Have Gangs Always Plagued Mankind?

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Again from the Forensic Examiner, Spring 2008

The Life Development of Gang Members: Interventions

By Mike Meacham, PhD, LCSW, DCSW, DABFSW, and Tony Stokes

The growing problem of gang activity continues to plague clinicians, human services, communities, schools, law enforcement, corrections, and public policy. Many interventions assist in helping gang members change, or attempt to control gang activity, and their focus is on gang members in middle and secondary schools (or the few years following). This paper proposes that the growth of a gang member continues through a lifetime of changes, and it suggests intervention at various levels of a gang member’s development.

Many anthropologists believe that societies have been plagued by and have reacted to gangs since ancient times (Expertwitness.com, 2006). Certainly, gangs have been on the American landscape since early in its history. Among the first gangs were “The Forty Thieves,” founded about 1826 (Sachs, 1997). Ashbury (2001) and Haskins (1974) have chronicled the early growth of gangs. Thrasher (1927) studied over 1300 gangs in Chicago during the 1920s, and although most of these gangs were Caucasian, the majority became prominent in groups considered white-immigrant minorities (e.g., Irish, Italian). By the 1940s there were organized non-Caucasian groups. and by the 1950s, Hollywood was making movies about gangs, such as “The Wild One” and the film “West Side Story,” released in 1961. David Wilkinson (1963) wrote an account of the 1950s gang The Mau Maus and its leader, Nicky Cruz, who later founded the “Nicky Cruz Outreach” to help troubled teenagers. During the 1960s, partly from the political unrest of the times, gang membership skyrocketed (Sachs, 1997). By the 1970s, the Crips and the Bloods had formed.

Historically, and in the present, a majority of gangs have formed as a reaction to oppression and social ostracism (see Spergel & Curry, 1993; Goldstein & Kodluboy, 1998). Few doubt that early gangs and many contemporary gangs developed as a backlash to denial of access to resources, and a response to social injustice. However, at least some gangs have formed in order to take advantage of illegal means to wealth, even when members have legal options to maintain at least a middle-class lifestyle. In our experience with nationwide gangs, it seems that the business side of the gang becomes at least as important as any reaction to oppression, which may have been the original reason for the formation of the gang and the method by which it drew members. By the 1980s, a suppression policy had emerged as the prominent intervention against gangs (Spergel, 1991).

By the 1980s, most of America was aware that gangs were more than a group of troubled youths riding motorcycles. Much like their early predecessors, gangs were forming and growing as social and economic entities. Colors, hand-signs, particular clothing, street graffiti, and tattoos were among the many identifiers. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, service agencies had become involved (Sachs, 1997), and social scientists (e.g., Cummings & Monti, 1993) were studying gangs intensely.

However, many Americans still believe that gangs and their memberships occur in middle and secondary schools, and that as members enter young adulthood, they may continue for a while, but eventually they are either driven out or drop out.

A review of the recruitment and development of gang members is called for that might challenge prevailing myths and suggest interventions.  The data here spans nearly a decade and is drawn both from literature and from discussions and interviews with police officers, correctional workers, social service workers, gang members, and prisoners.

Of course, differences exist among gangs. There are gangs that wish specifically to defend an area such as a neighborhood, gangs that seek friendship and excitement, and gangs whose members have become international criminals in drug trafficking and other illegal activity.

People become gang members for myriad reasons, and people choose to become involved at different times in their lives, complicating the task of prevention.

Primary Intervention

It is probable that prevention is most effective among youths. Primary interventions are designed to encourage people to avoid becoming involved in gangs. These interventions may include direct work, such as establishing community meetings to discuss gang problems and addressing suggestions, educational programs in schools and media, law enforcement programs, and human services efforts.

However, the complexities of peer pressure, the dream of quick wealth, and the status, comradeship, and safety provided by gangs makes prevention more difficult. True interventions require assistance in developing opportunities. These include after-school programs and events, job possibilities, career-training opportunities, funding to assist in higher education, neighborhood watch programs, and close work with institutions in the community, including businesses, the police, schools, churches and other voluntary associations, as well as the community-at-large. Prevention means long-term and difficult work in establishing trust in the community, reassuring people that the programs will have a positive impact, and developing the human and fiscal resources needed to establish and maintain the programs.

