Gangs: An Explanation – Written October 24, 2000

Many people have speculated why youth join gangs. The definition of “gang” is, “1. A group of people, usually young, who associate regularly on a social basis. 2. A group of criminals who band together for mutual protection and profit.” Strangely enough, the gangs in the cities are usually a combination of the two definitions. Generally, young people from the ages of five to twenty join gangs for a sense of belonging. A quote from a gang member, a Crip, summed this explanation up:

“ . . . ‘cause if you don’t, then people just going to take advantage of you and walk all over you.”

Youth that live in cities that have a harsh home environment, whether due to physical, sexual, or mental abuse. Have lives that lead to violence and crime. Many times, after fighting alone, a young person on the street will join a gang. Other times, it is for protection for the person’s business (e.g. drug-dealing). Theft is also a common “job” for many gang members. Usually, drug dealing is more popular because of the capital it brings in. Some street-dealers can make over $10,000 a week, depending on the drugs being dealt (a dealer of marijuana will make less than a dealer selling cocaine). Unfortunately, with that much money flowing, the person makes a name for their-self, and if an organization is not established for them, they could easily get killed. That is the point where a gang becomes important. As long as someone is in a gang, the other members protect them. This is an important aspect for a few reasons:

Growing up in an abusive home, the young person feels like they are a part of a family.

Growing up in poverty, the young person likes the idea of making money, and sees a gang as the only way to keep making that money.

The family aspect of the gang-youth’s life is extremely important. Many gang members say they can not relate to their parents, lie to their parents, and were beaten by their parents. Violence is learned at an early age, and it continues. Many people mistake a person joining a gang because that person wants to “get even” with the society that has wronged them. This is not the case. Most often, one will join a gang to recapture the family-aspect of their lives that they believe they have lost.

Gangs have been around for millennia. Ancient Rome had organized street thugs, as did 19th Century London, as depicted in the book Oliver Twist. In the early 1900’s, gangs began to spring up in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. At this time, New York City was the most major importer of immigrants from Europe. San Francisco had a much larger Asian immigration rate, and although Asian youth have/had gangs as well, they were not as established until the late 20th Century. Chicago and Boston had high populations, and were also subject to gangs, but not nearly as bad as New York City. During the early 1900’s many young people would come straight from European countries to Ellis Island. Since at that age English was a second language for most immigrants, each group (whether Italian, German, Polish, etc.) would form their own clique away from the others. There was violence among these gangs, but death was a seldom occurrence. It was not until later in the century, when cities began expanding even more, that gangs became more violent. Now, the immigration aspect is seldom seen, but colors show though, whether the gang color or skin color. Many gangs are segregated towards ethnic groups, but inner-city gangs tend to accept a variety of youth. Each gang, whether they are the Crips, Bloods, 187, XIV, or any other gang have their own colors. Oftentimes, fights and murders will break out just because of the color the people are wearing.

Youth join gangs to protect themselves, whether from other young people, the law, or their family life. Usually, if a person wishes to leave a gang, they are killed before they have the chance. A false sense of security and a hope of a prosperous future suck in the weak youth all over the U.S. Many groups have been developed by the government to help youth get out of gangs. These groups include “Ounce Prevention Council,” “Gang Resistance Education and Training Projects,” and “the National Community Economic Partnership.”



Gangs: a reference handbook / Karen L. Kinnear.

ABC-CLIO, Inc. Santa Barbara, CA 93116-1911


Gangs: opposing viewpoints / Charles P. Cozic, editor.

Greenhaven Press, Inc. San Diego, CA 92198-9009


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