In the wake of the Littleton, Colorado shootings, dialogue about gangs has become more widespread and intense. The Columbine massacre jolted America to consciousness from a slumber of supposed innocence Citizens of suburbia no longer need to watch the nightly news to hear about "those people" in poor, inner city areas killing and being killed as a result of gang violence. From the quiet, middle class neighborhood to the unstable, impoverished ghetto, entire communities are dealing with the reality of gang violence's growing universality. Indeed, gang presence schools have increased almost twofold in every type of community (*Sniffen 1998). Between 1989 and 1995, "students reporting street gangs rose to 40.7 percent from 24.8 percent in central cities, to 26.3 percent from 14.0 percent in suburbs, and to 19.9 percent from 7.8 percent in non-metropolitan areas" (Sniffen 1998).
Scores of questions attempting to paint physical and psychological portraits of gang members and their activities have arisen from this newfound consciousness about and increasing interaction with gangs. Though such profiles can serve as a helpful guide for understanding gang phenomena, their inherently limiting nature can render such portrayals counterproductive if one attempts to use them for anything more conclusive than a guide. This paper examines gangs in East Palo Alto in the light of current ideology and research on certain aspects of gang membership and activities. Through interviews with nine East Palo Alto teens, three of whom are gang members; I compare and contrast current theory and the teens' actual experience concerning why and how kids join gangs and how gang members relinquish their membership. I conclude by reevaluating the definition and exclusivity of the word gang
Why Kids Join Gangs
In his EDCE lecture on May 19, Father Boyle said that many children who join gangs do so because they are troubled and hopeless. Buffeted by problems on every side, especially domestic problems, Boyle and Sprott assert that unhappy families and destitute living situations are causal to joining a gang. Decker says that kids "turn to gangs when they need food, a place to sleep, camaraderie or protection", things that one usually expects to receive from parents and other family members (*Decker 1999). In addition, gangs appeal to kids because of the money, power, and built in social structure that they provide (*Sprott 1996).
Whereas Boyle and other adults involved in gang dialogue believe that kids join gangs largely because they are searching for love and support, the teens from East Palo Alto that I interviewed said that such is not always the case. When asked why kids join gangs, they acknowledged that many plays and other forms of media suggest that kids join for unity or for love. The teens asserted, however, that kids join gangs because their violent character is appealing, and because they were reared in the gang culture.
Sonja, a sixteen-year-old who has many friends who are gang members, notes that many of the kids that join gangs do so because they think the violence they perpetrate is "cool". Violent kids want to fight, and gang membership gives them ample opportunity to do so. The kids' propensity to violence is not wholly their own doing though. Sonja asserts that many kids behave violently because they were reared in a violent home environment. Children who were reared in a home where their father beat them, their mother, or their brothers and sisters are accustomed to using violence as a means of communication or solving problems. Their domestic experience with violence then becomes a public experience, and is expressed through their violent involvement with gangs.
Sonja, Esperanza, and Caroline note that kids also join gangs because they have been reared in the gang culture. As an example of this, they told a story of one of their friends named Monica whose brother was deeply involved in a gang. Monica's bother prohibited her from wearing colors and clothes that the/other gangs would wear; and although Monica originally did not want to be involved with one, "the next thing she knew, she was in a gang". Thus, family members and the environment in which one is reared can strongly influence one's decision to join a gang.
The teens did not, however, rule out the possibility that some kids do indeed join gangs for support. Esperanza asserted that her cousin joined a gang for love and support because he was not receiving any from his parents. She notes that they were always drunk, and infers that consequentially, he joined a gang to find friends with whom he could "kick it". Even though kids might join gangs for love, Sonja claims that "after awhile, you really realize that they (the gang members) don't care (about you). If you get killed, they don't care...
Whereas searching for love, violent appeal, and familiarity with gang culture have been explored by authorities and teens as motivations for entering gangs, teen gang members from East Palo Alto had more materialistic motivations for joining. They said that they and others in East Palo Alto do not join gangs because of family problems. Rather, they joined to "sell and get loot" and to have "backup".
"Selling" refers to drug trafficking, and is a prevalent occupation among East Palo Alto gang members. Gangs sell drugs such as "al yola" (coke), "D" (crack), heroine, and " weed" (marijuana). Many gangs in East Palo Alto limit themselves to selling particular drugs. Members of "the 'Ville" sell weed, whereas "Cooley" sells heroine, and "Sac" sells crack. One major "'scrilla making" (money making) facet of selling is "breaking phines". A "phine" is a crack or heroine addict. "Breaking a phine" involves selling drugs to an addict at ridiculously overpriced cost. Selling drugs to casual users and breaking phines enables gang members to make a large amount of untaxed money quickly. "Getting loot" (making money) was a major motivation that Enrique, and Jose, two of my three gang member informants, discussed in their decision to join a gang.
Additionally, Enrique and Jose said that they joined a gang for "backup", so that they have a network of people who will fight with them if they are involved in a physical dispute. Having backup is especially important because of the controversial practices, such as drug dealing, in which gang members are involved. Enrique noted that there is a great deal of competition within the East Palo Alto drug trafficking community over who will sell which drugs. Having adequate backup dissuades other drug dealers from stealing one's clientele, and ensures retribution if the competing dealers do steal their customers. Though having backup ensures that one has people to fight for them in case the need arises, it is meant to function more as a deterrent than as an actual brute force squad that has to be fighting constantly.
