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

Chapter 2:
The Problem

Field Note: When I asked the supervisor of the gang unit why there is a gang problem in town he asked "You mean right now? It changes all the time."


I began many of my field interviews by asking "Is there a gang problem in this community?" If the answer was "yes," as it usually was, I then asked "What's the problem?" That question elicited a variety of answers.

"Yes, we have a gang problem."

Although, at first, I would have assumed that "Yes" meant the problem was the fact that there were gangs, I knew from past experience that I couldn't assume anything. I'm glad I didn't make any assumptions!

Like the responses of many of the people I interviewed, Jose identified several problems including the harm being done to gang members and their parents and the perceived leniency of the courts in dealing with gang members.

Other "problems" related to gangs which were mentioned by the interview subjects included:

bulletCommunity denial of the gang problem when it's clear that we have gangs.

bulletDenial of a gang problem by our chief of police, even though we (i.e., probation and parole officers, school administrators, police officers) know there's a gang problem in our community.

bulletThe use of "downward comparisons" (saying "We don't really have a gang problem here, not like they've got in L.A.!") which results in a form of denial and produces no effort to address the gang problems that we DO have.  

Downward comparison is a psychological process in which people feel better about their own situation when they see someone in a worse one. (Surette, 1998, p. 82-83)

Field Note: When I asked the gang unit supervisor if the city has a gang problem he said "Not really. It's not like they have in L.A.." 

But when I spoke with the other members of his unit they said "Our Asian gangs are into marijuana and crack sales, the Hispanic gangs run the tar heroin trade from Mexico, and the Blacks sell crack. The Vietnamese gangs are doing a lot of bank fraud using counterfeit checks. They also run counterfeit charge card operations." 

There isn't a gang problem? Not compared to L.A. The message is that there's not a "real" gang problem and the community will believe what the gang unit supervisor tells them.

bulletMedia sensationalism about gangs in other communities and in ours and the fear and stick-your-head-in-the-sand mentality that develops in some people.

bullet"People have an image of a 'gang' in their mind and it's usually the product of the media. And if the local gang situation doesn't look like that, then they feel they don't have a gang problem."

bullet "In [Dutch] culture, what happens behind a family's closed doors is none of our [the state's] business. And some of the things that are happening end up a problem for us on the streets."  

bulletThe impact it's having on school attendance. Either the gang activities keep gang members out of school or they produce an environment in which non-gang members are afraid to come to school.

bulletKids are afraid to walk to school or the store or to other places because they know they have to walk through gang territory to get there. Some of them are forced to wear the colors of the gang in their neighborhood just to feel safe!  

bulletThe runaway problem. Most of the gang members are repeat offenders and their family situations are terrible.

bulletDrugs. Gangs create a market for them, distribute them, sell them, and encourage their use. And the drugs are ruining kids' lives.

Field Note:  In response to my question as to whether the community has a gang problem or not, a gang-caseload juvenile officer said "There's two ways to look at that. First, the community is in denial about having gangs. That's a problem. They either refuse to believe there are gangs or they don't know they exist. The other way to look at it is that there are gangs - they are here. The problem is that juveniles in our community are being targeted by gangs and are being 'used up' by them."

I asked what she meant by "used up" and she replied "I mean, they get these young kids in the gang then have them 'do this' and 'do that,' 'run these drugs over there,' or 'hurt so-and-so.' And after the kids have done that, well, it's like the gang members really don't care about those kids. They just use them."

bulletSome youth simply aren't taking responsibility for themselves and our justice system doesn't make them do that either. It's too easy on them.

bulletYouths falling prey to attacks by gang members, either rivals or their own gang members for failure to pay debts, messin' with a gang member's woman, and other things.

bulletGangs perpetuate a thought process - especially in the inner-city population - that fosters disrespect for authority. It legitimizes criminality and teaches the wrong values. 

bulletThe harm being done to innocent bystanders in drive-by shootings - including shooting the bystanders or having bullets pass through someone's home.
Field Note: Doug had about seven years of experience working gangs in the police gang unit. I asked him how things were going in the community. "The community is scared. They can't go out at night, their property is being destroyed and they're afraid to report criminal activity or testify as witnesses. That's what really affects us. Honestly, though, if I was in their position I would do the same thing. The gangs are purposely and visibly threatening and they scare witnesses off."

bulletThe impact on the value of homes in gang territories and the desperation that results because people can't sell them and leave the neighborhood.

bulletThe loss of businesses in the community due to the presence of gangs and the threat to customers that they present.

bulletThe number of pregnancies as a result of the gang mentality. In some gangs, getting a female pregnant is proof of one's manhood.

bulletChildren having children.

bulletSchool failure due to a devaluing of education among gang members.

bulletNot knowing what to do to reduce the amount of gang activity and not being able to get a handle on this issue.

bulletWe know what we need to do but there's a lack of public awareness, funding, motivation, willingness to face the issue, determination, and a lack of hope.

bulletGangs are stripping some of our youth of hope for the future.

bulletGangs are creating career criminals, people who will spend their lives going in and out of prisons.

And the list goes on. It didn't matter if the interview subject was a concerned citizen on the street, a judge, gang unit officer, or a gang member - many mentioned the same problems.

"No, I don't think we have a gang problem."

I heard this reply only when interview subjects were either in denial about the presence of gangs in their community or when they simply did not know they were present. According to police, probation and parole officers, and others, none of the 23 communities I visited were gang-free. They may have had gangs that were more or less organized or more or less active criminally, but they all had gangs.  

"I don't know if we have a gang problem."

Interview subjects who offered this response either didn't know about the existence of gangs in their community or knew about them but didn't want to talk about them with me or admit they had them. For some, a lack of clarity about what the term "gang" meant was the motivating force behind the answer. Some of these subjects thought there were "kids who are just bein' kids" in town, but they did not identify them as a gang.

In Closing

An individual's perception of the gang situation in their community will determine, in large part, their response, if any, to it. And different people will perceive the problem differently. If effective solutions to a community's gang situation are to be found, there must be a shared perception that the gangs do exist and of the root causes for their formation and attractiveness to some of the local youth.


Additional Resources: You can visit a number of sites for up-to-date news on gangs throughout the country.

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.