Gang Families
It is not likely that there was a time when gangs did not exist. Gangs that have become fairly well known (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood, Chinese Tongs, Bloods, Crips, Hell’s Angels, Latin Kings, Vice Lords, Black Gangster Disciples, and many others) have been in the news since before the early 1980s. And since their beginnings there have been members who fit the newsreel stereotypes. They join in their teen years, wear gang-related clothing, and continue developing other means of advertising their membership. However, those who did so in the 1980s now are middle-aged adults. This means that some members are now rearing families of their own, resulting in children who are born into a gang lifestyle. Carlie (2000) writes that many new members are now “blessed in” because they have a brother, cousin, father, or mother who already belongs to the gang.

Gottfredson (1997) has noted the lack of well-researched or well-conceived intervention programs for gangs. Though most anti-gang programs begin at the school level, these programs will not be helpful to a child reared by loyal gang parents. On the other hand, most parents tend to want a better life for their children than what they have had. Gang parents who have witnessed violence, been under police investigation, or spent time in prison may work strongly to keep their children from some activities.

To address this level of involvement, we turn to secondary intervention. The parent or parents are already involved in the gang lifestyle, placing the child in a situation in which he or she is raised to be involved, as well. Those gang-member parents who wish to keep their children from becoming involved must counter the social learning and modeling behaviors that increase the chances of their children being influenced by gangs.

Intervention focusing on this group of gang parents may begin with community education. Programs to help children become involved in non-gang activities, parenting classes, group therapy, family therapy, and community organizing may be beneficial. Those involved in the intervention process must establish needed programs and make efforts to ensure that the community knows about them. Part of the effort for this group is to encourage parents who are gang members to leave the gang; however, just leaving the gang will not suffice. There must be an opportunity to build another life, and for many this may require adjusting to a less affluent lifestyle after years of working in the underground economy. Furthermore, leaving a gang with which one has associated for many years presents dangers. Gang members fear that those leaving may become sources of information for the police or that they may threaten the gang in other ways. Violence against members who choose to leave is both institutionalized within the gang (known as “beating out”), and ad hoc or informal, where some are injured or killed to protect gang activities from becoming known to the outside. Although there is little systematic evaluation of opportunities to decrease gang involvement (see Thompson & Jason, 1968), Spergel et al. (1989) find better success when opportunities are well supported and organized, which is necessary for any intervention.

There is another group of parents who are quite satisfied with the gang lifestyle. Throughout much of their lives they have benefited in many ways from being a part of a gang, and they may have accumulated more wealth and prestige than they ever could have through legitimate methods. These parents may purposely train their children to become part of the gang, perhaps beginning by merely attending gang gatherings, becoming known, and participating in petty gang acts. These children may attend school and have many legitimate activities, but the lure of quick wealth and the status already afforded them presents a strong temptation. The parents of these children may have introduced them into the gang formally or may have informally modeled the lifestyle in a manner that socialized their children to join without direct solicitation.

The interventions in this situation will be much more difficult. We may ask community leaders to address the members and the problems for their children, or we may reach some through education efforts in the community; however, both of these options are unlikely to be effective for the majority of these families. Interventions may occur during a crisis, such as a parent being arrested, wounded, or in need of police protection. Gang members live with these dangers daily, and during the crisis we may approach them concerning the negative aspects of their lifestyle. This may affect some, and others may be more likely to respond to programs to keep their children out of gangs. The complexities and dangers of the gang lifestyle are likely to create times when young members may be more open to interventions. Violence, ostracism by teachers and peers, and legal interventions are among the possible incentives.

These interventions have merit in addressing issues of children reared in the families of gang members, but they are not likely to redirect large numbers from their predilection toward gang banging. Many of the people in this group are inducted formally into gangs by the time they are in secondary school and have participated in them with at least partial success for years. Because of the lifestyle of violence and illegal activity associated with gangs, law enforcement and human services inevitably become involved. For these children, all the alternatives are fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, the systemic factors within families associated with gangs (Horne & Sayger, 1990) result in highly dysfunctional families—a situation that may be alleviated by placing the child with a stronger family model either in foster or relative care. On the other hand, family disruption is a real source of concern in the lives of developing children (Littner, 1950).

We must try. Many gang members now are being trained by their own parents, though education programs and increasing legitimate opportunities will mitigate this influence at times. Horne (1991) suggests intervention goals for this stage, including social competence enhancement, peer counseling, behavioral self-control strategies, parent training in child management skills, social learning theory in family therapy, parent individual therapy, couple/single parent counseling, and parent education, career-vocational, and financial case management.

