Gangs (cont4)

John Hagedorn
The Enclyclopedia of Community
Sage Publications

Karen Christianson and David Levinson,
General Editors
pp 517-522

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


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

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.