A Continuum of Gang
No goals or only
Regional, National, or
Whole group involvement
In a study of over 1,000 gang members representing five states (California,
Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio), Knox (Knox,
1995) and his research associates found
"the higher level gangs were more organizationally sophisticated and appeared
to have a number of formalized economic functions and capabilities ... most of the gangs
... were fairly
sophisticated, had some formalized rules, and their own argot or gang language
... the top
leaders were for the most part adults with long tenure in the gang." (as
reported in Yablonsky,
1997, pp. 183-184).
When asked about his perception of gangs in the city the gang unit specialist, a
member of the unit for nearly 22 years, said "Street gangs are just one
step below organized crime."
In another community the supervisor of
the gang unit told me "The Asian gang units here are considered
low-level organized crime and are handled by the department's organized
crime unit, not the gang unit."
I don't know if gangs are the next wave of organized crime in
the United Status or not. Research conducted by Decker, Bynum, and Weisel suggests that this
is not the case, or that it has been exaggerated in the press. (Decker,
Bynum, and Weisel, 1998, pp. 422-423) Unfortunately, their
findings were based upon a study of only four gangs in two American cities. None of the gangs studied were Mexican Mafia or other gangs which have been
maturing into organized crime gangs (i.e., select Asian gangs, Hell's Angels).
If the criminalization of alcohol is referred to as prohibition
then the current criminalization of drugs (i.e., controlled substances -
marijuana, narcotics) may be called the new prohibition. The new
prohibition has spawned a
wide range of criminal enterprises, some more highly organized than
others. Spergel and other researchers have expressed their concern that there may be a
link between street- or youth gangs and organized crime.
Adult criminals may follow the street
reputations of youngsters and gradually draw young gang members into criminal
networks. Many youth gangs and cliques within gangs may become subunits of organized
crime for purposes of drug distribution, car theft, extortion, and burglary.
et al., 1994, p. 5)
The Statuses and Roles of Gang Members
|Field Note: An
experienced parole officer told me she thought "All gangs are
organized. Every member knows what the others are doing,
who's selling drugs to who and where, where their gang's territory is,
if they have one. Everyone has something to do."
Urban Dynamics, Inc., created the
following diagram. (Source)
Given the wide variety of gangs and their associated structures, the
diagram is a general overview of a typical street gang's structure or
organization. The position titles may vary from one gang to another. For
example, the leader (see "leadership" in the diagram) may be called an O.G., a
Veterano, the President, the Chairman and so on. And there may be several
leaders in a single gang - each responsible for a different aspect of the gang's
activity (one leader for drug dealing, another for theft from cars, etc.).
The following information is taken, with permission, from the manual
"Comprehensive Community Reanimation Process" published by
Dynamics, Inc. While the document presented here is by no means
complete, it does offer a good grounding in contemporary gang
phenomenon. Those interested in obtaining a complete copy of the manual
may do so by contacting UDI at (708) 385-0066.
All gangs have identifiable levels of membership. These levels of membership
indicate status within a gang and acts as the organizational maintenance
systems. There are actually six levels of gang structure.
The leader(s) of a gang determines at what level of criminal activity the
gang will function. Characteristics of the leader(s) are reflected in the
day to day activities of the gang. The leader is all powerful.
2. Hard Core:
The hard core gang members are usually the older gang members, the
individuals who are culturally and criminally enmeshed in the gang and are
at risk of being so for life. Most violent gang activity emanates from the
hard core gang members. Hard core gang members usually make up about 10% of
The associate gang member has usually made a personal commitment to the gang
culture and is dedicated to achieving the level of recognition needed to
attain hard core status.
The fringe gang member is still able to function outside of the gang
structure and has not made a commitment to a life in the criminal gang
culture. This type of member drifts in and out of the gang and seems to lack
Wanna-bes are not actually gang members. They are youth who view the gang as
an exciting place to be, a place where they could become "somebody".
Wanna-bes may emulate gang dress, graffiti, hand signs, and other gang
cultural symbols, and they may associate with known gang members, but they
have not yet been excepted into the gang.
Very seldom is the gang at full strength. Exceptions to this, of course,
would be times of conflict or possibly at social functions. What is most
often seen as "the gang" is usually a clique from within the larger gang.
The clique is a group of associate, fringe, and often, wanna-be gang members
who gravitate around one or more of the hard core gang members. This
somewhat resembles a gang within a gang.
An important attribute of most groups is the assignment of
statuses and accompanying role expectations upon its members. We noted in our
previous discussion of gang culture that there
is a distinction between a person's status and his or her roles. One's status is what one
is. I am a
university professor. That's one of my statuses in life. I am also a
an uncle and a musician. Those, too, are statuses.
One's roles are those behaviors a person is expected
to exhibit within a given status. As a professor I am expected to teach,
conduct research, and provide service to my university, the profession, and the
community. Those are
some of roles which constitute my status as professor. As an uncle I am expected to be
supportive of my nephews and nieces and listen to their concerns. Those
are some of the roles attached to the status of uncle.
Similarly, gang members have statuses and roles. While the
names for these statuses vary widely across gangs, they include Original Gangster
(O.G.), Gangster (G.) or Young Gangster (Y.G.),
Associate or Baby
and Wannabe (W.B.). In a
conversation (12 March 2005) with Curtis Sliwa (creator of
the Guardian Angels), he said "There are three characters out there - predators,
prospects, and posers. The predators are the most heavily involved gang members.
