What is a
A gang is "A group of persons working to unlawful or
antisocial ends; especially:
a band of antisocial adolescents."
Collegiate Dictionary, 1993, p.479 )
The United States Federal Bureau of
Investigation defines a gang as "A criminal
enterprise having an organizational structure, acting as a continuing
criminal conspiracy, which employs violence and any other criminal
activity to sustain the enterprise."
Bureau of Investigation, Kids Crime Prevention Page, www.fbi.gov,
"How to define a
youth gang is one of the most
contentious issues in the field of youth crime."
2001, p. 7)
For the purpose of this book, and consistent with much that is
available in the literature of both police and social
researchers, a distinction will be made between street gangs
(synonymous with "youth gang," posses, clicks/clickas [Latino/Hispanic]
and crews) and
other types of gangs. Malcolm Klein is one of the most respected gang
researchers in the United States today. Introducing one of his recent works, he wrote
discussion, therefore, is of street gangs, not Skinheads,
motorcycle gangs, and other groups ... Most of the gangs
that researchers write about - juvenile, delinquent, youth - are
depicted as hanging around, usually in the open.
It may be at a street corner, a taco stand, or on the side of a park
watching the action; they're somewhere in the open or in the open
behind a building. They're smoking, drinking, roughhousing,
playing a pickup ball game, messing with a few girls, or sauntering
up a street in a possessive, get-outta-our-way fashion.
Skinheads don't usually fit this picture. They're inside;
they're working on their written materials; or if outside, they're
looking for a target, not just lounging around. Bikers
don't fit this street gang picture. They're focused on their
machines, cruising, or dealing drugs in an organized manner, and
like the Skinheads, they're deliberately recognizable rather than
recognizable by default.
Street gangs seem aimless; Skinheads and bikers are focused, always
planning. Street gang members get into any and every kind of
trouble. It's cafeteria-style crime - a little of this, a
touch of that, two attempts at something else. Skins and
bikers prefer narrower ranges of trouble. (Klein,
1995, p. 22.)
Klein also excludes satanic and cult gangs as well as punks and
heavy metal-influenced stoners, car clubs, low riders, street corner
pals and youthful play groups.
(ibid., pages 22-25.)
Likewise, Walter B. Miller, in discussing his newest study, writes
In conformity with the usage adopted by a
national survey conducted by the National
Youth Gang Center in 1995, several groups designated as 'gangs,' and
'street gangs,' or 'criminal street gangs' were not considered youth gangs
for purposes of [his report]. These groups are motorcycle gangs, ...
hate or ideological gangs, ... and other types of adult gangs, including
drug operations, syndicates, and organized crime gangs. A major
objective was to maintain a distinction between youth gangs (ages 12-24)
and exclusively adult gangs. (Miller,
2001, p. 6)
We will define a street gang
as a group of two or more individuals who
share an on-going relationship with one another and support one other, individually or
collectively, in the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal acts.
This definition is similar to the definition of a gang used by the Florida
Department of Corrections - "A formal or informal ongoing
organization, association, or group that has as one of its primary
activities the committing of criminal or delinquent acts." (Florida
Department of Corrections, Gang and Security
Group Threat Awareness, page)
Number of Members
The definition for a gang I am proposing requires only two (2)
participants, as does the definition of a gang used by the Los Angeles city
and county police departments. I propose this for two reasons, one has to do with the
sociological definition of a group and the other with the limits the current
definition places upon police and prosecutors.
The field of sociology has traditionally defined the smallest possible group
as "a dyad, which contains two people. A dyad can easily become the most
cohesive of all the groups because its members are inclined to be most
personal and to interact most intensely with each other." (Thio,
1998, p. 103)
In a similar manner, sociologists distinguish between primary and
secondary groups, regardless of their size. Primary groups are characterized
by frequent interaction among their members and face to face interaction.
Their members often have great influence over each other's actions and
attitudes. In some cases, gangs could be defined as primary groups. On the
other hand, "The term secondary group refers to a formal, impersonal
group in which there is little social intimacy or mutual
1998, p. 145)
Charles Horton Cooley coined the term primary
group to refer to a small group characterized by intimate,
face-to-face association and cooperation. The members of a street gang
constitute a primary group; so do members of a family living in the same
household, as well as "sisters" in a college sorority. (Thio,
1998, p. 145)
Many states' gang-related statutes define a gang as having three members.
While it may be true that most gangs have more than three members, in the
practice of criminal justice, this definition is too limiting. On several occasions while observing gang
unit officers at work, two suspects were detained for having allegedly
committed a crime together.
In each case, the suspects were arrested
together in one vehicle and were, by all appearances, members of a gang (i.e., they
wore matching colors, had common tattoos, threw hand signs). They could be prosecuted as violators of the laws they broke
but, because there were only two offenders in each case, they could not be
tried as members of a gang. That would have required there be three suspects
according to most state statutes.
