Early Navajo gangs
have roots in the ephemeral drinking groups of young males in ceremonial
settings. By the 1970s, gangs had transformed from informal groups to
those coalesced around core members, who came from families that were
marginal in the communities to which they returned after living off the
Gang behaviors provide
an extreme example of the behaviors (e.g., drinking, committing assaults)
that generally contribute to the leading causes of mortality among young
Navajo men. Although gang members constitute only a small minority of Navajo
youths, since the 1970s gangs reputedly have become more common, more
institutionalized, and more closely connected with non-Indian gangs off
the reservation. (Henderson,
et al., 1999)
All children are good children at birth. In time, life experiences result in their
remaining good children or becoming children who behave badly. Some of
them behave so badly they end up being imprisoned or executed.
Any child can become a gang member. Gang members represent all social classes,
both genders, and most ethnic or religious groups ... and they can be found in the most unexpected places. One community I
visited had a gang of Mormon youth named after the ward in which they lived.
members attend and graduate from college. In one college with a predominantly white student body, a group of
African-Americans on the football team was found to be a gang selling crack
cocaine in the neighborhood surrounding the university.
[I]t is very
important to be mindful that the overwhelming majority of youth gangs
are “homegrown." They grow in the cracks of our society and local
communities, where social instructions such as families and schools are
ineffective, and social controls on young people and adults are weak.
(Howell and Egley,
2005, p. 3)
Being Identified as a Gang Member
People associating with documented gang members sometimes become gang-members-by-association
because they are viewed as gang members
by police and other social service workers. It's
from the word "association" that they have been given the name
"associates" in the lexicon of law enforcement and gang research.
In time, these associates may become gang members through a process
referred to as labeling. The process involves the application of the label
"gang member" to
the associating youth by police, teachers, and others, and the eventual acceptance of
that label by the youth in question. Even if the associate doesn't accept the label, the labelers
continue to apply it and respond to
the individual as a gang member rather than as a non-gang member. It is a
self-fulfilling prophecy as one progresses from being identified as someone who was
found with a known gang member, to becoming an associate, to
becoming a documented gang member.
Signs of gang membership
The criteria for determining whether an individual is a member of a gang
| self admission as a gang member.|
|admission by a parent or guardian. |
|being arrested with a known gang member.|
|physical evidence of gang affiliation including the color or type of clothing
worn, how it is worn, the presence of badges, tattoos, or other gang
|being identified by an informant. Despite the myth that gang
members, like other criminals, have a code of silence and won't snitch on
one another, it is not uncommon for a gang member who is an informant to
reveal the identity of another gang member. Sometimes,
however, this is done only to get rid of the competition and is, in
reality, false information.|
|the duck rule - if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck,
it is a duck (replace "duck" with "gang member").|
|participation in gang-related criminal
|being known by a moniker.|
At the end of the day, anyone could be a gang member. Studies of known or
suspected gang members suggest some people are more likely to be in a
gang than others due to other characteristics they possess.
I've heard many people say "All kids are at-risk." After
observing the gang scene for a few years it became apparent that they were
right. All children are at risk of failing at school, getting involved in
delinquency, becoming a member of a gang, becoming unemployable, and a myriad
of other things.
Among the definitions for "at-risk" I have encountered are a school definition and a mental health definition.
The school-based definition of an at-risk youth is a youth who is not likely
to complete school or will finish well below his or her potential. The mental health definition of
an at-risk youth is a youth who
engages in activities that can have detrimental health consequences for the
individual. Included among these risk factors are smoking, drinking
alcohol, use of illegal drugs, carrying a weapon, and gang membership.
at-risk youths may also exhibit such risk factors as teenage pregnancy, poverty, disaffection with school and
family, disability (emotional, physical, mental), emotional and physical
abuse, neglect, and their families may be highly mobile. Individuals who become gang members may be defined under either or both
definitions since some exhibit multiple risk factors. We'll return to look
at risk- and protective-factors later in the book when we explore ways to
reduce gang activity and youth violence.
Gang members may also be characterized by various demographic
characteristics including their number, age, social class, gender, race, and
ethnicity. These are the demographic characteristics we're going to