Youngest Active “Members”
Young children, sometimes as young as 6 years old, are solicited for important roles in the gang structure. They may be part of the “front” business—the legitimate enterprise hiding illegal activity in other parts of the building. Grocery stores, barbershops, and other small businesses are used, and having children participate in legitimate transactions strengthens the façade. Other young children may be “scouts” who watch for law enforcement and other people who may interfere with gang activity. Also, young children make excellent “mules,” carrying illegal items from one place to another.            There are more ways to discover a potential problematic child at this stage. Many times community organizations (e.g., the Boys and Girls Clubs) detect these children in gang activity. Government agencies (i.e., Division of Family Services) and schools frequently discover or suspect children as being involved.

Truant officers, social service workers, and law enforcement officers may be mandated to report some activities, and individuals in the community may be encouraged to report suspected activity as well. However, therapeutic interventions may focus on areas other than discovery. Individual therapy may, of course, take many forms, but an eclectic intervention strategy has shown promise, using moral and cognitive interventions (Gibbs et al., 1991a, 1991b), as well as an even wider mix of therapies (Kazdin, 1987).

There are several family therapies that may prove useful at this stage in a child’s life. Minuchin (1981) intervenes to restructure the family, assuring that the parents have more control and authority over children. Kerr and Bowen (1988) use genograms to search for familial patterns over generations, including alcoholism, drug use, family feuds, and other problems. Haley (1990) assesses the family and creates a specific intervention, stated in measurable terms. Should an initial intervention prove unsuccessful, the therapist will implement another. All of these interventions have proven useful, and others are reviewed in the literature. Schools assist the effort by remaining alert to absentees, use of gang symbols, and other indications that particular children may be involved in gang activities. School counselors, psychologists, and social workers may then intervene. At this stage, again, many levels are involved in effective intervention. The discovery of involved or at-risk children may come from multiple sources.

To review, in gang families, while there may be some gang bangers who seek out assistance to ensure that their children stay out of that lifestyle, we believe the majority will become involved with human services as the result of a crisis such as a shooting or an arrest. Truant officers, community leaders, business people, families, neighbors, law enforcement, and school officials may assist in both discovery and intervention for these at-risk children.

The Core of Recruitment: Middle and Secondary School Age
At this age, entering puberty and working their way through adolescence, the conflicting needs of independence and of belonging become strong. With nascent social skills, development in the arts or athletics, education, wealth, or other forms of status, gang membership may become quite seductive.

Gangs provide a sense of belonging. Symbols such as dress, tattoos, hand-gestures, and special codes promote bonding and deliberately exclude those not able to understand the meanings. A child who has grown from birth to middle school in a gang environment is now ready to become a member. He or she will generally be blessed in and begin participating in activities with the other gang members—these young people now become full-fledged problems within the school system. Stephens (1992) developed the Gang Assessment Tool to assist school officials in gaining some idea of how big the problem is within their schools.

Stephens (1993) further recommends inclusion of a gang prevention curriculum; gang awareness among faculty, staff, and students; education of faculty and staff through frequent in-service training on gang-related dress and graffiti, etc; a dress code accompanied by clear behavioral expectations; quality adult supervision; and outreach to the community. McConnell (1990) recommends that measurable goals be established that are clearly defined, so the school can determine the effectiveness of any program.

Parents may become involved as well through education, parenting classes, and the use of tests that may indicate their child’s involvement. School and parent programs should be working with law enforcement and other community agencies closely. Reporting gang activities to police is essential in controlling activity by this age.

At this age, “easy” money is another attraction for members. How to make money through drug deals, pay-for-violence actions, prostitution, theft rings, and other enterprises are learned. To the uncritical teenage mind, this may appear easy because it is quick; however, it is anything but easy. Retribution for poor performance is swift and often deadly if the punishment comes from the gang or rivals. Police intervention is a constant threat, and many gang members enter the justice system at this time. In juvenile detention centers and in prisons, activities and skills learned on the street are practiced and honed.

The Young Adult Gang Member
By young adulthood, a gang member has developed a social identity. He or she may be adept in intelligence, violence, business, and other activities important to the gang. The member has survived the streets, wounds, ostracism by the larger society, and perhaps incarceration. At this time, membership becomes a career. Drug deals are no longer just a way to get party money. They become involved in national and international drug rings. Gun running, white slavery, human trafficking, money laundering, and other activities are added to their enterprises (see GTA-SanAndreas.com, 2003).

