Knowing that gangs are fluid - moving not only from one community to
another, but moving within communities - is one of the perspectives that
formed a backdrop against which this book was written and will be discussed
later in greater detail.
The relationship between
violence in the media and
violence in society
By "media" I refer to
mass media - the most powerful and visual being movies, television, music, and the
Internet. Youth around the world are exposed to the mass media and its
I've been teaching a course on
crime and the media since 1987. According to the literature,
there is no conclusive proof that violence in the media causes violence in society.
Rather, there are two distinctly different positions taken by those who
conduct research on this relationship. One position suggests violence in the media has
a cathartic effect on its audience while the other position suggests it has a stimulating
The cathartic effect is a purging of violent feelings. By watching
violence in the media, in other words, observers vent their own feelings of rage or
anger. The stimulating effect is just the
opposite. It suggests that observing violence in the media leads
viewers to act out and behave violently. Although not thoroughly
"copy cat" phenomenon
(seeing a crime committed and copying it) may be one example of the stimulating effect.
What impact does gang-related content found in movies, television, music,
and the Internet have on its audience of young people? Does it stimulate
them to emulate gang behavior or act as a release valve for their
frustrations and anger?
Movies and Television
In the 1970's the wearing of colors by gangs in the Los
Angeles area was commonplace, but it was not commonplace elsewhere in the
United States. That is, not until the movie Colors was
shown in movie theaters across the country. Within days, police departments began reporting they were seeing youths wearing colors in association with the gangs to which they belonged.
Since that time more gang-themed movies have
been produced. What impact do
these movies have on their young audiences? If Colors had such
a significant impact, is it possible that the newer movies are having a similar impact?
Steve Nawojczyk is a respected gang
researcher and community activist. I asked him to shed a little light for me
on the subject of
movies, kids, and gangs.
I once spoke to a group of inner-city kids,
they were a pretty hard-core bunch who had seen a lot of things in their
short lives. In my lecture, I ask a series of questions, one of
which is 'Do movies move kids to violence?'
As usual, the group sort of chattered among
themselves before a girl of about 15 stood up and said, "No, unless your
screws aren't in tight." She paused for a minute and then
continued,"'...and you know what? I know a lot of kids whose screws
aren't in tight."
She closed with the most profound part of her
"And you know what else? There is no one there
to help 'em keep their screws in tight." I think that says it all. (Email, 6 June, 2001, with permission.)
More conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between
the content of mass media and the occurrence of gangs or violence is needed,
but it may
be nearly impossible to find. In order to prove
gang-themed movies and violence in movies cause some viewers to form or
join gangs or participate in violence we would need a control group of people who
have never seen gang-themed or violent media presentations. I don't
think we're going to find them.
According to researchers associated with the Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,
The influence of the
media on the behavior of youth has long been a contentious issue. In
recent years, increasing consensus has developed in support of the
position that media images do have a significant influence, particularly
on more susceptible youth.
In the case of youth gangs, this
contention would not be difficult to sustain. The lifestyle and subculture
of gangs are sufficiently colorful and dramatic to provide a basis for
well-developed media images. For example, the Bloods/Crips feud ... caught the attention of media reporters in the early 1990's and
was widely publicized. Gang images have served for many decades as a
marketable media product—in movies, novels, news features, and
television drama. (Miller,
music includes such categories as gangsta rap and hip hop. The lyrics of some of these songs
tell a story of inner-city life filled with violence and guns. Guns are
portrayed as a means of reaching and maintaining manhood and suggest an overall
devaluing of human life and society's social institutions (common targets
are the family,
religion, schools, and the criminal justice system). The music is
available to children of many nations as broadcast on MTV, the Internet, on the radio,
and in stores.
In the 1950's, the musical drama West
Side Story portrayed gang life as seen through the eyes of adult
middle-class writers and presented themes of honor, romantic love, and
mild rebellion consistent with the values and perspectives of these
writers. In the 1990's, the substance of gang life was communicated to
national audiences through a new medium known as gangsta rap. For the
first time, this lifestyle was portrayed by youthful insiders, not adult
The character and values of gang life
described by the rappers differed radically from the images of West
Side Story. Language was rough and insistently obscene; women were
prostitutes ("bitches," "ho's," and "sluts")
to be used, beaten, and thrown away; and extreme violence and cruelty, the
gang lifestyle, and craziness or insanity were glorified. Among the
rappers' targets of hatred, scorn, and murder threats were police,
especially black police (referred to as "house slaves" and
"field hands"); other races and ethnic groups; society as a
whole; and members of rival gangs.
The target audience for gangsta rap
was adolescents at all social levels, with middle-class suburban youth
constituting a substantial proportion of the market for rap recordings.
The medium had its most direct appeal, however, for children and youth in
ghetto and barrio communities, for whom it identified and clarified a set
of values, sentiments, and attitudes about life conditions that were
familiar to them.
