From "One City"
Chicago Council on Urban Affairs pp 11-17.



The Power of Symbols

By Dwight Conquergood

            Dwight Conquergood is chairman of the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University’s School of Speech.  He is also a special consultant at the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago on issues regarding media perceptions of minority youth and gangs.  In this special report for One City, he focuses on how the depiction of gangs drives public policy.




  Symbols instill beliefs and shape attitudes that underpin social structures.  The binding force of culture, by and large, is a web of symbols that enables people to control and make sense out of experience in patterned ways.  We should have learned from the history of colonialism, slavery, and Nazi eugenics that the way one group in power sees and imagines another group of people can set the stage for violent action.  A democratic society does well to attend to the dominant images it puts into mass circulation, particularly media representations of vulnerable groups.  Images and symbolic representations drive public policy.

            At the end of the 20th Century, we are appalled when we look back at 19th Century discourse that depicted Native Americans, Africans, and other colonized people as savage brutes, or Weimar Republic rhetoric that scapegoated Jews as subhuman.  How could any post-Enlightenment society promulgate such raw racism?  How could such shocking metaphors and crude caricatures achieve mainstream currency?

            And yet similar demonizing images continue to fill our newspapers, flood broadcast channels, and fuel political campaigns.  Today’s master symbol for excluded Others—the barbarian hordes threatening to crash the gates and destroy the foundations of civilization—is the gang member.  The gang member is our urban savage, an all purpose devil figure onto which we project our deepest fears about social disorder and demographic change.  The stereotypical gang member is a young minority male from the impoverished inner city, the “breeding ground” of drugs, violence, and depravity, and our contemporary “heart of darkness.”  There is terrible slippage between the terms “gang members,” “minority youth,” and “black and Latino teenagers.”  Labeling someone a gang member licenses the most rabid racism and class bias, and underwrites a formidable legal-juridical apparatus of surveillance and incarceration.

            Even in the 1990’s, a decade fraught with political correctness anxiety, “gang” functions as cover and camouflage for a vitriolic language of racism and revulsion that would not be tolerated without the codeword.  It is difficult to imagine another group of human beings that it would still be socially acceptable to describe in subhuman imagery.  Indeed, gangs are portrayed in the media and public discourse through the pattern of three dehumanizing metaphors: (1) gangs are a virulent disease, (2) gangs are vicious animals, (3) gangs are violent terrorists.  I will discuss each trope in an order of evolutionary development from deadly germ to dangerous terrorist.


            Virulent Disease.  Gangs are depicted in public discourse as malignant microbes, perpetrators of an “epidemic of violence.”  Gangs are referred to as a  “plague,” “pestilence,” “scourge,” “cancer,” “virus,” “blight,” “disease,” “infestation,” and described as “parasitic.”  Particularly the imagery of spreading infection and metastasizing cancer conjure fear of deadly contamination.  I heard a Chicago police lieutenant explain at a block club meeting how gangs and drugs spread like a carcinoma: “It infects the whole building, then the block goes, then the neighborhood.”  Tom Brokaw framed Part 2 of his “Gangs, Cops, and Drugs” documentary with tropes of rampant disease, opening with: “It’s a cancer that’s eating up the country, gang violence,” and closing with: “It’s not something that’s happening elsewhere.  It can come to your city.  It can come to your street.  It can come to your family” (NBC, April 16, 1989).

            The moral panic provoked by portraying gangs as carriers of epidemic violence poisons cross-class relations and polarizes society.  Metaphors of disease, hygiene and quarantine reinforce the boundary between sanitized suburb and dirty inner city, and underpin reactionary laws and policies.  Suburbs worried about Chicago’s “urban” problems “seeping” into their communities have responded with some extreme anti-gang measures:

            Invoking the logic of preventive medicine, towns have given police the authority to detain anyone they think is a gang member ; others have taken down basketball hoops at village parks where gang members are thought to congregate.

            And at least one suburb has reacted by fencing off from the rest of town a whole neighborhood regarded as a haven for gangs—a move that has evoked accusations of racism.1 

            Perhaps the most repressive reaction to gangs is the Gang Loitering Ordinance passed by the Chicago City Council in the summer of 1992 by a vote of 31-11 (Section 8-4-105 of the Municipal Code).  This law spells out the public perception that street gangs are both symptom and cause of urban crisis, and criminalizes their presence in public space if they stand next to one or more other persons.

