Gangs are considered the sources of violence and danger being treated as the cause of instability and threat to the state. The history of American gangs have a lot of peculiarities distinguishing street gangs of the US from the rest of the world due to uncommon social, ethnical and race background. Howell (2012) being a prominent expert in youth and traditional gangs in America examines the gang phenomena in several major US regions: West, South, Northeast and Midwest. In order to understand the specificity of gangs' activity we need to focus on cultural and migration peculiarities of the gangs.
Population migration theory explains the emergence of national gang groups of first immigrants coming from England, Germany and Scandinavian territories to the US Northeast and Midwest. Since the end of the 19th century, several migration waves flooded America bringing around 22 million migrants, which formed several gang groups in American society: Italians, Austrians/Germans and Poles. First major gang structures consisted mainly of poorly skilled and low-wage workers who rapidly occupied Midwestern and Northeastern cities contributing to slums emergence and severe crime problems. These “unsocial conditions” created a new phenomenon of street gangs corrupting different regions of America.
History of Gangs in the United States
A large criminal group, which became famous in the West region, emerged from Mexican culture. Migrants from Mexico contributed to the criminal conditions in the US making the places of El Paso, Los Angeles and Albuquerque the cradle of the new criminal subculture called “pachuco” (Howell, 2012). West gangs in the US were composed mainly of Mexican natives whose inflow to the country started as early as 16th century when southwest American territories belonged to north of Mexico and included Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and other states. Howell (2012) points out that Mexicans made up the largest immigration wave in the history of US. First influential Mexican gangs on the West of the country were dated back to 1890th and contained young Mexican males. The history of Mexican criminal activity can be traced to the war between Mexico and the United States. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the US have extended their jurisdiction over on the new territories in 1848. People living there acquired the status of the US citizens, however, Mexican population felt unwanted in the US and not welcomed in Mexico anymore. The unfriendly environment provoked emergence of rural colonies/barrios where Mexican traditions were maintained. That process brought to gradual social and cultural “marginalization” and quite rapid criminal groups growth. New immigrant streams from Mexico brought emergence of new barrios or ganglike communities, which tried to bond to certain existing groups or organized new ones. Such rural barrios were typical for Los Angeles and some other Western cities.
Gang structures emerging on the South seemed to have different conditions compared to Northeast, West and Midwest. Southern region gangs emerged much later and occupied mainly San Antonio as a central city; however, this place seemed to be too remote to expand its influence over the region’s borders almost until 1970s. Later gang activity affected Dallas (known mainly for prison gangs), New Orleans, Durham and Miami. Texas famous Tango Blast gang established in 1990th has grown into the third largest American prison gang specializing on protecting the gang members from other jail inhabitants (Howell, 2012). This southern gang expanded its influence on almost 17 counties and has around 3000 documented members. Additionally other much smaller gangs containing no more than 300 members operated on the South such as Southwest Cholos, Treetop Piru, Bloods and others. Occasionally they had fights between the groups for spheres of influence.
Northeastern gangs were mainly attracted by the port opportunities on the Ellis Island in the New York City. This port served as the gate to immigrants’ inflow from Europe who settled in East Harlem. First settlers came from Holland, Italy and Ireland in the 17th century. Numerous Puerto Rican immigrants joined “the club” already after the World War II. Mixture of cultures and traditions gave rise to several phases of street gangs’ emergence in Northeast of America. Initial phase took place after the American Revolution when the street gangs have distributed their influence on the territory on the New York City; however, the serious ganglike activity was closely connected with the second phase when immigration streams became quite intensive after 1820th. The third phase of street gangs’ emergence taking place in 1930-1940 was characterized by the Black and Latino immigrants’ inflow. Howell (2012) underlines that more than half of all gangs in the New York City were either Black or Puerto Rican. There are several factors contributing to street gangs distribution, among them are poor social conditions in slum districts, opening of numerous greengrocery shops and corruption of local political circles involved into criminal activities of the street gangs. It was commonplace that some politicians and businessmen bought small groceries where saloons and dance places were organized in the back yard. These areas were used as meeting places. Gang leaders received substantial profits for loyalty to certain politicians and took care of protecting them helping to get rid of political opponents. Therefore, blackjacking, scaring and even killing of political and financial rivals was another commonplace occupation of different gang structures. According to Howell (2012), the most serious ganging activity evolved together with greengrocery shops emergence. However, these shops had nothing to do with selling vegetables. Experts assume that groceries served as the cover up for selling alcohol for lower prices than was approved for sale by the state. Besides, gang groups controlled small entrepreneurs and local labor market employing low-skilled and professional laborers in carpeting, docking, shipbuilders and other spheres. Gang structures in the New York City could offer a broad variety of illegal services: murder for money, alcohol, sex and gun trafficking. Street gangs were uniting by type of “employment”. A well-known in 1830th Forty Thieves criminal group consisted preferably from local thieves, thugs and other criminal elements involved in theft and robbery formed behind the front of the “Rosanna Peers’s greengrocery” (Howell, 2012). The Kerryonians formed the second largest gang structure on the Northeastern region of America. This gang got its name after one of the Ireland's counties. Other ganglike groups include Shirt Tails, Roach Guards and Dead Rabbits containing around 1000 members each (Howell, 2012). Conflicts between the gang groups were a commonplace thing and even served as a movie plot for a series of Hollywood blockbusters.
