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History of Street Gangs

A gang has been defined as “an ongoing organization…whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity” (California Penal Code Section 186. 22[f]). A youth gang, therefore, could be defined as any such criminal organization in which the majority of members are youths, typically between the ages of 12 to 24 (Howell & Egle, 2008).

In addition to having members who are in the same age bracket, youth gangs are also characterized by identifiable clothing, symbols, and other identifiable characteristics that allow gang members to recognize one another and that identify members of one gang to members of other gangs (California Penal Code Section 186. 22[f]). Crimes engaged in by gang members often include but are not limited to assault, robbery, homicide, drug-related crimes, drive-by shootings, intimidation, and other criminal activity (California Penal Code Section 186. 22[e]).

In 2004, there were an estimated 24,000 youth gangs in the United States, with a total membership of about 760,000, down from a total of 846,000 total gang membership in 1996 (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006, p. 82). The decline in gang membership that occurred between 1996 and 2004 was primarily due to a decline in gang activity in small towns and rural areas, as gangs appeared to consolidate their activity to larger urban areas. In 2004, gang activity was reported in nearly 8 out of 10 cities with populations of 50,000 or more (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006, p. 82).

Understanding the history of gangs in the United States can be helpful to law enforcement agencies and other organizations that are trying to fight gangs and to help gang members. Stereotyped images of gangs and gang members can be misleading and do not present an entirely accurate picture of gang activity. While some gangs and gang members may fit the stereotypical racial, ethnic, or other characteristics of gangs that are depicted on TV and in music, other gangs may go unnoticed or unidentified because they do not fit the observer’s profile of how a gang member should look.

For example, although many gang members drop out of high school, there are gang members who are high school honor students, college graduates, or even active members of the U. S. military (Lockyer, 2003, p. 1). Understanding the history of gangs may also help law enforcement and other agencies understand how and why gangs are formed and what can be done to further reduce the number of gangs and gang members in the United States.

Gang activity in the United States began at least as early as the early 1800s, when European immigrants in New York began to divide along ethnic and cultural lines to protect themselves and their communities from real and perceived threats from other groups. New immigrants from Europe often had a difficult time adapting to American culture of the time and were often not accepted into mainstream American society. What began as vigilante behavior, however, eventually turned into criminal activity as gangs became better organized and more powerful.

Gangs in New York, Chicago, and other large American cities gained even more power during Prohibition in the 1920s, by providing alcohol and engaging in other criminal activity. During this time, some gangs evolved into organized crime syndicates (Weiner, 1999, p. 44). Because immigrants tended to settle in larger metropolitan cities, gangs were more closely associated with cities than with rural areas or smaller towns. The make up of gangs reflected the types of immigrants that settled in specific cities.

In New York, gangs of Italian and Puerto Rican youth were common, although other immigrant groups also formed gangs, most notably of Irish and Russian youth; in Chicago, gangs were predominately made up of Italian and African American members, while Latino gangs, made from Mexican immigrants, dominated Los Angeles (Geis, 1965). Gangs in the 1940s and 1950s were also fueled by the social environments of the cities in which immigrants settled.

The “deep-seated racism, racial politics, real estate speculation, segregation, police brutality, and white supremacist terrorism” fueled the growth of African American gangs in Chicago (Hagedorn, 2006, p. 195). Discrimination against Latinos in Los Angeles in the 1940s led to the “zoot suit riots” of 1943 (Daniels, 1972, p. 182). Asian gangs developed first in California as the number of Asian immigrants increased (Segal, 2002, p. 213). Gang activity began to increase again after the end of the Viet Nam war in the early 1970s, and African American, Latino, White, and Asian gangs began to become more visible.

Gangs took on a national status during the 1980s, as the Crips and the Bloods, two of the country’s largest gangs, began to expand from home in Los Angeles to other cities ( Weiner, 1999). Regardless of the ethnic composition of the gang, these gangs were typically led by older adolescents or young adults who had a following of younger males (Geis, 1965). The history of the development of immigrant gangs has important implications for the United States today, as more immigrants come into the country from Mexico and other Latin American countries and encounter anti-immigration rhetoric and other forms of discrimination.

In fact, there are strong parallels between what is being said about the present wave of immigrants from Mexico and the waves of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants that came to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century, when the majority of Americans were of English ancestry and non-English Europeans such as the Irish and Italians were regarded as being from another race (Will, 2001). The history of gangs strongly suggests that Latino gang activity, which is already strong in some parts of the country, could continue to increase as discrimination and anti-Latino sentiment among American citizens increases.

Although gangs had been associated with crime since before Prohibition, the development of gangs in the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s was seen as a social problem and not as a criminal problem. Several Presidential committees and blue ribbon panels about crime in the 1960s and early 1970s all concluded that gangs of young people did not pose a serious threat and should not be a major concern of law enforcement agencies (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP] (2001), Chapter 3).

A report from , the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime that was written in the early 1960s described juvenile gangs at that time as being “like gentle and mild-mannered lads out for a playful romp” when compared to gangs in England in the 18th and 19th centuries (Geis, 1965, p. 6). This belief was not limited to law enforcement, but was a common attitude among Americans during the 1950s and early 1960s. Evidence of this innocent attitude about youth gangs can be seen in the popular musical West Side Story, which was first a Broadway play and was released as a movie in 1961.