The obscene and bitterly
iconoclastic gangsta rappers assumed heroic stature for thousands of
potential gang members, replacing the drug dealer as a role model for
many. Gangsta rap strengthened the desire of these youth to become part of
a gang subculture that was portrayed by the rappers as a glamorous and
rewarding lifestyle. (Miller,
one and the same time, the Internet is friend and foe to those concerned
about the well being of children. As a friend, it provides
information and entertainment that is valuable and healthy. As a foe, it connects
youths to sites that invite participation in deviance. Some of the sites expose youth to ideas and
images that are not healthy. And they are accessible from
anywhere in the world, as long as there is a connection to the
While the international and national gang connections are real, the fact is that the only real hope for
reducing the attractiveness of gangs to our youth is to address the
phenomenon at the local level. This may require a two-pronged
approach. On the one hand there is a need to address the national
influences as identified above (e.g., remain alert and responsive to immigrating
gang members and limit exposure to inappropriate media messages). On the other, we need to focus on the basic human needs of
our local youth and be vigilant in serving those needs. In the Solutions
section of this book we will address those needs.
Drugs and Gangs
The social policy our nation has adopted towards drugs currently listed
as illegal may have created more problems than it has solved. Much like the
prohibition of alcohol in the early 1900's, our
policies on drugs have created an environment conducive to the formation and growth of
The most common explanation for the increase in youth
gang problems, and one particularly favored by law enforcement personnel,
centers on the growth of the drug trade. Historically, youth gangs have
engaged in a variety of illegal income-producing activities, including
extortion, robbery, and larceny. In the 1980's, according to this
argument, the increasing availability and widening market for illegal
drugs, particularly crack cocaine, provided new sources of income.
The relative ease with which large sums of money
could be obtained by drug trafficking provided a solid financial
underpinning for gangs, increased the solidarity of existing gangs, and
offered strong incentives for the development of new ones.
As gangs fought one another over control of the drug
trade in local areas, the level of inter-gang violence rose and, in the
process, increased gang cohesion and incentives to form alliances with
other gangs. These developments, along with market requirements, resulted
in widespread networks of drug-dealing gangs. The clear model here is that
of organized crime during Prohibition, with rival mobs fighting over
markets and forming alliances and rivalries with other mobs.
This argument appears to have considerable power in
accounting for the growth of gangs, and there is little doubt that the
drug trade was one important factor in that growth. (Miller,
Making certain drugs illegal has spawned an
illicit and dangerous industry similar to the crime organizations which evolved to
manufacture, distribute, and sell alcohol when it was prohibited in the United
States. As a result of their current illegality, and the continued demand for them, their
price has escalated and the danger associated with their
manufacture/cultivation, processing, distribution, sale, and use has also
The distribution of illicit drugs and the nature of the organizations
which deal in them are national concerns which play themselves out
on the local scene - in our communities. This observation also forms a
portion of the
perspective being brought to the writing of this book.
Gangs are not the problem.
If we want to reduce the amount of crime being committed we must first
understand that criminal behavior is not the problem. Rather, criminal behavior is a symptom of the problems
which are causing people to violate the
When we speak of something as a problem we often refer
to its cure as a solution. If the problem is misdiagnosed, the solution
will likely fail. I believe we have misdiagnosed the problem when it
comes to gangs. Gangs
are not the problem. The problem is whatever it is that is causing gangs
to form. If we can identify those causes I believe we can effectively reduce
gang activity and youth violence. I will address the causes - the
real problems - when we look at
why gangs form later in the book.
When gangs are identified as the problem, most communities resort
to arresting gang members and assume gang activity will then be reduced.
Communities across the country have learned this approach doesn't work.
In fact, it may backfire.
Arresting gang members is like anointing them. It showers them with
respect from other gang members, almost as much as does serving time in
prison. And while in prison, there is much gang members learn and there will
be other gang members with whom
they will associate. Upon being released into the community (and over 95% of
all incarcerated men
and women are eventually released), they may become more of a
danger to the community than they were before they were arrested (i.e., they
are angrier, nearly unemployable as ex-convicts, new gang alliances may have
been fostered in prison, they have increased status on the street as
The point I am trying to make is that using suppression against gang
members (i.e., arrest, conviction, incarceration) as the
for reducing gang activity and youth violence will probably fail.
|Field Note: While talking about the gang situation, the leader of
the regional Federal gang task force told me "The criminal justice
system has to do more than just put people in prison. There is a need for a multi-faceted approach including
prevention, intervention as well as apprehension [arrest]."
When the suppression of gang members is used in
conjunction with efforts to reduce violence, child and substance abuse in the home,
school failure, and all the other things we know about which cause youths to join a
gang, we might be able to reduce gang activity.
Additional Resources: You
can view a partial listing of
gang-themed commercial motion pictures. You can also
more about the history of alcohol prohibition.
Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.