Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Conclusions - Part 2

Section I: Gangs and Gang Members

What is a "Gang?"

There is no one accepted definition of a gang and the definitions which currently exist vary widely. Were there one common definition, I propose it to be as follows: a group of two or more individuals who share an on-going relationship and support one other individually or collectively in the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal behavior.

That definition is broad enough to capture any size group which promotes delinquency and criminality yet specific enough to be useful in court. The broadest definition possible is needed in order to intervene with deviant gang youth at an early age.

Who is a Gang Member?

Any child may become a member of a gang. A gang member is defined, minimally, as anyone who thinks he or she is a gang member. However, youths who are labeled by others as gang members but who do not socialize with people who are breaking the law are not gang members. 

Police labeling of a youth as a gang member may have the greatest impact of all in terms of how our system of justice views a given youth. In some cases, if labeling theory is correct, a youth who is defined and treated as a gang member by the police may, over time, accept that definition of him- or herself.

On the other hand, there are youths who claim to be members of a gang, who associate with other known gang members, and who participate in illegal activities with or on behalf of the gang. They are gang members, regardless of whether any individual act of criminality they commit was committed for personal reasons or gang-related reasons.

There are formal mechanisms for determining gang membership which may or may not involve an initiation ceremony. 

Demographic Characteristics of American Gangs

Statistics on gangs and their members are inherently inaccurate.

The Number of Gangs and Gang Members

As of the last official count (1999), there were approximately 840,500 known gang members in the United States in 26,000 gangs. The number of cities and counties reporting the presence of gangs is increasing. While the number of gangs may have shown a slight decline in the recent past, the number of people who are joining gangs has been growing over the past two decades and shows no sign of declining.

While the number of gang members found in rural and suburban areas increases and decreases from one year to the next, it is important to note that gangs are no longer an exclusive inner-city phenomenon. They, and their members, are now found across the entire landscape the United States and in other countries around the world.

The Age and Social Class Composition of Gangs

The proportion gang members who are adults (over 18 years of age for statistical purposes) has been increasing over the past several years. This is due, in part, to the increasingly difficult task of making the leap from gang activity to legitimate employment. It may also be due to the economic support gang activity may provide, the need for maintaining social contacts within the gang, and the individual gang member's affinity for all types of gang-related activity.

The proportion of gang members who are under 15 years of age has also been increasing. Young boys and girls continue to be recruited into gangs because they may escape serious punishment if caught in gang-related behavior due to their status as juveniles. They are also recruited in order to increase the size of the gang and/or to replace the loss of older gang members to injury, death, incarceration, and migration away from the gang.

In a recent survey, it was found that one-half of gang members are from the underclass - the class below the lower class. Gangs' presence in large public housing projects and their comparative absence in wealthier settings suggests more gang members are poor than are from the middle- or upper-class. The survey found no gang members identified as having come from upper-class environments. That may or may not be accurate. 

The Gender Composition of Gangs

While gangs have been and remain male-dominated, the increasing presence of females is clear. Estimates of female gang affiliation ranging from 8 percent to 38 percent are alarming. The implications for the children they bear is equally disturbing. 

The proportion of gang members who are male or female varies from community to community and may also vary between neighborhoods within the same community.

The majority of known female gang members, while not as violent as their male counterparts, are involved in assaults and other violent behavior. They are becoming more like male delinquents as concerns the types of crimes they commit.

The Racial and Ethnic Composition of Gangs

Although the majority of known gang members in the United States are of Hispanic descent, it appears many, if not all, racial and ethnic groups are represented in the gang population. Given their rate of birth and the impact of social discrimination against them, it is conceivable that the proportion of Hispanics in the gang population may rise.

Historically speaking and today, gang members in the United States are from the most marginalized groups in the society - either newly immigrating groups or other racial or ethnic groups which have not been fully accepted by Caucasians. 

Some gangs are nearly exclusive in their ethnic or racial composition while others are a mix of several different ethnicities and races. This, too, is not a static situation and changes from time to time and from one community to another.

Gangs Aren't New

Gangs have been with us for centuries. They are not necessarily a sign of decay and doom. Rather, they are a normal, albeit problematic, part of many societies and may be symptomatic of other problems.

