A History of Street Gangs
Exhibit by: Brandon Hauck
So What Exactly Is a Gang?
The basic definition of a gang is an organized group of criminals. But this could mean anything really. And depending on to whom or where you ask this question, you can end up with some very different answers. For instance, if you ask someone on the west coast to name a gang, chances are they will reference the Crips or the Bloods. Ask that same question in the midwest and you might get The Vice Lords or the Latin Kings as your answer. Each gang has a set of terms and symbols it uses to distinguish itself from other gangs and to identify allies and enemies. This can be seen through hand gestures, tattoos, clothing and graffiti. So secretive, even new slang is invented to throw off anyone who might be suspicious of their activities.
The Big Three
In terms of U.S. metropolitan areas and gang activity, the main cities that stick out the most are New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. One of the reasons is that the cities themselves are so populated, more people means more gang members, potentially. But there is more to it than the size of the city. Organized crime has an extensive history with these three places and it all began with Prohibition in the earlier part of the twentieth century. This failed attempt to curb the rampant alcohol abuse throughout the country only led to bootlegging and the bloody supply of the ever-increasing demand of distilled spirits. Chicago and New York quickly became home to organized crime during this period. After Prohibition was repealed, gangs decided to stick around and run lucrative black market activities up until current day. While this was all going on Los Angeles was in the midst of its own criminal problem as well, much of it stemming from Prohibition Era legislature.
The Formation of the Street Gangs
You can see how prohibition era organized crime inspired the street gangs of New York and Chicago, but what is interesting is how the street gangs were birthed in Los Angeles. In the 1960’s in South Los Angeles neighborhoods smaller “Sets”, or neighborhood cliques, were popular. But with the formation of the Crips gang, things began to be a little too one sided. The Crips began pressuring and murdering rival members of different sets, so as protection the sets aligned with the Piru Street Boys, essentially forming the Bloods. The essentials for the formation of the modern day street gangs was primarily due to prohibition era organized crime, and protection from rival gangs.
When thinking of LA street gangs, we tend to think primarily of the Bloods and Crips. But it is important not to forget the massive Latino gang presence in the eastern portion of the city. Some of the earliest Latino gangs formed in the 1920’s in East LA and are still active today. The gangs were formed based on the neighborhood and would grow in territory while battling with rival neighborhood gangs. As time would go on, the landscape would change and the gangs would adapt. From the Bloods and Crips in South LA, to the Latino gangs in East LA, the primary goals became how to increase wealth. The drug trade would begin to dominate the majority of the criminal activity and would ultimately lead to an increase in violence. The introduction of crack cocaine into the poorer urban communities saw an unprecedented rise in murder and organized crime. Now, L.A. is a slightly different scene. A lot of police crackdowns have been implemented over the last several decades which led to less criminal activity than was recorded throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The city has even gone as far as to evict entire housing complexes. Homes that were gang strongholds, such as the territory for the Crenshaw Mafia Gang, has since been bulldozed and in their place, Home Depots and Costcos.
Chicago is an interesting city when it comes to gang culture. A lot of the gangs formed in the 50’s and 60’s by neighborhoods, in a very similar way that they did in L.A. But the gangs began to see pressure from rivals and saw this as an opportunity to align and make more money while being protected. Thus The Folk Nation was formed in the 1970’s, by Larry Hoover, who was incarcerated at the time. Soon after, the People Nation was formed to counter this alliance. Now, you can’t really think of this like you would Bloods and Crips.
The way Chicago gangs operate are almost reminiscent of Mafia style business conduct. There are ranks, codes, oaths and scripture that must be learned. There used to be complement cards that were left on behalf of a gang. There were even party sweaters (this can be thought of almost like a biker gang members vest). What is also interesting is the symbology that is used within the graffiti. Each nation has it’s own symbology and customs. Today, the gangs operate primarily in drug trafficking. Chicago has become a major stop for illegal narcotics being trafficked in from Latin America, before being distributed nationwide. And with the increase in narcotics, an increase in violence has been seen as well, particularly gun violence among the youth.
The city is known for being a “melting pot” of citizens, and when it comes to gang culture this is not an exception. The city has a strong presence of midwest gangs and L.A. gangs making the scenery interesting. The feuds and the alliances seen here are seldom seen anywhere else. But when looking at the history of the city, you can see how this played out the way it did. New York in the 60’s and 70’s still had a strong Mafia family presence, and these families ran the city’s black market in particular the illegal drug trade. Things began to change in the 80’s though.
New York was seen as a land of opportunity and various gangs from throughout the country, for example the Latin Kings in Chicago and the Black P Stone Bloods from L.A. saw New York as a place to set up business and establish trade. This eventually led to recruiting and the gangs began to infiltrate the boroughs. The Bloods in particular were terrifying the city in the 90’s with strings of random attacks on subway trains. As a method of initiation, a prospect had to give somebody a “buck fifty” or one hundred fifty stitches. This was carried out by slashing someone with a boxcutter.
The Concerns Today
Gang has permeated into pop culture through certain outlets, specifically through music. Over the last couple decades, more and more people are becoming familiar with gangs and are even becoming tolerable of it in a sense. Street violence ebbs and flows and it is hard to say if this overlap has had an effect on gang culture in general. Some might argue that it has made them more popular and thus recruitment has gone up. Others might contest that while the spotlight grows brighter, law enforcement only grow more aware of the activities that are going on in the daily life of a gang member. One thing is for certain though, that as long as there remains a market for criminal activity, there will be people there to supply goods and services for that demand.