America has a long history of gangsters, leaders of gangs that form in economically depressed urban areas. In human evolution, no behavior was more adaptive than a tendency to form close-knit work groups. The survival advantages of the gang are clear. When the guys went hunting, it worked best if several men cooperated, especially when the game was big and the weapons primitive. A successful hunt and personal survival depended on skilled and trusted comrades. For the women, child care and food gathering worked best in a team situation where duties could be divided and shared.
Gangs have territories. They develop unique symbols, language, and gestures, all of which help the gang members survive. For example, in a real hunt, hand signals work when shouts would only frighten the prey or draw the enemy. Just because we now live in cities and don't need to organize a hunting foray, we can't wipe out thousands of generations of evolution. Young people form gangs wherever they are, especially when times are difficult. They defend a turf and may specialize in certain activities.
In the United States, street gangs are the hated enemies of most city law enforcement agencies; we spend millions of dollars every year on gang eradication and control. But, if we step back just a bit we can see that not all gangs are harmful, and the tendency to form them can be turned to good use.
The costs of gang control and imprisonment are enormous. Usually, gangs are viewed by the police as enemies because of the money-making activities of gang members that often include extortion, drug sales, weapons violations and disturbing the peace. Gang members over-crowd our prisons and, in fact, encourage the formation of even more dangerous gangs in prisons, gangs formed on the basis of racial and ethnic differences. These prison gangs develop outside contacts and cause harmful consequences in the general population.
Making money on it
Until and unless the energies of the gang can be turned to peaceful and productive use, there is little money to be made beyond the jobs of people in crime control. Once in a while we get a profitable Hollywood movie or a book about gangsters. Most people are interested so long as they don't have to venture out in areas where gangs rule. A gang, by any other name, is still a gang. Like most political movements, the current in-group that controls the American Presidency has many features of a powerful gang as did Hitler's gang that took over Germany in the 1930s. Some gangs make a lot of money and acquire great power. Any gang of skilled individuals—call them by what name you will—can be turned to the goals of money, power and control.
Gangs operate with authoritarian leadership, and this concentration of power, of course, is not the way of democracy. The protection offered by the gang is purchased at the cost of individual freedom.
Is there a better idea?
There are good gangs, of course, but we call them by other names. The Boy Scouts have their packs formed by adults for young men; these are clubs that provide structured activities, uniforms and a moral code. Police departments themselves are little more than gangs bound in a common cause, but they have paychecks, uniforms and social approval. So, here is the key: use gangs for practical social purposes. Instead of calling them enemies, give them a mission, treat them with respect, invest in them, and bring them into the culture.
In Venezuela, a country with some of the worst slums in the western hemisphere, the government developed the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras. The government, by paying for instruments and instruction, created half a million classical musicians, most of them from the poorest neighborhoods. (See: www.theworld.org/?q=node/296). Venezuela, of course, still has crime and gangs, but their program is a model of social intervention we could well follow. A small investment can yield huge social and financial profits.
In American we also find gangs that do good work to help others. Founded by Curtis Sliwa in 1979, The Guardian Angels began as a garbage clean-up effort in New York. Originally, the mayor and the police treated the Angels in their red berets as enemies until they found that the gang was actually helping them stop street crime and was not violating any laws. Successive mayors of New York City have supported the Guardian Angels.
Andrew Gumble, writing in the English journal The Independent (Oct. 3, 2007), told of a Las Angeles police commander named Patrick Gannon who was desperate to reduce the murder rate among rival gangs. Working with former gang members, Gannon was able to persuade them to intervene by speaking with current gang leaders. It worked well; the shootings and the murders declined in the most gang-prone areas of the city such as South Los Angeles and Watts.
A new police specialty arose: the gang intervention specialist. Gangs were recognized as inevitable by the police and seen as worth working with. Is it just possible that, with further work and small investments, gangs could be turned to profitable and healthy activity? Could the Hell's Angels, Crips, or Bloods find recognition, mission and profit in today's society? Members of these gangs are out there in the communities every day. They know their neighborhoods.
Given a little respect, recognition, and training, they could be turned to work with crime control, homelessness, drug intervention and more. All this will, of course, have to be on their own terms, in their own language, and at their own pace as long as it is within the law.
Gannon reports that New York City now has 61 gang intervention specialists on the payroll. Intervention costs far less than attempts at control and suppression and seems to be more productive.
Along with New York City, California is passing new laws not only for gang control, but for turning gang energy to good social use. Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer (October 11, 2007) wrote, "A statewide office will coordinate anti-crime efforts, focusing on rehabilitation. Recent increases in violence inspired the legislation . . .
"Addressing the plague of gang violence in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign five bills aimed at stemming the tide of killings, including the creation of a state office of gang and youth violence policy to oversee the efforts…" See: firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
We must not give up on problem kids from depressed areas. I have one very strong caution: do not let the American public school bureaucracy have any part of any gang rehabilitation effort. They are part of the problem. The dead hands of the teachers unions, concerned only with the pay and security of teachers, will stop the best efforts. Involve the community, law enforcement, ex-gang members and volunteers. Set up small grant programs so that gangs can apply for limited funds to establish a mission. Allow neighborhood gangs to place makers on buildings around their area so there is less of a need for graffiti. Difficult problems need imaginative solutions.
Imagine specialized neighborhood gangs devoted to teaching, for example. It wouldn't cost much to subsidize their efforts. Imagine a gang that emphasized reading, or science, or art. Imagine gangs trading services between each other. Imagine—that's the key word here.