Why Gangs Form
Why Youths Join
form due to a feeling
control over one's self, others, and life situations.
overcome their feeling of powerlessness.
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
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
and McBride, 2000, p. 17)
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
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
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,
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
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
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.