Kinds and Names of Gangs

The diversity in the kinds of gangs there are hints at the complexity of the gang phenomenon which includes gangs with no single ideology or belief system (youth- or street gangs) as well as those with an ideology (i.e., Skinheads, Aryan Brotherhood, Ku Klux Klan, Nation of Islam). 

There are drug-selling gangs, street gangs, and turf-based neighborhood gangs as well as short-lived gangs and gangs which that have been around for generations. 

Gangs' names may symbolize a feature in their neighborhood (i.e., the name of a street, park, or valley) or any one of a dozen other things and their names may change from time to time.

Supposed "nations" of gangs (i.e., Crips, Bloods, People, Folk) are, in fact, not nations. They are, instead, a collection of "sets," local groupings of gang youth who use the name "Crip," for example, in their name but add a local identifier such as "14th Street." Thus, "14th Street Crips" identifies the gang as a set within the supposed Crip nation.

But the 14th Street Crips may not know any of the Crips in other local Crip sets, let alone Crips in other cities or countries. There are thousands of sets of gangs and precious few are organized to coordinate their activities with the activities of other sets. In fact, they are often at odds with other sets, even within their own "nation."

The Gang Culture

Gangs are a society within society, complete with their own subculture. Perhaps the most difficult barrier to overcome in dealing effectively with gang members is the influence of the subculture to which they belong. It is a subculture separate from but squarely rooted in our own. It thrives and preys upon the culture you and I think of as American society, but, depending upon their level of affiliation with a gang, their members have little regard or respect for it except for its emphasis on making money.

The gang subculture serves a number of purposes - it is functional and, as such, important to its members. Some of them will die for it, if need be. Others will kill for it.

To reduce the attractiveness of the gang subculture requires substituting other structures which will meet the same needs the gang subculture fulfills. That is, if we want to keep youths from joining gangs, we must offer legitimate structures through which their needs for security, power, respect, income, etc., can be met. Understanding gang members as members of another or different culture may assist in efforts to draw peripheral members away from the gang culture and to dissuade non-members from joining it.

The Structure of Gangs

There is considerable variation in the structure of gangs. Some researchers suggest a gang must be well organized in order to be called a gang. I learned that it is misleading, however, to view a loosely organized yet ongoing group of youths who knowingly support one another in the recurring commission of criminal acts as "not really a gang. It's just a bunch of kids acting out."  In fact, they are a gang.

The level of organization or structure of a gang has little to do with being part of the gang subculture and acting in ways that are socially repugnant and vile. When a youth joins a gang, regardless of its degree of structure or organization, he or she has left the fold and is a danger to him- or herself and everyone else in the community.

Why Gangs Form

In order to join a gang, it must exist. The important question, then, is Why do gangs form? I consider this the question we should focus on rather than on why some youths join gangs. It moves our attention from the youth who join to the causes of gang formation in the first place.

There are physiological, psychological, and social/cultural reasons why gangs form and, therefore, why certain youths join them. Maslow tells us that, until an individual's lower level physiological and safety needs are met, his or her higher level needs for belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization may not be achieved. It is rare to find a gang member who comes from an environment in which the these lower level needs are being fulfilled by the social institutions in the community (i.e., family, faith, school, and commerce), let alone many of the higher level needs.

Were I to summarize what I learned about why gangs form it would be that there is no one satisfactory explanation. When, however, one takes into account the impact of a variety of factors - social discrimination; absence of a (healthy) family; feelings of desperation and powerlessness; abuse, fear, and a lack of security; economic deprivation; school failure, lack of self esteem; the lack of acceptable rites of passage to adulthood; the lack of alternative legitimate activities; a pathological offender's needs; the influence of migrating gang members; mass media portrayals of gangs and gang members; because they can - a basis for understanding their formation becomes apparent.

You can also read the extended "Conclusion" as found at the end of the chapter on Why Gangs Form.

Where are Gangs Found?

Gang members have inundated practically every corner and crevice of American society. They are found in schools, at the workplace, in the military, in hospitals ... you name it. Their pervasiveness assures their growth and the damage they will continue to do to our way of life unless positive action is taken to reduce their number and influence.

