See also: Youth Gang
Presentation Highlights from Oliver Street Grade School, Newark, NJ
This article is from the National Gang Center Bulletin
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Inner city Gang Graffiti - photo: Jason Taellious from Olympia, USA
The first active gangs in Western civilization were reported by Pike (1873, pp. 276-277), a widely respected chronicler of British crime. He documented the existence of gangs of highway robbers in England during the 17th century, and he speculates that similar gangs might well have existed in our mother country much earlier, perhaps as early as the 14th or even the 12th century. But it does not appear that these gangs had the features of modern-day, serious street gangs.1 More structured gangs did not appear until the early 1600s, when London was "terrorized by a series of organized gangs calling themselves the Mims, Hectors, Bugles, Dead Boys - who found amusement in breaking windows, [and] demolishing taverns, [and they] also fought pitched battles among themselves dressed with colored ribbons to distinguish the different factions" (Pearson, 1983, p. 188).
The history of street gangs in the United States begins with their emergence on the East Coast around 1783, as the American Revolution ended (Sante, 1991). But there is considerable justification for questioning the seriousness of these early gangs. The best available evidence suggests that the more serious street gangs likely did not emerge until the early part of the nineteenth century (Sante, 1991).
Important differences in the history of gang emergence are apparent in the four major U.S. gang regions. In both New York and Chicago, the earliest gangs arose in concert with external migration of European origins-the traditional classic ethnics of the 1783-1860 period (particularly German, French, British, Scandinavian). Other groups of white ethnics soon arrived during the 1880-1920 period-mainly Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles. The latter nationalities almost exclusively populated the early serious street gangs of New York and Chicago. By the 1960s and 1970s, the predominance of European ethnic groups had dissipated, and the composition of gangs had changed dramatically in both of these cities, with a far greater proportion of black and Latino members (Miller, 1982/1992). The Western gang history contrasts sharply with that in the Northeast and Midwest. Western gangs never had a white ethnic history. Instead, for at least half a century, virtually all of the gangs were of Mexican descent.
Gangs in New York City and Chicago
In both New York City and Chicago, street gangs originated among adult-dominated groups engaged in criminal activity-largely volunteer firemen, laborers and bar room brawlers. Mobsters and shady political operators, mixed with adult criminal groups, controlled the streets in both cities. Younger street gangs likely emerged from their influences and flourished in their shadows. Gangs also grew in these cities amidst physical and social disorder; within the cracks of governmental and social agencies.
Gangs in the American West
In contrast, street gangs in the Western region appear to have emerged from aggressive groups of young Mexican men, nascent gangs called the Palomilla, that were attached to barrios in Mexico and also in Los Angeles. In this region, a youth subculture, dubbed cholo, provided the street lifestyle that supported gang formation. Abject poverty appears to have been less important than cultural pride that arose as a result of extreme social and cultural isolation, that is, "marginalization." This national pride has long been a characteristic feature of the Latino gangs in the United States.
Each of the four regions also saw a pronounced second wave of black gang development as a result of internal migration. However, it appears that the impact of this population shift from South to North and West on gang emergence differs among the four regions. Notably, black gangs that developed in conjunction with this migration do not appear to have gained the foothold in New York City that they gained in the Midwest and West. Factors that might account for this difference are not readily apparent.
Another important cross-region distinction is that gangs of Mexican descent in the Western region were not only populated by waves of newly arriving immigrants, but also by families with gang-ready youths. In the first phase of cultural diffusion (Vigil, 2008), when they arrived in the United States, street gangs were already present in the barrios into which they moved. In the second phase, gang culture in Mexico was enriched by reverse migration. Children often came to the United States, stayed for a period, and returned home, having learned a gang culture. In turn, they introduced American gang lifestyle to younger youths in Mexico and Central America, so that in the third phase, the next generation of immigrants arrived in the United States fully prepared for active gang involvement. To this day, gang culture in the Western region is continually reinforced with wave after wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America (Vigil, 2008).
A common denominator fueling gang growth in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles is the policy of concentrating poverty in the high-rise public housing units. But this urban planning blunder victimized black immigrants far more than Latinos in Chicago and New York City-suggesting an important point-each city's gang dynamics differ in some respects; sweeping generalizations are ill-advised.
For example, gang emergence in the West was not stimulated by racial and ethnic clashes or by immigrant succession and replacement as in the Northeast and Midwest. A different resolve-cultural traditions and barrio identification-served to fuel gang growth and maintain its presence in the West. This unique characteristic of Latino gangs in the Western and Southwestern regions would give rise to purported "transnational" gangs. Initial cultural connections were transmitted along a mere migration trail that originated in Mexico and continued along a route through El Paso and Albuquerque, and onward to Los Angeles. Later, U.S. deportation policies would inadvertently turn this trail into a well-travelled road.
While we recognize that these gang members are transnational in that members are deported to El Salvador, and many return to the United States and even smuggle goods over the border, they are the strongest, most influential, and most dangerous in Central American countries, not in the United States. In Central America, these gangs threaten to destabilize neighborhoods, and in Mexico, some gangs have links to narcotics-trafficking cartels that go head-to-head with the military. At the present time, political and governmental conditions in these countries are more conducive to gang development and expansion than in the United States.
Recent Developments in U.S. Gangs
Yet recent developments have extended and expanded the scope and dangerousness of three U.S. street gangs-MS-13, 18th Street, and the Mexican Mafia-in particular. First, the funneling of major drug-trafficking routes from air transport and sea-crossing to the overland route via Central America and Mexico has opened more lucrative drug-trafficking opportunities to U.S. gangs along the border and within the Southwestern and Western regions. Second, expanded and intensified interactions with Mexico and Central American countries over the past 20 years or so have contributed to the growth of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.
The extent of collusion among U.S. gangs, DTOs, and other criminal organizations along the U.S.-Mexico border is not clear. Nevertheless, this intermingling is not a welcomed development for MS-13 and 18th Street that already are considered to be among the most dangerous in this country. The involvement of the Mexican Mafia and other prison gangs in the Western-Southwestern region is also an unwelcomed development of great concern, along with the peripheral involvement of local U.S. gangs along the U.S.-Mexico border. These situations represent formidable challenges to U.S. public safety in the Western and Southwestern regions, gang policies, and programs.
References and Resources for Youth Gangs
This article is from the National Gang Center Bulletin
Vol. 4, (May 2010). Bureau of Justice Assistance; U.S. Department of Justice; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Highlights of the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey
, (March 2008).Arlen Egley, Jr., James C. Howell, and John P. Moore. OJJDP
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