            The Gang Loitering Ordinance gives new meaning to the trope of contagion and the dreaded touch.  According to this law, gang youth (or anyone who might look like a gang member, i.e., minority working-class youth) can avoid arrest only through quarantine at home, or, paradoxically, isolation in public places.  As soon as the alleged gang member enters public space and makes contact with another person, both are liable for arrest if they do not comply with the police officer’s order to disperse.  Note that the gang member’s body in public space is deemed so polluting that everyone standing next to him can be arrested, whether or not they are perceived to be gang members.  Although this law was ruled unconstitutional and struck down by a Cook County Circuit Court Judge in 1993, Mayor Daley, a former prosecutor, appealed the decision and instructed his police force to continue to enforce the Gang Loitering Ordinance.  As of November, 1995, 41,740 people had been arrested under the controversial law.  In December, 1995, the Illinois Appeals Court struck down the ordinance, ruling that it violates “freedoms of association, assembly and expressions as secured by the first amendment.”  The city is appealing the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.  The Gang Loitering Ordinance demonstrates how symbols instigate action, how metaphors of disease and pollution can lead to draconian laws that infringe fundamental liberties.2  


            Vicious Animals.  It is difficult to think of groups other than gang members that are openly and commonly characterized as animals.  Representations of gangs bristle with animal imagery and bestial metaphors that rival the racist discourse of 19th Century comparative biology that perceived “primitive people” as an equivocal link between beast and human.  A Chicago Police manual describes gang graffiti as “dog and fire hydrant” marking of turf or “like a wild animal marking his boundaries.”  Gangs are frequently referred to in the media as “vermin,” or “roving,” “prowling” beasts of prey from the “urban jungle,” marauding” and “rampaging” in “wolf packs” to “prey” on decent citizens.  “Violent gangs” are depicted in news stories as “wilding packs” and “wild dogs.”  When Larry Hoover, imprisoned leader of the Black Gangster Disciples, was indicted last year, his picture was printed on the front page of the Chicago SunTimes with this banner quotation from U.S. Attorney Jim Burns: “We ripped off the head of the snake.”3

                  This animal imagery drives the big business of caging and incarceration.  The United States is in the midst of the biggest prison building boom in history, with $37 billion dollars spent in recent years and $5 billion still in the pipeline.  The prison and jail populations have tripled since 1980, and according to the 1990 census, prison cells are the fastest growing category of housing.  One in 250 Americans is in a correctional facility.  The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, and imprisons blacks at a rate four times that of apartheid South Africa.  Crime was the major campaign issue in the 1994 elections, with candidates at every level of government campaigning on tougher laws, truth in sentencing, more prisons, more executions, and raising the specter of violent juvenile crime.  The animalistic image of gang youth as “superpredators” fuels the anti-crime rhetoric of politicians.  In a recent radio address, presidential candidate Bob Dole deployed this racist image: “Unless something is done soon, some of today’s newborns will become tomorrow’s superpredators, merciless criminals capable of committing the most vicious acts for the most trivial of reasons.”4


            Violent Terrorists.  A 1993 Chicago Tribune editorial railed against “the street gang menace”:

            The gangbangers play by rules of their own making.  They sell drugs, fire pot shots, establish turf and protect it by any means necessary.  They menace anyone who comes within their self-anointed holy ground.  With terrifying regularity, they kill people.5

            In 1992 the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act, thus inscribing in the language of law the image of gang members as terrorists.  The most elaborate development of this image is in Tom Brokaw’s “Gangs, Cops, and Drugs” documentary.  Brokaw interviewed Brian Jenkins and repeatedly identified him as an “expert on international terrorism” who says that the United States has created its “own form of terrorism,” a “series of little Beiruts in our own country.”  Brokaw emphasized that “we usually talk to him about the Middle East,” but now are about to interview him about gang terrorism in this country, and then posed the opening question: “Is that an exaggeration, though, Mr. Jenkins, to say that it’s Beirut?”  Jenkins responded: “No.  I don’t think it is an exaggeration.  You cited the statistics yourself.  We look at the total number of gang members in Los Angeles, some 70,000 gang members ….  Those numbers alone exceed the number of guerillas in Peru.  They rival the number of guerillas in Columbia.  They outnumber the numbers of Hezbollah in Lebanon.  In terms of the amount of violence, again, 452 gang-related killings last year in Los Angeles.  That is more than the total number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks around the world in the last five years.”

