Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
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 2:
Who is a "Gang Member?"

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 reservation. 

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. Some gang 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 may include:

bullet self admission as a gang member.

bulletadmission by a parent or guardian.  

bulletbeing arrested with a known gang member.

bulletphysical evidence of gang affiliation including the color or type of clothing worn, how it is worn, the presence of badges, tattoos, or other gang artifacts.

bulletbeing 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.

bulletthe 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").

bulletparticipation in gang-related criminal activities.

bulletbeing 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. 

At-Risk Youth

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. 

Generally speaking, 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 investigate next. 


Additional Resources: Visit the site of the National Alliance of Gang Investigation Associations for other indicators of whether someone is in a gang or not. Or you can visit this site.

The Northwest Regional Education Laboratory has posted an informative article on the web which addresses issues related to the educational definition of an at-risk youth

There are several instruments on the web which can be used to determine a child's extent of risk. Here's a relatively sophisticated one designed by The Mentor Research Institute (you can print this one out then answer the questions on the printed version). And from the Juvenile Forensic Evaluation Center, here's an interesting article on female delinquency, related risk factors, and promising interventions. You can read about what works in Wisconsin when it comes to rehabilitating female delinquents.

The United States Public Health SerThe Adolescence Directory On-Line (ADOL) is an electronic guide to information on adolescent issues. It is a service of the Center for Adolescent Studies at Indiana University. You can visit the ADOL site for a more extensive discussion of mental health-related risk factors.

© 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.