How Youths Find Out About Gangs

There is little parents can do to keep their child from learning about gangs. The sources of information about them are widespread and include peers, television, movies, the Internet, and gangsta rap music. Some of the sources of information on gangs are aggressive and may include gang-member-parents and gang recruiters.

How to Join a Gang

There are several ways to join a gang. Most involve suffering injury or inflicting injury (physical or financial) upon other people. Some gangs have no initiation rites while others initiate but exclude some new members from the ceremony.

Crimes Gang Members Commit

As compared to non-gang delinquents, gang members are more violent and a greater danger to society regardless of their age, gender, or race. They murder thousands of Americans every year - gang members and innocent bystanders alike. 

The crimes gang members commit are, in large part, the same as those committed by non-gang offenders. They vary in that some crimes require the cooperation of other offenders (as in drug- or theft rings) and in the nature of intra- and inter gang rivalries.  

In many communities, gang members are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the delinquency and crime committed by juveniles. Focusing prevention, intervention, and suppression (enforcement) efforts on gang members will do more to reduce a community's delinquency and crime rates than would focusing on non-gang member delinquents.

The Fluidity of Gangs and Gang Members

The world of gangs is ever changing. People join them and leave them. Some join one gang then quit and join another. Gang members stay in one place and they move to other locations. In other words, they are an elusive population at best.

Their internal leadership may change as may their size, composition, and the types of offenses they commit. They can dominate in some neighborhoods for a time then disappear. 

The migration of gang members within communities and from one community to another represents a serious and growing threat to the quality of life in neighborhoods throughout the country. 

Graffiti and Other Identifiers

Gang members use a variety of ways in which to identify themselves to one another and to outsiders including, but not limited to, tattoos, wearing certain kinds or colors of clothing or accessories, and the use of graffiti and hand signs. Older and more experienced gang members may avoid identification in order to avoid detection by police and rival gang members. Wannabes, on the other hand, may boldly exhibit gang identifiers in hopes of being recognized as a gangster.

Getting Out of a Gang

A gang member's life expectancy may be short and membership in a gang may also be for short periods of time. While some gang members remain members until they die, many leave their gang within one to two years. 

Getting out of a gang does not always mean being harmed, although this can and does happen to some who attempt to leave. Intervention efforts are aimed at existing gang-affiliated youth and are complicated by potential threats of harm if someone wants to leave the gang. 

Gangs and Prisons

One of my greatest concerns, shared by gang researchers, police, and social service providers, is about gangs in the future is prison gangs. With nearly 600,000 prisoners being released from prison each year - many of whom are gang-affiliated - it won't take long before the worst aspects of prison culture become fully integrated into gang culture on the streets of our neighborhoods.

The walls of America's prisons are permeable. Inmates come and go in a regular and disturbing procession. At any given point in time gang members may simultaneously have associates in prison and on the street. The movement from one environment to the other is, for some, a change in address only. For the most hardened gang members, time in prison may be seen as a reprieve from life on the streets, a way to establish and/or solidify inter-gang relationships, and a way of gaining in status upon their release.

Why be Concerned about Gangs?

The experiences I've had with gangs was an eye-opener for me. I didn't realize how harmful gangs and their members were. It seems like everything they touch is destroyed - lives, homes, families, neighborhoods, and the future of their own members. 

I keep reminding myself that the gang members aren't the problem, although they are a problem. My attention has turned, instead, towards learning about the risk factors which cause gangs to form - and which lead some youths to join them - and the protective factors which retard this process.

Parents of Gang Members

I don't know whether to feel sorry for the parents of gang members (the ones who are not gang members themselves) or to feel sorry for the gang members who have incompetent parents. It seems a vicious cycle to me. A cycle of neglect or some other form of abuse and of shattered or broken relationships (single parents) and substance abuse.

Combined with living in a culture of violence, grinding poverty, and hopelessness, what alternatives do most of these parents have? Although some were children when they gave birth to their children, many are upstanding people - parents who raised other children who did not get involved with gangs. 

I don't know what to say about parents who refuse to accept the fact that their child is a member of a gang. The wake up call often arrives too late. Were I to feel any sympathy, it is for the situation in which many good parents find themselves - trapped in gang-dominated neighborhoods, struggling to get out, frightened of staying in and losing their children to gangs.

To Conclusions - Part 3

2002 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.