Florida's definition of a gang has many elements found in other states'
statutes. Among them is the reference to gangs having criminality as their
"primary" activity. I believe that is a mistake. Few, if any,
gangs have criminality as their primary activity. Most of their members'
time is spent doing things most non-criminals do (i.e., eating, sleeping,
socializing, listening to music, going to movies, attending parties). What
makes a gang unique is not that criminality is their primary activity but
that its members encourage and support one another in the recurring commission of
crimes and/or acts of delinquency.
Even college and fraternal organizations periodically
engage, either collectively or through individual members, in acts of
deviance and/or crime. But to be considered a gang we must be willing to
add the additional requirement that it be a recurring type of action. Not
a one-time act of vandalism or outrage. Not a singular, spontaneous,
event. Indeed, to be considered a gang characteristic the emphasis on
illegal acts must have the quality of being recurrent, indeed ongoing.
1994, p. 33)
Characteristics, such as having a gang name, wearing
clothes of a common color, being tattooed, and throwing signs
(the sign language of street gangs) are not included in the definition
used in Into the Abyss, although their presence may be common among some street gangs.
There are several reasons why I omitted these gang identifiers.
Whether a gang's members wear a common color or not may depend upon how successful police suppression efforts are at any given
time. The more oppressive, the less likely gang members will
wear, do, or say anything that identifies them as a gang
member. The less oppressive, the more likely they will
exhibit their gang affiliation. The only likely exception are wannabes, who are sometimes flagrant about their supposed membership in a
gang due to their desire to be seen as worthy of inclusion in it.
Note: As I learned in California, if the legal
definition of a gang or gang member includes the wearing of
a common color then an
alleged gang member may be able to avoid prosecution as a
gang member if he or she was not wearing that color at
the time they committed their crime. Incidents such as
this have led some states to simplify their legal definition
of a gang.
Significant Differences Between Gang- and
Despite the absence of having a name or exhibiting colors, etc., the definition
used in Into the Abyss does suggest certain specific
characteristics, characteristics which make a gang significantly different from
non-gang delinquents or criminals. The following are among the significant
A gang is a group. A group is, in part, defined as an
aggregate of people who see themselves as members of the group, who are seen
as members by other members of the group, and who are viewed as members of
that group by
people outside the group. On the other hand, non-gang offenders are not part
of a group of offenders.
Members of a gang interact with each other in an
ongoing-relationship. Were a group of people to commit a crime
together and never commit another crime together as a group it might be
called a mob, but it should not be called a gang. Gang members commit crimes
with one another (seldom all at the same time) several times over an
extended period of time. Non-gang offenders can not do this.
Nor can non-gang offenders support one another in the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal
acts. This mutual support makes gang members significantly different
from non-gang offenders and presents one of the most difficult barriers to
intervention we face in attempting to draw youths out of gangs or for them
to leave a gang willingly.
According to George Knox, author of An Introduction to Gangs, an
encyclopedic reference work on gangs,
Crime involvement of a group must not ... be
a sub rosa [secret] function, about which few of the members have
knowledge, if we are to consider the group a gang. Members
of many legitimate voluntary associations and civic groups are
sometimes arrested for a variety of offenses.
But these are
not offenses committed on behalf of their group; these are not
offenses even necessarily known to their full social network;
these are not offenses condoned and approved of in advance by
their organization, or which enjoy their acceptance or blessing. To be considered a gang, the criminal involvement of members
must be openly known and approved of as such. (Knox,
1994, pp. 7-8)
Members of many legitimate voluntary associations and civic groups
are sometimes arrested for a variety of offenses. But
these are not offenses committed on behalf of their group; these are
not offenses even necessarily known to their full social network;
these are not offenses condoned and approved of in advance by their organization, or which enjoy their acceptance or blessing. To
be considered a gang, the criminal involvement of members must be
openly known and approved of as such.
I saw on the streets of American cities, and in the cities of other nations, the
more I realized some of characteristics used to define a
group as a gang (i.e., wearing colors and tattoos, turf name, throwing
signs) were meaningless or
confusing. For example,
|Some gangs have a symbolic color, others do
|Some gang members claim gang affiliation,
others deny it.|
|Some gangs are neighborhood-based, others are not bound
or identified by geography. Therefore identification by turf (i.e., The 39th
Street Raiders) may be meaningless.|
|Some gang members throw signs, others do
|Some gang members wear tattoos, others either don't wear
them or are having old ones removed or covered over with camouflage
|Many non-gang-member youth wear gang-style attire
as part of the hip hop / youth culture. Although they walk
like ducks and talk like ducks, they are not ducks.|
|Some gangs are arch rivals, others cooperate
with each other in the commission of crimes and other
In the final analysis, gang members' mutual support of criminal
activities, and possession of a value system which condones such behavior, distinguishes
gang members and gangs from all other offenders and groups (i.e., a football team,
or sorority, a business organization).
One half of all police departments participating in the 1998 National
Youth Gang Survey used "commits crimes together" as a gang
Youth Gang Survey, 2000) Only 19% required that the gang have a name. Table
45, below, confirms the fact that few police departments require that, in
order to be a gang, a group must claim territory, display colors or other
insignia, or anything else.
For our purposes, then a gang is a group of two or more individuals who
have an on-going relationship and support one other, individually or
collectively, in the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal acts.