Gangs and Politics
Youth gangs around the world have had a complex and shifting relationship to politics and social movements. While gang activity is often a product of youthful alienation and lack of conventional opportunities, gangs have at times been drawn into grass roots, nationalist, religious, and revolutionary mass activity. Gangs have also played both political and paramilitary roles in support of powerful elites, and have organized politically in defense of the underground economy. Past experience with political activism demonstrates that when social movements do not address the concerns of the most socially excluded and marginalized, gangs will institutionalize and take destructive forms. On the other hand, political movements that include the interests of the socially excluded can gain the gangs’ support and have a better chance of reducing local violence and advancing their aims.
In London, groups of “hooligans” were a sixteenth century by-product of urbanization. During the 19thcentury Chartist rebellion, it was claimed that hooligans of all sorts pitched in on the side of working class organizations. But it was the United States that developed the paradigmatic use of the gang in local political affairs.
Immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Italy and other countries in the 1800s came to U.S. cities and sparked periods of intense ethnic and class conflict. The building of urban machines relied on ethnic politics and clashes between immigrant groups were the norm in Boston, New York, and many cities.
In New York City, the dominant yankees were challenged by the Irish who mobilized “voting gangs” to intimidate rivals. Corner kids, who gathered in loosely organized groups, were recruited by politicians to bully Tammany Hall’s electoral opponents. These second generation children were attracted to gangs both as an act of rebellion against their more traditional parents, but also in ethnic solidarity.
Racism against African Americans and Mexicans has also been an undercurrent in U.S. white ethnic gang life. In New York City, Irish gangs led the assaults on African Americans during the Civil War “Draft Riots” and Klan activity helped keep Los Angeles Mexicans politically quiescent in the early 20th century as well as terrorize southern Blacks. The nadir of racist gang activity was to occur in Chicago in the period after World War I.
Youth gang politics in Chicago, as in New York City and elsewhere, mainly consisted of gang members acting like thugs on election day for the Democratic Party. But unlike other cities, ethnic gangs in Chicago were also part of an on-going violent enforcement of a segregated, racial order. Chicago’s white “social athletic clubs,” or gangs tied to the Democratic Party, were responsible for the intensity and duration of the 1919 race riot that killed 38 people.
In Asia, gangs were political actors in several countries, tightly linked to the heroin trade. For example, the Green Circle, a Chinese Triad, led the slaughter of communists for Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 and were major allies of the ruling Kuomintang. In the 1940s, the Binh Xuyen gang in Saigon became politicized while serving time in prison with nationalists and communists — an indication of things to come. Corsican gangs played a major role in South East Asian heroin trafficking and worked with French military and intelligence organizations.
Gang involvement with politics, however, would change abruptly with the world-wide upsurge of the 1960s.Oppressed peoples around the world mobilized as part of national liberation and revolutionary struggles. In South Africa, youth gangs in Soweto and other cities joined with the ANC and PAC in mass demonstrations and opposition to the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela explicitly called on the ANC to win over the gangs to the cause of liberation. As political alternatives appeared more promising, the alienation of poor youth was channeled into political parties, as in Northern Ireland and New Zealand. Gangs, as organizations of the street, typically stayed active in the underground economy. Bank robbery, extortion, and other gang tactics were adopted by revolutionary movements, from Uruguay’s Tupamaros to the Irish Republican Army.
This dual character of youth gangs can be most clearly seen in the U.S. In Chicago, the Conservative Vice Lords, the Blackstone Rangers, and the Black Gangster Disciples began to organize multi-neighborhood branches at the end of the 1950s. White ethnics had resisted Black residential mobility and white and black gangs fought continually in schools and on corners. Black gangs were involved in both petty hustling but were also drawn to the emerging civil rights movement.
By the late 1960s, all Chicago’s major Black gangs had become involved in running social programs, starting businesses, and dabbling in local politics. When Martin Luther King came to Chicago in 1966, he moved into an apartment in Lawndale, home of the Vice Lords, met with them, and encouraged their involvement in his housing campaign. The three major Black gangs formed a coalition, “LSD,” standing for “Lords, Stones, Disciples” and took part in the struggle for jobs in the construction of buildings of the University of Illinois-Chicago. The three gangs met regularly with Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party and discussed how to mobilize the most disadvantaged sectors of the Black community.
Puerto Rican and Mexican gangs also were pulled into politics. The Young Lords were a Chicago Puerto Rican street gang that became politicized during the same time. They also allied with the Black Panther Party and encouraged Young Lord chapters to be formed across the US, notably in New York City. Chicano and Mexican-American gang members also took part in the Brown Berets and other left wing political movements. In Los Angeles, Crips and Bloods also engaged in radical politics as did the Savage Nomads, the Ghetto Brothers, and other New York City gangs.
There were constant tensions between the gangs and revolutionary organizations. The Black Panthers were recruiting from the same youthful, mainly male, populations as the gangs. The US government, through programs such as the now infamous COINTELPRO, provoked conflict between the gangs and revolutionaries, in some cases resulting in gun battles.
The involvement of gangs in politics in the 1960s was curtailed by repression that forcibly transferred the gangs from the streets to the prison. While President Nixon declared “war on crime,” in Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley declared his own “war” on gangs. Daley acted after the Blackstone Rangers organized a successful boycott of the 1968 presidential elections, costing the Democrat, Hubert H. Humphrey, Illinois’ crucial votes and throwing the national election to Richard Nixon.
Incarcerating gangs and revolutionaries together occurred in many countries often had the effect of destroying the political organizations while providing the gangs with useful organizational advice. In Brazil, the policy of putting all bank robbers together, criminals and revolutionaries, had the unintended effect of organizing Rio de Janiero’s armed drug factions. In the US, revolutionary nationalism among Black, Puerto Rican, and Mexican inmates gave shape to a more business-oriented style of gang organization and parallel ethnic prison gangs.