While Northeastern ganglike groups were composed mainly of numerous immigrant streams Midwest Chicago, gangsters emerged from industrial districts closer to the end of the 19th century. Being an industrial hub, Midwest region attracted crowds of labor force from East and South of Europe becoming a fertile ground for emergence of numerous powerful gang clans. The hard-core of these gang groups was composed from Italian or Polish natives. Other minor groups consisted of Irish, German and Lithuanian immigrants. During rapid growth stage of 1890th Chicago gangster structures unfolded mainly in the White community and grouped together by ethnic principle. For instance Irish youth gangs (The Dukies), being an influential group in 1890 practiced robbery, theft and bootlegging. Though there were no friendly relations between the white gangs and occasional skirmishes happened every now and then, they all united when fighting with the Black gang groups. The intensive inflow of the black population to the Midwest took place after the Civil War in America. The Black population tried to escape horrors of slavery on the South of the country. The powerful black gangs appeared much later than the white ones (approximately in 1920th) and never had the same influence on the territory as the white criminal communities. A peculiar trait of the Midwest gangs, especially those connected with Chicago area were closely connected with politics and corrupted politicians. Howell (2012) introduced the “patronage” concept to outline the type of criminal activity in which the street gangs were involved helping corrupt officials. The most notorious gangster of those times Al Capone united around 25 000 members into criminal network earning Chicago City the name of the “gangland”. However, tough concentration of low-skilled labor force from different countries and continents provoked poverty, social instability and as a result intensive criminal activity, which gave birth to emergence of numerous gang groups.
Realities of Youth Gangs
A special interest of the gang experts is paid to the youth gangs as an outstanding phenomenon taken under states’ and government control in the US since 1980th. However, despite special programs and measures undertaken by officials youth gangs issue remains a subject of discussion and debates. The youth gang concept is vaguely defined and is thrown by the cloak of myths. Community response to this problem should be based on clear differentiation between myths and reality. Howell (2012) underlines the necessity to elaborate efficient measures against youth gangs based on sound recommendations concerning juvenile court and special social programs.
Myths concerning youth street gangs are manifold and include numerous implications broadcasted by the media sources. For instance, there are the formal organization myths (the big gang theory describing youth gangs as a huge formal and highly organized group); connection gangs myth (small gang groups are started up due to protection of the big gangs); the gang-migration myth (youth gangs move from one place to another establishing new groups) and other myths raving in the society. Reality is quite different while numerous researches show that only few youth gang groups have evolved into organized structures or established satellite criminal groups by migrating to other regions. Howell (2012) marks that it seems quite problematic to estimate the scale of youth gang activity due to myths and prejudices existing in the society and weak community response to this problem. If society believes that all gangsters are black males or that the existing gangsters are migrants from other regions, all attempts to solve the youth gang problem will be inefficient. In order to find a workable solution, experts should be able to distinguish youth criminal groups from the other organized criminal structures: drug dealers, prison gangs, etc. Howell (2012) specially underlines the fact that majority of myths are created by the youth gangs themselves to threaten the society; therefore government should elaborate a balanced strategic precrime approach able to suppress criminal activity.
The described major US gang regions: West, South, Northeast and Midwest, had a quite different history, time and racial backgrounds of emergence. For instance, powerful gangs in the New York City appeared in the beginning of the 19th century while serious gangs in the Midwest emerged almost 50 years later. The gangs on the West became influential almost a century later than on the Northeast. Southern gangs became a problem on 1970th. Racial and nationality issue also played an important role. First gangs in America (1780-1860) grouped on ethnical basis and had European roots (German, Polish, Italian, French, Irish, etc). While first generation of white gangsters had a weaker tendency for criminalization, second-generation young men showed an active tendency for ganglike activity. Latino and Black population got involved into street gangs much later than the white community and gained power only after 1970th mainly on the West. It determined a peculiar West gang history in America. There were no White communities in that region and almost all gang groups were of the Black and Mexican origin. New gang groups containing Asian element (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc) appeared in the mid 1990 due to active immigrant regulation policies stimulating immigrants’ inflow. Gang culture and traditions in America are quite diverse and unusual comparing to other countries due to peculiar historical background and immigration phenomenon, which formed serious prerequisites for a broad spectrum of street gang communities. Besides, there is a high necessity to differentiate youth gang groups from other criminal groups existing in the mentioned regions. Youth street gangs demand a separate approach elaborated by the state in the form of special precrime programs and social measures wisely implemented into the youth social medium.
Howell, J. C. (2012). Gangs in America's Community. Sage Publications.