            The xenophobic image of gangs as violent terrorists transposes the inner city into a third world site of chaos, anarchy, conspiracy and revolutionary struggle: Maoist Sendero Luminoso guerilla movements, drug cartels, and Islamic Jihads.  Sometimes the image of gangs as alien agents of terrorism is conflated with gangs as instruments of terrorism.  Gang members are imagined as killing machines, incendiary bombs ready to explode into violence.  The cover of U.S. News & World Report (March 25, 1996) proclaimed, “Teenage Time Bomb: Violent juvenile crime is soaring—and it’s going to get worse,” illustrated with a photograph of a handcuffed gang youth.

            Street youth and gang members are acutely aware of how media images shape the public’s response to them.  I quote from an African American young man whom I tutor in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center: “I’ll be standing on the street corner, and people drive up—they see me, and they lock their doors.  At the red lights, you can hear the locks: click, click.  It’s because of the ‘news’, they blow some stuff up.  In the news, the other day, they called us predators. ‘These juveniles—they’ll kill you on sight.’  Man, that make you mad.  That stuff make you mad.”

            The cruel consequence of this abusive imagery is that many poor and minority youth are foreclosed from communication, compassion, and care.  Through the linguistic violence of naming them germs, animals, terrorists, and ticking time bombs, many juveniles are banished from a human, moral community.  Instead of children to be nurtured, educated, and cherished, they are “targeted” for heartless interventions under the banners of War on Crime, War on Drugs, War on Gangs.  Dole sees “superpredator” already imprinted on innocent little newborns.  In the last two years, all 50 states are scrambling to dismantle the juvenile justice system so that children can be prosecuted as adult criminals and face maximum penalties.6  California now spends more money on prisons and jails than on its universities and colleges.  Prisons are now the fastest growing item in almost all state budgets.7

            At the turn of the last century, Jane Addams wrote a book about Chicago gangs and street youth, and described how she and her Hull House co-workers were able “to utilize the gang spirit and to turn its collective force” toward effective drug rehabilitation programs.  Instead of seeing street youth only as problems, “delinquents,” she focused on their potential, capacities, energies, their “quest for adventure” and “spirit of revolt.”  She pointed to political-economic conditions of oppression instead of blaming the poor for the conditions in which they were forced to live.  Above all, she called for fresh, insightful, and more compassionate ways of seeing urban youth and responding to their needs: “We fail to understand what he wants or even to see his doings, although his acts are pregnant with meaning, and we may either translate them into a sordid chronicle of petty vice or turn them into a solemn school” for civic responsibility and social justice.  She concluded the book with this haunting image: “We may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it.  We may either stand stupidly staring as it sinks into a murky fire of crime and flares into the intermittent blaze of folly or we may tend it into a lambent flame with power to make clean and bright our dingy city streets.”8

            Particularly in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, this passage stands as unheeded warning and critique of contemporary public policy that sees urban youth in terms of their problems and pathologies instead of their potential, possibilities, hopeful yearnings, and struggles.




1Alex Rodriguez, “Suburbs on Guard to Fight Gangs,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 6, 1994, 4 (emphasis mine).

2Andrew Fegelman, “Gang loitering law is ruled illegal,” Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1995, section 2, 1, 2.  See also Peter Poulos, “Chicago’s Ban on Gang Loitering,” California Law Review, 83 (Jan. 1995): 379-417.

3see Chicago Sun-Times, September 1, 1995, 1.

4Thomas Hardy, “Dole campaign ‘out of synch,’ some aides say,” Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1996, 1, 9.

5 “The law and the street gang menace,” Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1993, 18.

6Fox Butterfield, “States Revamping Youth Crime Laws,” New York Times, May 12, 1996, 1, 12.

7Fox Butterfield, “Prison: Where the Money Is,” New York Times, June 2, 1996, section E, 16.

8Jane Addams, “The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972 [1909].

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