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

Topic 3:
Feelings of Powerlessness

No hope!  See? 
That's what gives me guts!

(Graffiti on the wall of a department store in San Francisco, Summer of 2000)

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to a feeling of powerlessness. Power and control over one's self, others, and life situations. To overcome their feeling of powerlessness.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a result of youths feeling powerless over their lives. Some youths are desperate about their current life situation (i.e., being abused, failing in school, addicted to drugs) and feel powerless to gain control over it. They form a gang in order to gain power or control.

Young women join gangs for the sense of "belonging to a family" and power, protection and respect -- based on fear the gang inspires in others ... "They're afraid of our gang ..., and because I'm in the gang, people show me respect and won't mess with me. I like that feeling of power," a 16-year-old [said]. (Molidor, 1996)

One of the questions I asked each gang member I interviewed was "What do you think you'll be doing ten years from now?" The common reply was "I won't even be alive by then, so who gives a shit!" The graffiti at the top of this page speaks to that sentiment. Jackson and McBride also addressed this issue when they wrote "To convince a young person who is not sophisticated enough to see beyond tomorrow, that he must prepare for the future, can be an exercise in futility. (Jackson and McBride, 2000, p. 17)

Yablonsky addressed the same issue when he wrote 

Gangsters have created their (macho) stance in part as a reaction to their deeper feelings of alienation and hopelessness about achieving any degree of success in the larger society. They strike back through gang violence at a society they feel has boxed them into hopelessness. (Yablonsky, 1997, pp. 19-20)

I didn't know what to expect when I started my field observations. I certainly did not expect to find hopelessness nearly everywhere I turned. It seemed to surface most often with older gang members, members who had lost fellow gang members through death or dismemberment, or who had been arrested, convicted, and sent to prison. The gang members I interviewed who were twenty years of age or older nearly all said they'd "had enough" of the gang life.

When I asked them about their children I was told they were doing everything in their power to make sure their children did not get involved with gangs. They saw gangs as losing propositions. Even the O.G.s who had accumulated money, cars, apartments, and a few women on the side, felt this way.

At first, it seems, a gang holds out the prospect of being accepted, loved, cared for, and protected. It creates an environment in which the new member feels a sense of belonging. There are opportunities to socialize, date, have sex, obtain drugs, and earn money. In this environment a youth may begin to have a sense of hope, of a future in the gang and a future for him- or herself. It invites the feeling of finally having control over one's life, of having the power to become someone.

As I learned from many of the gang members I interviewed, however, in time these hopes become an illusion as gang members suffer the loss of fellow members, get arrested, spend time in jail or prison, deal with probation and parole officers, get hounded by the police, and have to deal with rival gang members. Ironically, they often become powerless in the face of such circumstances.

Christian Molidor interviewed 15 female gang members ages 13 to 17 were confined in a residential treatment facility in Texas. They had all been arrested one to six times. In a summary of the study it was found that

A majority carried knives to school on a daily basis, and said they had easy access to a gun ... But the downside to gang membership included fear and paranoia ... The young women talked of watching their backside, knowing they might be shot, stabbed, or beaten by a rival gang at any moment. (Molidor, 1996, page)

Many of the explanations given for why gangs form are intertwined. Feeling powerless is one of them. Why does a child feel powerless? Could it have anything to do with the way in which the child is treated at home? Are the parents either overbearing and brutal or are they so out of control themselves that no one is in control of anything at home? Can children get feelings of powerlessness from the way they are treated at school by peers and school officials? We know all of these things are possible, and that it's possible for a innocent children to feel powerless when they are attacked by gang members on their own neighborhood streets. 

This continuing sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, referred to by nearly every gang member interviewed, has a certain liberating effect. Why attempt to control one's behavior for fear of being penalized in the future when life is short and it doesn't mean anything anyway? "That's what gives me guts." That's what fosters gang formation - the desire to control one's life and the circumstances which arise in it. The gang offers opportunities to acquire power by uniting youths in search of hope and the power to realize those hopes.

Gangs are still largely populated by young people from disenfranchised neighborhoods characterized by overcrowding, high unemployment, high drop out rates, lack of social and recreational services, and a general feeling of hopelessness. (Koch Crime Institute, 2001)

But a lack of hope and power alone are insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. Abuse, fear, and a lack of security may also contribute to their formation.


Additional Resources: You can read about "Kids with No Hope, No Fear, No Rules, and No Life Expectancy." 

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.