How Kids Join Gangs
Father Boyle and the non-gang associated teens both agreed that to join a gang, the prospective member must be "jumped in". Jumping someone in involves the current gang members beating the prospective gang member for a certain allotted period of time (Sonja approximated 20-30 seconds) while he defends himself to the best of his ability. Jumping someone in serves multiple purposes. Like hazing in Greek organizations, jumping someone in breaks the prospective member's spirit so that it can be rebuilt with the gang's tenets as the foundation for his beliefs. Additionally, jumping someone in ensures that the individual will fight to defend his or her gang. Persons who fight dispassionately when defending themselves cannot be trusted to rally for a fellow gang member. Members who are afraid or unwilling to fight are a threat to the gang's actual back-up capabilities, because they inflate the number of persons who are willing to vehemently defend the gang. Finally, the pain involved in jumping someone serves as a natural selector for persons who are whimsical about entering the gang. The sacrifice of pain and dignity that jumping in entails ensures that the prospective gang member has seriously considered the benefits and ramifications of being a member of the gang and is making an informed decision about joining.
The East Palo Alto gang members refuted the idea of jumping someone in, though. "Why are you going to beat up your friend?" Enrique asked in response to my question concerning jumping people into gangs. Instead of being jumped in, Enrique and Jose joined their gangs by first "chilling" and then "claiming". Chilling involves hanging out with the gang members, and claiming is self-identification as a member of the gang. When asked whether people were jumped into gangs to gain entrance, Enrique explained "No, that's some L.A. shit".
Similarly, Enrique said that jumping someone out of a gang is yet another Los Angeles phenomenon. Father Boyle and Esperanza stated that leaving a gang entails being jumped out, and Boyle noted that the jumping out procedures are more arbitrary. Instead of two or three people beating the prospective member up for 20-30 seconds, a large number of members beat the member up until an authority figure arrives to breakup the fight. If the authority figure
arrives too early and the beating has not been deemed adequate, the person will have to be jumped out again. Forte, the pastor of a Christian congregation especially for gang members, also notes that leaving a gang is an extremely difficult and dangerous process. Because "gang leaders insist that joining a gang is a lifelong commitment, if gang members try to leave, the are often severely beaten or killed because of fear they might become snitches to the police" (Decker 1999). Enrique and Jose's experience with leaving a gang, as heretofore noted, is quite different. They both said that if one no longer wants to be in a gang, they need only to "stop chilling".
What, Then, Actually Is a Gang?
In comparing dominant gang ideology purported by the media and authorities like Father Boyle, teens from East Palo Alto, and gang related youth from East Palo Alto, there seem to be considerable disparities in responses to the questions of why and how kids join gangs and how they leave gangs. A measure of this difference is likely due to predictable factors. Father Boyle, a priest who has lived and served in the gang ridden community of which he speaks, probably could evoke the most intimate responses from kids concerning the actual reason why they join gangs. The teens who were not gang related were all females and the gang members were males. Therefore, their testimonials about different gang experiences and motivations for entering could have a strong gender bias. In spite of these factors, The varied responses to the relatively straightforward questions asked should not be entirely attributed to experimental error.
After analyzing the different gang ideologies, I concluded that the discrepancies were not a product of incongruous experiences. I realized that I was attempting to define the word "gang" by the ideologies and practices presented. Such backwards methodology would be equivalent to trying to define what a store is with descriptions of Victoria's Secret, Walgreen's, and Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store. Although all are stores, their clientele, merchandise, and purpose are quite varied.
The words "gang" and "store" are similarly inclusive. All of the East Palo Alto kids clearly demarcate the difference between East Palo Alto gangs and Los Angeles gangs. Sonja noted that people in East Palo Alto gangs are "a bunch of wannabes". Although people think that East Palo Alto gangs are "all big and bad", Sonja ridiculed them because they "talk to the people they are supposed to be all up against". Indeed, Enrique and Jose, two of the gang members who talked to me at the same time, are fast friends, but are from opposing gangs.
In addition, the teens often made distinctions between the Northern California gangs and the Southern California that implied that the Southern California gangs were much more violent and "hard core" than the Northern California gangs. They refuted practices such as jumping people in and out of gangs as "L.A. shit", suggesting that such activities were needlessly violence and untrue to one's friends, who are often the prospective members.
Whereas East Palo Alto gangs are relatively lax, some Miami area gangs are extremely dogmatic and similar to religious cults (Decker 1999). Forte says that many of the larger gangs "write their own Bibles and have beliefs about how the world was created" (Decker 1999). Some gang members, like those in Folk Nation, even pray to their own leaders, believing that they have supernatural powers (Decker 1999).
These disparities between gangs confirm that the term "gang" is deceptively simplistic. Probably more than the practices or motivations of a group, the word "gang" alludes to one of the many ways that all adolescents, violent or non-violent, begin to group themselves with those of in their peer group around ages 10-14. Therefore, we could call a gang well-defined adolescent grouping infused with variable measures of violence and exclusion. From Littleton to Los Angeles to Miami to East Palo Alto, the dynamics of such a group will vary considerably. Nevertheless, by having a foundational definition from which to work, we can begin to understand gang phenomenon, with the hope of someday successfully combating it.
Decker, Twila. "Drawing Gangs to God". St. Petersburg Times. April 25, 1999.
Sniffen, Michael J. "More Students Report Gangs, Violence in School". The Buffalo News.April 13, 1998.
Sprott, Gary "Teens Take Steps to Bust Gangs". The Tampa Tribune. January 17, 1996.
Special Thanks to the nine teens that I interviewed. Names have been changed to ensure anonimity.
*These articles were taken from the Lexis-Nexis source "Academic Universe", which does not provide page numbers.