The History of Street Gangs

The History and Development of Street Gangs in the United States

The history and development of street gangs in the United States can be traced as far back as 1783. While these early gangs consisted of no more than three or four people, their criminal activity is still the norm of gangs today. They would rob banks, stages and even railroad’s. As a result, stage-coach owners were forced to hire gunmen to sit alongside of the driver to protect the coach’s cargo and passengers. This is where the phrase “riding shotgun” comes from. (Martin,2013)

While the development of gangs took place around the end of the American Revolution, street gangs did not become a serious problem until the early 19th century. This was primarily due to the increase of immigrants from Europe who came to America looking for better living conditions. For example the Forty Thieves gang was formed in New York City around 1820 and consisted of mainly Irish immigrants from the Lower East side. These gangs were more organized and more dangerous than their early counterparts. (Howard & Moore, 2010)

Gangs have influenced the criminal justice system in the United States and the importance of education surrounding the development of these gangs has been top priority. The FBI as well as local law enforcement have created special departments and organizations designed to fight and educate people on the development of gangs yet how and why people join gangs is still controversial. Humans by nature tend to gravitate toward associations that they feel will benefit their position in life. This is the socially accepted and universal reason why people join gangs. (Carp, Manning, Sidham, 2011)

The criminal justice system however has argued over the development and reason why people join gangs for over a century now. They cannot even agree to a workable definition of what a gang is. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service defines gangs as a group of three or more individuals that engage in criminal activities and who indentify themselves by the same name or sign. (In the Spotlight, 2012)

The Forty Thieves gang was the first real gang in New York City that fit this definition and is therefor considered one of the first street gangs in the United States. It was New York City’s first organized street gang with a disciplined leadership and membership that catered to politicians as well as local law enforcement. This was one of the first big gangs in New York City and they had the backing of government officials and even had members within the New York City Police Department. This is important because this is a fine line that separates gangs from organized crime. (Martin, 2013)

Organized crime may be defined as systematically unlawful activity for profit on a city-wide, interstate, and even international scale. A criminal organization depends in part on support from the society in which it exists. Therefore, it is frequently expedient for it to compromise some of society`s upright members especially people in the judiciary, police forces, and legislature through bribery, blackmail, and the cultivation of mutually dependent relationships with legitimate businesses. Thus a racket is integrated into lawful society, shielded by corrupted law officers and politicians and legal counsel. Its revenue comes from narcotics trafficking, extortion, gambling and prostitution, among others. (Martin,2013)

There is a difference between organized crime and gangs which The “gang” characterization is sometimes broadly extended beyond the “street” and/or “youth” designation to include terrorist gang, prison gang, or criminal gang as in organized crime, and in each of these instances, the word ‘gang’ implies a level of structure and organization for criminal conspiracy that is simply beyond the capacity of most street gangs. (Carp, Manning, Sidham, 2011)

To remain in business, organized crime groups such as drug cartels must have strong leadership, codes of loyalty, severe sanctions for failure to abide by these codes, and a level of entrepreneurial expertise that enables them to accumulate and invest proceeds from drug sales. In contrast, most street gangs are only loosely structured, with transient leadership and membership, easily transcended codes of loyalty, and informal rather than formal roles for the members. Very few youth gangs meet the essential criteria for classification as “organized crime.”  (Carp, Manning, Sidham, 2011)

The Black Gangster Disciples Nation exemplifies the evolution from a relatively disorganized criminal street gang to a formal criminal organizational structure. Other street gangs make large sums of money through drug distribution or other criminal enterprise. The Black Gangster Disciple Nation was formed on the South-side of Chicago in the late 1960s, by David Barksdale, leader of the Gonzan to Disciples, and Larry Hoover, leader of the Supreme Disciples. The two groups united to form the Black Gangster Disciple Nation. (Hoover,2012)

The BGD are presence throughout the United States. Chicago is the location of their leaders and they have a strong presence in most Midwest cities. The BDG is one of the country’s largest criminal organizations. In the mid-1990s a federal task force was formed to investigate the BGD involvement in several murders and drug sales. The government found the gang was making over $100,000,000.00 a year in illegal drug sales. Several high-ranking members were convicted and are serving life sentences. (Hoover,2012)

A gang mentality allows the individuals who are members to feel invincible, larger in importance and strengthened by the sheer volume of their number. The banding together of individuals who may alone be weak and ineffective becomes a collective force with a singular purpose, usually reprehensible, to exert their presence en masse. The mentality behind this is simple – in matters of violence or coercion, gang rule cannot be defeated by a lone person or unorganized group. (Martin, 2013)

The mafia or mob is a great example of a organized crime that had a great deal of influence across the United States. One historical event that still brings a sense of fear among the citizens of Chicago occurred February 14, 1929. Gang warfare ruled the streets of Chicago during the late 1920s, as chief gangster Al Capone sought to consolidate control by eliminating his rivals in the illegal trades of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. This rash of gang violence reached its bloody climax in a garage on the city’s North Side on February 14, 1929, when seven men associated with the Irish gangster George “Bugs” Moran, one of Capone’s longtime enemies, were shot to death by several men dressed as policemen. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it was known, was never officially linked to Capone, but he was generally considered to have been responsible for the murders. (Howard & Moore, 2010)

Even now after a 150 years of gang existence and organized crime in the United States there still is not an agreed upon definition of a gang. State and local jurisdictions tend to develop their own definitions. For example, a number of states use the following definition devised by the California legislature, often with minor modifications: “A Criminal Street Gang is any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal acts. (Howard & Moore, 2010)

One of the major differences between modern-day gangs and gangs of the past is their greater use of firearms. Modern-day street gangs recruit youths who possess firearms, and gang involvement promotes the use of them. In a Rochester, New York study, the rate of gun-carrying was about ten times higher for gang members than it was for non gang juvenile offenders. Gang members who owned and/or carried guns also committed about ten times more violent crimes than one would expect from their numbers in the sample population. In the NYGS, jurisdictions experiencing higher levels of gang violence—evidenced by reports of multiple gang-related homicides over several years—were significantly more likely than those experiencing no gang homicides to report that firearms were “used often” by gang members in assault crimes. (Howard & Moore, 2010)

The growth of prison gangs is another noted difference between the gangs of the past and the current era. Although gangs were first reported in state prisons in the 1950s, the growth of prison gangs is a fairly recent development—over the past couple of decades. Yet we have only “rudimentary knowledge of prison gangs as social groups operating inside prisons and of the interplay between street gangs and prison gangs. The most frequently identified prison gangs (which prison officials and others prefer to call “security threat groups”) in both prison and jail settings included the Crips, Bloods, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and Aryan Brotherhood. The Mexican Mafia, La Nuestra Familia, the Black Guerilla Family, and the Texas Syndicate have also been identified as dominant prison gangs. (Carp, R. A., Stidham, R., & Manning, K. L. 2011)

The number of cities and counties experiencing gang problems increased substantially between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s (Miller, 2001). Then, following a marked decline from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, a steady resurgence of gang problems has occurred in recent years. Findings from the NYGS show a 25 percent increase in the number of jurisdictions with gang problems from 2002 to 2007. The United States cannot afford to ignore the issue of gang-related violence and we must take a stand and fight against all gangs. President Lincoln once said that the United States would never fall to a foreign nation but would collapse from within. (Carp, R. A., Stidham, R., & Manning, K. L. 2011)


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