Throughout the world, the decisive defeat of most left wing political movements shattered hopes of progress in the ghettoes, barrios, and favelas and gave priority to an ideology of “survival.” The defeat of the revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s led to more cynical, alienated, and de-politicized gangs. This demoralization, the emergence of the drug cartels, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the overwhelming power of global corporations would shape the political involvement of gangs at the end of the millennium.
Gangs, as organizations of the street and participants in the drug economy, play an important political role in the global era. Nation-states throughout the world has been weakened as multi-national corporations move vast sums of money at the click of a mouse, destabilizing entire countries and regions. The demise of the USSR meant that countries could no longer play one superpower off against another. Aid from western countries and the World Bank often is predicated on cutting domestic social spending in countries with desperately poor populations. At the same time the enormous profits of the drug economy made the powerful Colombian and Mexican cartels major political players. Working for the traffickers is often the only well-paid employment for young men in barrios, ghettoes, and favelas.
All these factors led to a strengthening of non-state actors, among them gangs, who often exercise effective social control over urban and rural territories of weakened states. The uncertainties of globalization also sparked a crisis in identity. Secular and revolutionary identities were replaced by more traditional notions of religion and race. “Gangsta rap” music, based on gang life in American ghettoes, became an influential force among youth globally
Political activity by gangs took three forms at the end of the 20th century. First, in countries like Jamaica, the political parties recruited gangs to help them gain or hold on to power. Very much like the US voting gangs of a century before, these gangs engaged in violence at the behest of politicians. This also meant de facto protection of their criminal activity, especially the drug trade. Throughout South America, gangs were recruited by the traffickers for protection of their interests, and often to support one political faction against another. There are now thousands of children in organized armed violence, some child soldiers, in South America, Africa, and Asia. Death squads, drug cartels, revolutionary groups, and the military all recruit from the same pool of poor, angry young men who are attracted to gangs.
In Mumbai (Bombay), India, the Shiv Sena, a militant, fundamentalist Hindu party, came to power through a shrewd mixture of “hinduvata” or appeals to Hindu dominance, and use of “dada,” or gangs to provide electoral and anti-Muslim violence. In Nigeria, gangs were organized by some states with Muslim majorities enforce Sharia, or Muslim law. At the same time, in gangland tradition, they supported themselves through the drug economy.
A second form of political activity was the devolution of some nationalist or revolutionary groups into gangs. In Northern Ireland, Protestant militias, once violent Catholic-killers, began to lose heart as the peace process and Catholic birth rate accelerated. Violence in Belfast today is not mainly between Protestants and Catholics, but overwhelmingly between former Protestant militias fighting over local drug markets.
In South Africa, the “Spear of the Nation” armed warriors returning home after Liberation were faced with stark alternatives. Having little education and few skills other than armed struggle, a handful of these ex-revolutionaries got jobs as policemen. The others had to choose between starvation and working for the drug gangs. In South America, guerrilla groups such as FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru tax and cooperate with the traffickers to fund their armed struggle.
In Eastern Europe, the demise of the Soviet Union brought the underground economy out into the open. As socialism’s safety net unraveled, young men were recruited into drug organizations and mafias. In Albania, the World Bank reports, one quarter of all the young men are now employed in the drug economy. In Yugoslavia, Serbian leaders used gangs to precede their army into Bosnia on the grisly road to “ethnic cleansing.”
Finally, a few gangs were drawn into grass roots movements, mainly based on racial or religious identity. In New York City, the Puerto Rican and Dominican Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation attempted to transform itself from a street gang into a community organization. Their short-lived attempt was met by fierce repression and the jailing of the political leadership. In Chicago, gangs participated in electoral politics both openly and behind the scenes. In Los Angeles, Crips and Bloods put forth a sweeping program for economic reform after the Rodney King riots. Muslim gangs in Africa and South Asia worked to advance the influence of Muslim law over their populations, while maintaining ties to the underground economy. Gangs in South America have been recruited by all political factions in armed and non-violent roles.
Gangs today are drawn into political activity under many different circumstances. The power of globalization and weakness of the nation-state guarantees a continuing role of gangs in political activity. As organizations of the most marginalized populations, they mobilize in support of their perceived interests. Often this includes defense of the underground economy, but it can take on many political hues.
Contemporary gangs have strong ethnic and/or religious identities. Their political agendas often coincide with those of their ethno-religious group. When their group is in power, gangs can be used as shock troops in repression. When street organizations are drawn from oppressed or marginalized national or religious groups, they can engage in a politics of opposition. Lack of hope in the future, however, often means gangs cynically manipulate politicians in the interests of “survival,” a euphemism for the underground economy. These different orientations are often represented in hip hop music and culture, which has spread from the U.S. to urban settings worldwide.
It is this aspect of gangs that makes them so important for political activism of the 21st century. Where social movements provide hope for those on the streets, gang organization can be won over to political activism, as the ALKQN in New York City. Where movements advance the interests of the professionals, business, or unions and neglect the streets, gangs will stay attached to the underground economy and their politics, when present, will be for sale to the highest bidder.
Dowdney, Luke. 2003. Children of the Drug Trade; A Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio de Janiero. 7Letras.
Glaser, Clive. 2000. Bo-Tsotsi: The Youth Gangs of Soweto, 1935-1976. Heinemann; James Curry, David Philip.
Vigil, Diego. 2002. A Rainbow of Gangs: Street Cultures in the Mega-City. University of Texas.
John M. Hagendorn, University of Illinois-Chicago