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

Part 1:
What is a "Gang?"

A gang is "A group of persons working to unlawful or 
antisocial ends; especially: a band of antisocial adolescents."
(Merriam Webster's 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." (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kids Crime Prevention Page,, 2002)

"How to define a youth gang is one of the most 
contentious issues in the field of youth crime."
(Miller, 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

Our 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 understanding." (Thio, 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.

Primary Activity

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. (Knox, 1994, p. 33)

Gang Identifiers

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.

Field 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 Non-Gang Offenders

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 differences:

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. (Knox, 1994)

In Closing

The more 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, 

bulletSome gangs have a symbolic color, others do not.

bulletSome gang members claim gang affiliation, others deny it.

bulletSome 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.

bulletSome gang members throw signs, others do not.

bulletSome gang members wear tattoos, others either don't wear them or are having old ones removed or covered over with camouflage tattoos.

bulletMany 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.

bulletSome gangs are arch rivals, others cooperate with each other in the commission of crimes and other activities.

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, fraternity 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 identifier. (National 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.

Table 45: Criteria Used by Law Enforcement Agencies To Define a Youth Gang: Top Choices, 1998
(Source: 1998 National Youth Gang Survey, Table 45, page)

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. 


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.