually eclipsed by violent rivalries and other street crime. Nobody likes to see their neighborhoods overrun with violence. The dissonance emerges when officials decry gangs as a criminal scourge, yet many youth seem to think they’re the most worthwhile recreational activity in the neighborhood. The reported surge in gang activity on Navajo territory exemplifies the role of segregation and social alienation in the spread of gangs. In an interview on National Public Radio, Natay Carroll, a former gang member, suggested that a sense of being under siege actually pushes gangs toward violent escalation:

we’ve always heard [in anti-gang messages] the term, ‘let’s fight back. Let’s take back.’ And these are real combative words when you put it out there into a community, you know, let’s fight for this. Let’s fight back. Let’s take back. You know, it’s almost in a sense you’re egging on the gang to resist you…. That was one of the main things that I saw that I always resisted against when I heard, oh, we’re going take back the streets or whatever, you know, and we’re like yeah, come and try it. I dare you.

Under more enlightened policies, gangs and their surrounding communities might present each other with a different sort of challenge. Currently, dueling bills in Congress propose contrasting approaches: the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act would ramp up criminal penalties for gang-related offenses. The Youth PROMISE Act, meanwhile, focuses instead on prevention initiatives and community-based intervention programs. Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles has helped pioneer the movement from anti-gang to pro-youth strategies for community safety. The organization steers youth away from gangs by offering them something more rewarding: a chance to finish high school, publish their writing, or run their own business. As the public dialogue on gangs grows increasingly professionalized and clinical, lawmakers might be quick to dismiss such interventions as "soft on crime," syrupy do-gooderism. But Homeboy Industries doesn’t have to worry about proving the program’s effectiveness to skeptics: the kids who run the place every day already know it works. Image: Homeboy Industries