Politics, Violence, and Prison
In major U.S. cities, gangs were
strongly influenced by revolutionary and civil-rights organizations. The
ideologies of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets,
and the Young Lords Organization attracted many youths away from the gangs.
Many of these political groups in fact began as gangs and aimed their
recruiting efforts at the children of the street. Federal agencies used
COINTELPRO, an FBI operation aimed at disrupting political organizations,
and other tactics to provoke violence between gangs and revolutionary
organizations. Rivalry between gangs and political groups was balanced
by negotiations between them, and gangs joined many movement demonstrations.
Gangs also initiated community service agencies, started local businesses,
and got federal grants for education and job training. The Conservative
Vice Lord Nation, for example, a Chicago gang that came into existence
in the 1950s, began multiple social programs and businesses in the 1960s.
But the 1960s ended in a flurry of violence, both from the streets and
the police. Revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panther Party
were smashed, and the social programs run by gangs ended when they lost
funding. Thousands of gang members and political activists were incarcerated.
While repression crushed the political groups, gangs persisted and maintained
ties to the streets even from prison. Jacobs’ (1977) seminal study
of Stateville, a notorious maximum-security prison in Illinois, demonstrated
how prison life was now linked back to the community through the gangs.
Gangs joined with revolutionary and Black Muslim groups in demanding better
conditions in prison. Many gangs adopted religious doctrines and rituals,
which some said were a cover for gang activities and others saw as a genuine
response to oppression. Gangs controlled the cellblocks with violence
and superior organization, and many also maintained their hold over the
organization on the street. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when many gang
leaders were released from prison, the neighborhoods were even more rundown
than when they left them. The sociologist William Julius Wilson vividly
described the impact of de-industrialization on the black community. Far
from withering away, ghettos persisted, and their conditions had deteriorated.
The Underground Economy and Gentrification
Since legitimate work was quickly
disappearingt, the gangs turned away from politics and embraced the underground
economy, Some new scholars, including John Hagedorn and Carl Taylor, have
explored the meaning of these developments for gangs. The advent of crack
cocaine allowed for the development of profitable business plans. While
spontaneous youth gangs still dotted poor neighborhoods both in the United
States and the wider world, a business model began to dominate the streets.
Violence soared in the late 1980s and early 1990s as crack markets were
contested. The local community, once turf to be protected, now was often
reduced to a market to be dominated.
Back to Beginning
GANGS IN CHICAGO
Bennie Lee, a former gang leader for the Vice Lords, a Chicago
street gang, touched on the meaning of prison time for gang members
when speaking to students at the University of Illinois at Chicago
about his time with the Vice Lords.
The street gangs in Chicago are controlled from the prisons, there’s
no leadership out here. The leadership is in the prisons and we
had this board, this committee and the committee consisted of a
head from each sector, the different branches.
And with us the Vice Lords one of the highest honors you can get
is called the Old Man. You were like the head of this board and
I became the Old Man. And I started thinking in terms of when I
first came to prison there was some fear of what prison would be
like and I made my mind up that I was not to get victimized so I
premeditated violence constantly. Out of fear. So my position was
to take all the weapons from these young guys and force them to
seek council from us older guys before they act out of fear —
to cut down on some of these unnecessary violence. I also felt like
these young guys shouldn’t be mopping the floors and working
in the kitchen that they should be in school. So we started flooding
the school with these young guys trying to get enrolled but the
GED [General Education Development] class can only hold so many;
it had a year long waiting list. . .
And so the administration got wind of this and I became a threat
to the administration. Cause the Vice Lords we had as part of our
oath that we would serve our time constructively that for on our
release we could become a productive member of our community. That
was one of the oaths we took and being part of the Vice Lords it
gave me a first understanding of our cause. ]
Source: B. Lee (2002) Address to the students of a course on the
history of gangs in Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Retrieved November 12, 2002, from http://www.uic.edu/orgs/kbc/ganghistory/UrbanCrisis/ViceLords/Bennielee.html
At the same time, a “back to the city” movement,
fueled by the new economy and its valorization of downtown, brought professionals
hunting for homes in neighborhoods adjacent to the city center. A prime
task for mayors was to make the city safe for returning suburbanites.
The war on drugs, community policing, and other policy initiatives coincided
with the renewal of urban downtowns and their environs, many of them poor
neighborhoods long inhabited by gangs. Incarceration rates soared to unimaginable
heights. Fear of increasing gang violence in the 1980s led to widespread
community support for repressive policies like indiscriminate police sweeps
and teh curtailment of the right to assembly.
While some important studies maintained a non-law-enforcement
framework, most gang research in the 1990s centered on issues of social
control within communities, and only a few advocated gang involvement
in community programs. Malcolm Klein argued that harsh law enforcement
measures had backfired and strengthened the gangs, and Irving Spergel
advocated a community approach to social control of gangs.
Gangs continued their involvement with the drug economy, but there were
also many positive developments. In 1992, a gang truce between Crips and
Bloods spread from Los Angeles into a national movement Law enforcement
and most gang researchers were skeptical, but thousands of gang members
were speaking a political rhetoric unheard since the 1960s. In Chicago,
the Black Gangster Disciples organized VOTE 21 — an organization
amied at mobilizing the community for local elections — taht contested
local aldermani elections.aldermanic elections.. The Almighty Latin King
and Queen Nation maintained both local political involvement and support
for Puerto Rican independence. In New York City, the Latin Kings adopted
a religious and political identity and became actively involved with community
projects. All these activities were met with official skepticism and repression,
including arrest of gang leaders.