Prospects are similar to associates in that they are involved and are getting
themselves further involved in gang activity. Posers, on the other hand, don't
want to have anything to do with gangs, but they "get off on lookin' cool, like
one of the gang, like MTV and BET. They're part of the youth culture, but not
the gang culture."
In more formalized gangs there are such statuses
as president, vice president, treasurer, secretary (often the keeper of the
scrapbook of newspaper articles about the gang), parliamentarian, and
sergeant-at-arms. In ethnic gangs the names for the various status
positions are different but the roles expectations are the same.
Most gangs have leaders. This should not be
very surprising, as few organizations can survive without some form of
leadership ... Not surprisingly, leadership roles are better defined in those
gangs and gang cities where gangs have operated the longest. Thus, in Chicago
and Los Angeles, we find gang leaders who are older, more specialized in their
activities, and more powerful. In other cities, those we have called emerging
gang cities, leadership roles have a far more informal character. In these
gangs, the leader of a gang can change from one day or one function to another
... As gang membership entails much criminal activity, it is not surprising to
find that leaders change regularly, as members go to prison. (Curry
and Decker, 1998, p. 75)
|Field Note: A
veteran gang unit supervisor told me "Certain gang members
become involved because of skills and talents they can provide to the
gang or organization. Some may have a good source of cocaine, or
marijuana. Some may possess the skills needed to steal a vehicle in under 60
seconds. Finally some may have the heart, or lack of conscience, to
commit random acts of violence towards innocent people or rival gang
members. Usually the selection of their moniker begins to solidify their
gang identity and their gang personality with monikers like 'Crazy Boy,'
'Monster,' or 'Killa' (killer)."
The supervisor also believes that
"Technology has allowed the
distribution of contraband to flourish, walkie talkies, RF frequency
detectors, video surveillance equipment, motion detectors, cell phones,
pagers, faxes. Loyal scouts [from the gang] are placed in strategic locations
throughout the neighborhood, to monitor changing conditions, and relay
up-to-the-minute intelligence information about rival gangsters or police in the neighborhood."
Several of the O.G.'s I interviewed considered themselves to be teachers in the gang. They taught the younger gang members how to
handle themselves in a variety of situations (i.e., in fights, during drug deals,
with police, the courts, while in jail or prison, how to commit certain crimes). One of
them told me he tells the wannabes in his gang that he wants them to
"Walk across the stage" - go to school and graduate.
The process of acquiring rank is based
primarily on length of time in the gang, blood relationships with current
leaders, and level of criminal activity. Older gang members who have logged a
considerable number of years as a member of their gangs are in a position to
obtain rank and as a consequence are afforded special status and perform
unique duties. Often referred to as OGs or original gangsters, these
individuals hold the distinction of having lived through a number of years of
gang life. (Curry
and Decker, 1998, p. 68)
Other statuses in a gang,
and some of the roles they include, are "mule" (someone who carries drugs from one place to
another), "shot caller" (the leader of a gang or a specific criminal
activity committed by a faction within the gang),
and "look out" (someone who keeps an eye on the vicinity in which a crime or
meeting is occurring to warn of the approach of rivals or police). Generically
speaking, there are also gang members who fulfill the role of drug or gun buyer,
supplier, seller/"foot soldier," dealer, distributor, deal maker,
negotiator, guard, and tagger.
|Field Note: The
head of the county gang squad began describing some of the statuses
found in gangs. He described the "High Roller" by saying
"We never see him. He's probably a white businessman and is
part of the organized crime link to gangs - the channel large amounts of drugs
move through. Another is the 'Runner' who gets
the drugs to the street. The 'Steerer' finds the market - the
customers for the drugs, and the 'Lookouts' stand on the periphery
of the scene to warn the sellers of approaching police."
The point is this. If individual gang members have specific statuses and roles
within a gang, there is reason for viewing the gang as organized. The degree of organization
varies across a variety of characteristics.
A Word of Caution About Wannabes
Leon Bing, author of the
1991 book Do or Die, which explores gang life in Los Angeles, said ... there is not much that separates a
wannabe gang member from a true gang member.
Young people who want to be gangsters - usually called wannabes
- are among the most dangerous of all the gang
members. This observation was made by dozens of interview subjects
during the course of my three years of field research- including established gang members. The violence and reckless abandon
often exhibited by wannabes places them in a special category.
Their behavior may be even more unpredictable and hard core than the most
seasoned gang member's.
|Field Note: While talking about wannabes, the head of the county's gang
squad told me "In the emulator's [wannabe's] mind, he or she is a gang
member. They want the recognition of being a gang member in the
eyes of the police and the community. An experienced gang member
doesn't want this recognition."
The word "wannabe" has been co-opted by mainstream American
culture. For example, it's not unusual to hear beginning tennis players call
themselves "wannabe" tennis players. This popularization of the term has removed
much of the negative or potentially dangerous connotation from it. That's
unfortunate. Wannabe gang members are, because of this popularization, sometimes
not seen for the danger they present. They are not seen as gang members, hence some
communities take little action to deal with them.
The most effective way to keep youths from joining gangs is to
keep gangs from forming. "Why gangs form" is the topic of the next section.