Today’s gang members are romanticized in a similar way in rap music, movies, and other parts of American culture. These romanticized views of gangs and gang members provide a cover that allows gangs to develop in communities that are unwilling to address their gang problem. Communities and parents sometimes do not want to admit that their children are involved in gang activity and may use terms like “wannabe’s”, “misguided youth”, or “street corner groups” to describe what could be more accurately labeled a gang (Lockyer, 2003, p. 4). According to Lockyer, this type of denial is especially strong in smaller towns and rural areas.

“One of the first steps in addressing gang problems in your family, school, or community is overcoming this denial” (Lockyer, 2003, p. 4). Denial about gang problems and gang activity led to a proliferation of gangs and an increase in gang membership during the 1980s. By 1990, gangs had migrated from urban areas to suburban counties (Howell, Egley, & Gleason, 2002). By 1992, smaller cities were reporting increases in gang activity, although it is unclear how much of this increase was due to increased awareness of gangs and how much was due to an actual increase in the amount of gang activity in smaller cities (Howell, Egley, & Gleason, 2002).

By 2001, gang activity had been reported in every American city with a population of 250,000 or more, in 85% of cities with populations between 100,000 and 299,000, in 65% of cities with populations between 50,000 and 99,999, and in 44% of cities with populations between 25,000 and 49,999 (Howell, Egley, & Gleason, 2002). In 2001, more than 30% of suburban counties reported gang activity, as did 11% of rural counties (Howell, Egley, & Gleason, 2002).

After peaking in the mid-1990s, the number of gang members and the number of gangs in the United States began to decline somewhat, mainly because of a decline in rural areas (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). The history of gangs also shows how gangs can develop even under the most carefully controlled circumstances. In the 1950s, Latino who were in prison in California were given a choice of wearing blue or red bandanas. Without realizing it, the California Department of Corrections had essentially created the gang colors that would become associated with Hispanic gangs in the state.

Latinos who came to from Northern California chose to wear red bandanas so other Latinos from Northern California who were in prison could recognize them, while Latinos from Southern California chose the blue bandanas as their uniform (Valdez, 2005). Valdez pointed out that even as early as the 1950s, there were many different gangs that came from all parts of California. These rivalries, however, were set aside inside the prison system, where gang members combined with members of other gangs from the Northern and Southern parts of the state.

Today, there are more gangs in California than in any other state. In 2007, there were more than 420, 000 gang members in California (California Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention Program, 2008). Along with African American gangs, Asian gangs, Latino gangs, and Caucasian gangs, there are gangs of mixed racial composition, female gangs and groups known as Goth, Skinhead, Tagger Crew, Tag Bangers, and Party Crew gangs (Lockyer, 2003). In addition to their identifying symbols, some of these groups have also developed specialties in criminal behavior.

African-American gangs tend to sell crack cocaine, while Latino gangs are more commonly associated with the distribution and sale of methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin” (Budnick, 2004). The behavior of gang inside the California prison system shows that gang members from rival gangs are able to work together when necessary. In some cases, large gangs may include several smaller groups that are united beneath an umbrella organization, just as the smaller gangs in the California prisons were able to unite beneath the umbrellas of Northern and Southern groups.

African American gangs have also united for their mutual benefit. Bloods and Crips are large organizations that include several smaller gangs, including smaller gangs which are considered to be rivals. The larger Crips organization, for example, includes the Rollin 60s Crips, the 74 Hoovers Crips, the Kitchen Crips, and the East Coast Crips, all of which are rival independent gangs that are united beneath the larger organization (Walker, 2005). According to Walker, this spirit of cooperation extends even to larger organizations.

Crips and Bloods are fierce rivals, yet they have been known to work together when it is in their best interest to do so. Conclusion The history of gangs in the United States has several important implications for law enforcement and for government agencies today. First, history demonstrates that gangs develop from a sense of fear and the need for protection from real or perceived threats. These threats may come from other criminal elements in the area or may be more subtle in nature, such as discrimination and other forms of harassment from another group.

It would be extremely naive, however, to think of gangs as misguided vigilantes who are only guilty of defending their communities or to believe that gangs would disappear if people would be more accepting of others. The criminal behavior of gangs, including the conduct of rival gangs of the same racial or ethnic compositions, demonstrates that gangs are criminal in nature. History also shows that gangs thrive where there is denial and unawareness of a gang presence or of gang behavior.

The California prison system probably would not have given inmates a choice of red or blue bandanas if prison officials had realized that these colors would be used by gang members to identify fellow gang members and rivals in the prison. The spread of gangs to small towns and the subsequent decline in gang membership in these areas shows what happens when communities that are in denial about their gang problem begin to identify what is happening and take actions to save their communities.

Finally, the history of gangs demonstrates that this is not a new behavior, but is a continuation of what appears to be a very common tendency of people to seek out other people with similar needs. Young people join gangs for a variety of reasons, including the need to belong to something that is bigger than themselves, the need for structure, the need for acceptance, the perceived economic benefits of being associated with a gang, excitement, and fear (Allender, 2001).

History demonstrates that gangs will continue to exist until these needs either disappear or can be met in some other way.


Allender, D. (2001). Gangs in Middle America. Are They a Threat? Law Enforcement Bulletin December 2001. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from http://www. fbi. gov/publications/leb/2001/december2001/dec01p1. htm Budnick, N. (2004) La Vida Loca – Hispanic street gangs take over Portland’s east side. WWeek, June 30, 2004. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from http://www. gangwar. com/items/items45. htm

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