Flashbacks April 2007

Gangland U.S.A.

Articles dating back to the 1800s trace the evolution of America's gang problem.

In the April Atlantic, Jeremy Kahn reports on the increasing reluctance of crime witnesses in America’s inner cities to come forward to the authorities. A new slogan, “Stop Snitching,” has even emerged to reflect and reinforce that reluctance. The phrase has begun to crop up in rap lyrics, on caps and T-shirts, and in a popular and influential underground DVD. Indeed, “the gangland code of silence, or omerta,” Kahn explains, has now spread “from organized crime to the population at large.” Kahn primarily investigates this trend in Baltimore, but he notes that it is also evident in many of the nation’s larger cities, where arrest and conviction rates for violent crimes are down while violent crime itself has been on the rise.

According to Kahn, the ascendance of the “Stop Snitching” movement is partly the result of a growing distrust of the police and the government in many inner cities, and partly the result of criminals’ increasing effectiveness in intimidating potential informants. Over the years, a number of writings in The Atlantic, beginning with Jacob A. Riis’s 1899 essay, “The Genesis of the Gang,” have explored the forces that turn disillusioned youth against the law and draw them toward one another.

An influential chronicler and photographer of the poor in turn-of-the-century New York City, the Danish-born Riis took up the subject of gangs via the story of Jacob Beresheim, a fifteen-year old charged with murder. Riis talked with Beresheim on the night of the boy’s arrest and confession, and Beresheim became for Riis a “type of the street boy on the East Side” whose life-story represented the life-stories of hundreds of thousands.  To Riis’s mind, the street was a bad influence. "Character implies depth," he wrote—"a soil, and growth. The street is all surface: nothing grows there; it hides only a sewer."

Without character there is no moral sense, Riis continued, and without an inner compass, Beresheim’s deviation seemed inevitable: “The boy was not given a chance to be honest with himself by thinking a thing through.” The boy's ultimate transition from the street to the gang was all too inevitable:

As a “kid” he hunted with the pack in the street. As a young man he trains with the gang because it furnishes the means of gratifying his inordinate vanity, that is the slum’s counterfeit self-esteem.

But Riis did not consider the problem intractable.  Gangs, as he saw them, were not the root problem, but a symptom—“a distemper of the slum that writes upon the generation it plagues the recipe for its own corrective.” Rather than government intervention, Riis advocated personal and familial responsibility. “It comes down in the end,” he wrote, “to the personal influence that is always most potent in dealing with these problems.”

While Riis saw gangs as an outgrowth of immigrant tenement living, nearly three decades later journalist Morris Markey traced them back to the old world. His 1928 Atlantic essay, “Gangs,” focused on the murder of Jacob Augen, a.k.a. "Little Augie," the leader of a gang from the lower East Side of Manhattan. Little Augie’s murder prompted Markey to note that the East Side gangs were “simply a continuation of the old Irish fighting gangs” from the mid-nineteenth century whose members would “break heads over any pretext whatever: women, politics, liquor, disputed money.” The East Side gangs took this volatility one step further, waging their wars with no apparent purpose whatsoever:

The murders have served to defend neither honor nor property rights, as we conceive such things, for honor and property rights have not been closely involved. And so one reaches the conclusion that perhaps the current East Side war is being fought out by a group of embittered and unimaginative lads, bored with life, bearing a reputation for harshness and forced to live up to it, taking a criminal part for which they have neither real aptitude nor real stomach.

By the late 1960s, the gang problem was expanding from a neighborhood menace to a vast network with steady funding sources and radical ambitions. The escalation of gang culture was a central feature of James Alan McPherson’s 1969 Atlantic article on the day-to-day life of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers. As McPherson detailed in a two-part series, when the Blackstone Rangers formed in the early 1960s on Chicago’s South Side, it was much like any other gang. But the Blackstone Rangers gradually evolved from a street gang of just a few hundred to what became known as the “Ranger Nation,” comprising, at the time of McPherson’s article, between 3,500 and 8,000 members.

The Ranger Nation not only developed a sophisticated organizational structure, but also portrayed itself to Chicago’s Woodlawn community in such a way that it became the beneficiary in 1967 of federal funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity – ostensibly operating job-training centers in its home territory. Yet by 1968 the group’s use of the federal funds was under investigation by the U.S. Senate, and the Nation itself, alternately in and out of the public’s favor, seemed to have lost its identity.

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Matthew Borushko is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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