Generally, human service work is not effective at this level, except for victims. By this time, gang members are loyal to the gang, and should they become disillusioned, they will seek protection instead of emotional and material support. Police have developed a national gang data bank, and gang task forces are a part of many police agencies. Though they are developing new anti-gang and gang-control methods all the time, these tend to be efforts to identify gang members and activity and to increase community involvement in anti-gang efforts.

Many members already have been part of the juvenile justice system, and more will become part of the prison system. Each prison system has different levels of gang control, but there seem to be primarily two lifestyles awaiting gang members in prison. For some, their youth results in almost immediate planned exploitation by older inmates. Other younger members may know, or be known by, established members in the prison who may protect them.

Corrections officials focus on identifying gang members, and, generally, at orientation, inmates are told of the problems that may occur by relating as gang members. Duxbury cites the GANGS (Gang Awareness Necessary for Growth in Society) program developed by John Berge in Chino, California, where youthful members are taught the negative influences of gangs in the community, in the lives of their families, and in their own lives. These approaches, as well as cognitive-behavioral interventions, are frequently used in prisons.

Gang members, however, have many reasons to remain members while in prison. For one, gangs are so well organized and strong within the prison that the new gang inmate has a group ready to support him or her, though new arrivals frequently must prove their mettle to the gang, especially if they do not know anyone at that facility.

Adult Members
Some adult members—violent members unable to keep their acts private—become dangers to the gang, drawing unnecessary attention both from rivals and law enforcement. These are eliminated either by murder or by going to prison. Others develop their skills, possibly including military service, and learn to use violence in ways to promote gang needs and their own careers in the gang (United Press International, 2007). A similar situation occurs for members with other skills. Mistakes in drug dealing or any other enterprise may end in death or prison.  Gang members/dealers develop their skills in much the same manner as others do their careers.

Older gang members have little in common with their teenage counterparts. While teenage members make every effort to demonstrate gang membership, older gang members learn to hide it. Their goal is to appear as though they are persons of social importance; their skills have been honed, and their accumulated wealth has been directed to this end.

There appear to be four possibilities. One, gang wars continue, mistakes happen; therefore, some are killed. Two, others are caught in acts that end their careers with long prison sentences.

A third type is the local neighborhood leader. This member resembles the gang member of the nineteenth century, building a reputation in the community using a “carrot-and-stick” approach. They provide protection, develop local economies and facilities, and earn respect and appreciation in the area; however, they know when to use violence, which members are able to provide it, and how to keep it secret. More importantly, they are able to use it while keeping their names separated from it.

The members who seek wealth and have the savvy to get it may establish national and international underworld reputations and prove their skills through success. They too know how to use violence and who can provide it, but they are just as interested in knowing who is intelligent and who has the social skills to defend their economic interests. They may contribute by attending business school, law school, accounting school, etc. Further, they may send members through school for this purpose.

At this level, any resemblance to the street thug is gone. They seek to appear as an average, albeit wealthy, society member. They are well protected from street violence, although well-planned, expert assassinations may occur. They worry little about local law enforcement, sometimes even having co-opted some of them or having members on the force. They are concerned with national and international agencies, and may even have protection from them. They are rich and able to add to the wealth of legitimate business people, at times co-opting them, while at other times, establishing legitimate businesses of their own.

There will be continued interventions at this level by police, but they are hampered in gathering evidence on neighborhood gang leaders who have the ability to contribute to the communities they control. Frequently, because of rifts within the organization, feuds without, and other mistakes, these leaders are incarcerated. Intervention beyond law enforcement and corrections lies in community awareness programs and in developing alternatives to gang activity within the community.

Obviously, these gang members will not be affected by school programs and are not likely to become involved in clinical programs. Community advocacy and education is the best intervention for gang members at this stage.

The fourth group is comprised of gang members who go beyond the community. These members likely have survived street violence, police detection, or at least arrest and long-term incarceration, and have proven their illicit skills to others. Their affiliations become at least national and perhaps international. These members have reached such a level of sophistication at their “profession” that they are very difficult to arrest or to link with criminal activity.  They have little or no desire for clinical interventions and are beyond community programs.

Specialized law enforcement units work on the national and international levels to control the activities of these members. Those incarcerated may work with prison therapists or parole planners, but the work of these interveners is very difficult. After a lifetime in a gang lifestyle, few people have the motivation to change.

By adulthood, the majority of gang members have families of their own. Some strive to retire from criminal activities or raise their children in lifestyles of legitimate wealth. Others begin to rear their children in the ways of their own path. As new generations are reared into the underground system, new methods of achieving their ends develop. Law enforcement and human services react, and the circle becomes a spiral.

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