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.

McPherson’s primary interest was in the relationship between the Rangers and the community. “If anything,” he wrote, “the Rangers seem to represent a certain spirit in their community, a spirit which is adopted by young people.” “But,” McPherson continued, “whether this adoption is voluntary or forced upon young people is one of the major controversial questions that concern the Woodlawn, Kenwood, Oakland, and Hyde Park communities.”  A senior Ranger with whom McPherson spoke conceded that in the old days kids had been forced to join. But by the late sixties, he explained, coercion tactics were no longer needed; the Black P. Stone Youth Center had simply become the only place for kids to go.

As McPherson noted in the second part of his study, the purpose of the Blackstone Rangers, and indeed their continuing appeal, had more to do with generational conflict and with class than with race or politics:

If [the Rangers] believe in any form of black power at all, it’s the physical energy which they are attempting to harness in the black community and the economic power which, they believe, will come through constructive uses of that energy. If they hold any political philosophy at all, it is truly a grass roots one: they want to wrest control of their community not so much from the power structure as from the control of an older generation of blacks. They have a large number of the young people; now they are attempting to expand their source of energy by moving into the black, middle-class neighborhoods.

By the time Mark Horowitz reviewed the autobiography of an imprisoned gang member in 1993, gangs had become so interwoven with race issues that it was “much in fashion to go to gang members in Los Angeles for the authentic voice of black experience—or at least the experience of the black underclass.” Horowitz’s article sought to contextualize the publication of, and the hoopla surrounding, the autobiography of Kody Scott. As a member of the Eight-Tray Gangster Crips in South Central Los Angeles, Scott, a.k.a. “Monster Kody,” a.k.a “Sanyika Shakur,” shot and killed rivals, used and dealt drugs, and committed robberies and assaults—all of which he described in Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gangmember.

Writing at a time when the destructive power of gangs had developed into a significant public concern, Horowitz  noted that Monster’s life story, written in pencil from inside a maximum security prison in northern California, had earned him a $150,000 publishing advance and afforded him a platform for articulating what the book’s promotional material called “the black experience.”  Scott’s central point, Horowitz observed, was that the gang life is inevitable for anyone growing up in his circumstances: in Scott’s words, “everyone does it.” Yet Horowitz questioned this assertion. He pointed to the life stories left out of the autobiography, of Scott’s own siblings, none of whom followed Monster’s violent path. “One thing is certain,” Horowitz concluded: “In a county the size of Los Angeles, not every young man is an active gang member—not even in South Central and not even, for that matter, in Kody Scott’s own house.”

For sociologist Elijah Anderson, the question of whether or not a young man joins a gang boils down to two opposing forces. Writing in The Atlantic in 1994, Anderson identified dual “orientations” that vie to shape the poor inner city black community: a “street” orientation (signifying a sometimes violent quest for peer respect) and a “decent” orientation (signifying an acceptance of “mainstream values” and a strong sense of family).  It was this latter, “decent” orientation that Anderson viewed as the best hope for counteracting the influence of gangs.

But the “street” orientation, he noted, exerts a very strong pull – one that is closely tied to inner city residents’ never-ending struggle for respect.  Known colloquially as “juice,” respect, Anderson explained, “revolves around the presentation of self.” In order for one to obtain “juice,” one must convey that one is prepared, even predisposed, to commit violence if the situation requires. As Anderson noted, there is, in impoverished neighborhoods, “a generalized sense that very little respect is to be had, and therefore everyone competes to get what affirmation he can of the little that is available.”

Anderson suggested that the code of the streets is perpetually fueled by inner-city youths’ “internalization” of “racist rejection.” Feeling rejected by the mainstream system, they commit themselves to an oppositional culture in order to salvage their self-respect. As Anderson concluded:

A vicious cycle has thus been formed. The hopelessness and alienation many young inner-city black men and women feel, largely as a result of endemic joblessness and persistent racism, fuels the violence they engage in. This violence serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor, further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the streets in the eyes of many young blacks. Unless the cycle is broken, attitudes on both sides will become increasingly entrenched, and the violence, which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will only escalate.
—Matthew Borushko