Gangs, In Black and White

Picture the words “street gangs” in your mind. What images do you see? Gangs, gang warfare, Crips, Bloods, Netas, Latin Kings, etc., headline our local and regional media outlets weekly. The very thought of the word “gang” reflexively conjures up mental images of black and brown violent, gun toting, drug dealing men, blaring rap music, preying on virtuous mainstream white society who react in horror, suspicion, caution, and contempt. What are we to do with this menacing social ill spiraling out of control, targeting old white men and women, pummeling good white business men, defiling young white women, and looting private property? The answer is clear: Watch, Arm Yourself, Shoot, Enact tougher laws, Shoot, Hire more police officers, Shoot, Jail them, Shoot!… and necessarily in that order.

As I sat in my rural home, in a county where the racial demographic (as is throughout most of rural and suburban America) 95.4% white, 2% African Americans, 2.7% Latino, 0.03% Asian, I asked myself some simple arithmetic questions. Why then, were reports on gang violence mostly about Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings when the demographics of those racial groups summed up to less than 5% of the total local population? Considering the volume of articles written about gang activity, and the specific gangs repetitiously mentioned, this would have to suggest that each and every member of these demographics in my area, and others, would have to be gang members or affiliates. Was I too unknowingly a gang member? This is sarcasm of course.

Could there be any other types of gangs of other races out there contributing to this hellish downfall of communities and larger Western Society itself? Was there some violent genetic flaw that I personally had escaped, being of Latino origin? Suddenly, I remembered gangs by the names of Pagans, Aryan Brotherhood, Hell’s Angels, Skin Heads, Bikers, HAMC, Wheels of Soul, etc. But, where were these gangs in the popular narrative, even in areas where their culture was the dominant one? Did these gangs not commit violent crimes, rely on symbolism, reflect their political views through certain musical genre, engage in the proliferation of drugs, and revel in the abuse and defilement of women? Then I remembered Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who were responsible for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City where over 168 lives were taken and over 680 injured. They were reported to have been affiliated with mainly anti-government militia groups, but supremacist ones as well. Yes, other kinds of gangs do exist and are just as violent.

However, after scanning article after article I noticed that whenever a journal referred to mainstream white gangs the language subtly shifted. They were no longer “gangs” or “gang members” per say, but transformed into “groups,” “radical groups,” “militia groups,” and “anti-government organizations.” These terms now acknowledged purpose, even political acuity, and relevance. A certain subtle respect was now bestowed on these labels: “anti-government groups,” and “militias.” They were not conveyed as gun toting thugs, criminals, murderers, or drug dealers, but rather as “stockpiled militias,” and arms bearing “anti-government groups.” I was forced to take a step back and contemplate whether or not the Crips, the Bloods, Netas, and Latin Kings, etc. had any kinds of similarities with their white gang counterparts. For example, did they share contempt for government, for mainstream society, for our economic system, and/or for our justice system? And if so, where and through what vehicle of communication were they making these appeals? Therefore, I created a list of six questions to identify any similarities between “street gangs” and “antigovernment militias:”

1. Where were they using symbolism to identify their position in opposition to the mainstream?

2. Where were they applying uniformity to identify themselves uniquely?

3. Did both kinds of groups/gangs seek peer relevance and acceptance?

4. Did they make continuous public references swearing to not remain being economically challenged?

5. Were both joining their groups as a statement of defiance of authority?

6. Where they both stockpiling guns, and committing crimes?

The answer to ALL of the above questions is emphatically, “Yes!” But, language dictated not only the implication of intelligence surrounding certain gangs, but also dictated the implication of whether or not being armed was perhaps even justified for certain gangs. Why the stark difference in representations? What badge of honor had white gangs received in terms of recognition yet low profile convenience that minority gangs did not?

A particular article about the Oklahoma City bombers, written by the Washington Post caught my eye in that it was making an actual connection between the violence the bombers caused, their evolving mental state, and their progression of affiliation with groups. However, in most of the articles scanned about minority gangs there were seldom any connections made at all between their violence, individual and group evolving mental states, and their progression of affiliation. They were just criminals, simply put.

“A kid from the heart of America who feels the society has let him down can be very dangerous if he has underlying emotional quirks,” said Charles Bahn, a forensic psychologist from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies the psyche of terrorists. “In urban America, gangs fill this void. In the Midwest, it’s cults, the macho gun world, militias, belonging to fringe groups.”

I began to really get into this whole “gang thing” and exploring their typical and similar characteristics:

• Most gang crimes are committed within their own racially/class based and dominated neighborhoods

• The largest victim groups related to gang violence were in fact Hispanics and Blacks

• Most gang members were minors between the ages of 12 and 19

• Most gang members targeted other gang members in most crimes

• The proliferation of drugs and drug use is proportionately equal in terms of rural, suburban, and urban areas.

These statistics painted a very different picture than what was typically being represented to the public at large. Purely minority gangs seem to dominate all conversations about ruthlessness and lawlessness, and, their membership were the only ones being represented as spreading exponentially and to be feared. White gangs go conveniently unnoticed and remain under the radar. However, statistics proves otherwise because in fact urban minority gang violence and membership has been slowly decreasing nationwide, yet white militia and anti-government group violence and membership is increasing exponentially according to a 2010 report by Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now news hour.

The disservice to us all in these shifting labels is that it seems many pluralities of citizens, from all walks of life, are experiencing alienation, resentment for authority and governance, compelled to heavily arm themselves for protection against outsiders, and making public statements about their presence and attitudes. The lopsidedness of fear tilted conveniently ever in the direction of minority gangs and street crime, leaves us ignorant and/or blind to the truths about our national disposition as citizens regarding all of the relevant issues surrounding gangs: poverty, effectively engaging youth, public education, public safety, our criminal justice system, policing policies, and so on. We cannot enter into a constructive conversation about these issues until we deal fairly with the language and identification of what and who is in fact criminal, the non-bias and non-discriminant truth about drug and gun proliferation, and the public’s ability to accurately differentiate between headlines and actual trends in violence. I assure you that social deviance, and radical forms of social resentment are human problems, not racial or spatial ones.

Sources:

Dale Russakoff and Serge F. Kovaleski; “An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage,” Washington Post, p. A01, Sunday, July 2, 1995.

Herrell, Erica, Violence By Gang Members, 1993 – 2005; Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, June 2005.

Amy Goodman, “White Power USA: The Rise of Right-Wing Militias in America,” Democracy Now, 2010.