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*Youth Gangs in African America and urban America from 1970 are briefly discussed on this dates Registry.
A gang is defined in the dictionary as a group of individuals who share a common identity and, in current usage, engage in illegal activities. Usually, the word "gang" refers to street gangs (a.k.a. youth gangs), groups who take over territory ("turf") in a particular city, sometimes simply for lack of something better to do. Gangs are often involved in "providing protection" (in fact, a thin cover for extortion), or in other criminal activity.
Some anthropologists believe the gang structure is one of the most ancient forms of human organization. Some current critics use "gang" to refer to small, informal, and disorganized "street gangs." In contrast, "syndicate" or "organized crime" are used to refer to larger, more powerful organizations, such as the Italian-American Mafia, which may control entire legitimate businesses as "fronts" for their illegal operations.
The word "gang" generally appears negatively, while members may adopt the phrase in identity, pride, or defiance. Gangs historically have been known to claim colors such as red or blue, a style that started in the late 18th century and early 19th century with the rivalry of the Roach Guards and the Dead Rabbits of New York's Five Points district. This was also evident in the West with Mexican bandits and roving marauders in what would later become the Southwest/Western United States.
In America, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, "gang colors" were also seen in the design of a gang jacket. Gangs often multiplied when a parent or family affiliated with a gang moved to another neighborhood. The member takes their culture and experience with them and recruits new members for their former gang. Some very well-known gangs are the Crips and the Bloods. Other large gangs include the Aryan Brotherhood, a mostly prison-based white power gang; the Nazi Low Riders (NLR), the Latin Kings; the Gangster Disciples of Chicago; the Los Angeles-based 18th Street gang, the Black P-Stone Nation; the Four Corners Hustlers, and the Jamaican Posses.
Since roughly the 1970s, street gangs have been strongly connected with illegal drug sales (especially crack cocaine). In the 1980s, the Central American Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the Miami-based International Posse or In/p, and the Asian Boyz (ABZ) surfaced. Once an urban issue, street gangs have now gained access to U.S. communities, large and small. Some experts say at least 21,500 gangs with more than 731,000 members are active nationwide. Girls also form their gangs and belong to spin-offs of the guys' gangs. Girl gangsters can be just as dangerous and just as organized. They also are initiated in the same manner as the boys; by being V'd in.
Established domestic gangs like the Bloods and the Crips remain powerful, and their challenge on the rest of society has worsened dramatically in recent years. Immigration, particularly from Latin America and Asia, has added violence to their culture. Gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and the Almighty Latin Kings Nation are examples. Bound by tight ethnic and racial ties, they often confound police investigations by assaulting or killing potential witnesses. Moving from illegal drugs to auto theft, extortion, property crimes, and home invasion, some East Coast gangs have begun trafficking in fraudulent identification papers that terrorists could use. Gangs are involved in illegal immigration trafficking too.
While experts agree gangs are more pervasive than ever, few agree on a solution. The proposed legislation would increase penalties for gang membership and gang crimes, but critics say it won't solve the problem. Here are some gang facts for one city and state: 12,000 Crips, 5,000 bloods, and 30,000 Latino gangsters in LA alone, and roughly 250 gang-related murders in LA every year. There are an estimated 1,500 Crips in California jails and another 1,000 bloods.
Zane Smith (51), a former Grip said: “Our children’s children are suffering from what we started; it really backfired on our culture; I’m ashamed of what it turned into.”
In 2005, Republicans pushed legislation through the House to make gang attacks federal crimes and put gang members in line for long federal prison sentences or even the death penalty. A bill approved 279-144 would expand the range of gang crimes punishable by death, establish minimum mandatory sentences, authorize the prosecution of 16 and 17-year-old gang members in federal court as adults, and extend the statute of limitations for all violent crimes from five to 15 years.
The legislation was due to recent high-profile gang crimes, including victims hacked by machetes in Virginia. Democrats said the bill puts too much emphasis on punishment and neglects prevention. While the bill authorizes $387.5 million over the next five years to fight street crimes, Democrats said the cost of accommodating new prison inmates alone would exceed $9 billion over the next decade. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat from Texas, said, “We must give our young people a path to success, not just a path to prison.”
Under the bill, federal prosecutors would share about $50 million a year to designate high-intensity interstate gang activity areas and create law enforcement teams to go after gangs. The bill defines criminal street gangs as groups of three or more people who commit two or more gang crimes, one of them violent.
Minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines would impose death or life imprisonment for any crime resulting in death; at least 30 years in prison for kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or maiming; and at least 20 years for an assault that resulted in serious bodily injury. Convictions for other gang crimes, defined as violent crimes and other felonies committed to further the activities of a street gang, would have a minimum prison term of at least ten years. Gang members could avoid the toughest sentences if they cooperate fully with prosecutors.
Recently, fed up with deadly drive-by shootings, incessant drug dealing, and graffiti, cities nationwide are trying a different tactic to combat gangs: They're suing them.
Fort Worth and San Francisco are among the latest to file lawsuits against gang members, asking courts for injunctions barring them from hanging out together on street corners, in cars, or anywhere else in certain areas.
Civil injunctions were first filed against gang members in the 1980s in the Los Angeles area, a breeding ground for gangs including some of the country's most notorious, such as the Crips and 18th Street.
The Los Angeles city attorney's suit in 1987 against the Playboy Gangster Crips covered the entire city but was scaled back after a judge deemed it too broad. Chicago tried to target gangs by enacting an anti-loitering ordinance in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1999, saying it gave police the authority to arrest without cause.
Since then, cities have used injunctions to target specific gangs or gang members, and so far that strategy has withstood court challenges. Los Angeles now has 33 permanent injunctions involving 50 gangs, and studies have shown they reduce crime, said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office.
Juvenile Justice Bulletin
Gang Crisis: Do Police and Politicians Have a Solution? William Triplett,
CQ Researcher, Vol. 14, no. 18,
May 14, 2004.