gangs around the world have had an on-again off-again relationship to
politics. On the one hand, gang activity is often a product of youthful
alienation and lack of conventional opportunities. On the other hand,
gangs have at times been drawn into grass roots, nationalist, religious,
and revolu¬tionary mass activity. Gangs have also played both political
and para-military roles in support of powerful elites, and have organized
politically in defense of the underground economy.
There have been three distinct periods of youth gang political activity.
Triads, Mafias, Hooligans, and Voting Gangs
The earliest gangs were “primitive
rebels,” Mafioso in Italy and Triads in China who had their origins
in resistance to foreign rule — the Spanish Habsburgs and the Q’ing
Dynasty. These Sicilian, Italian, and Chinese groups were not pure social
movements, but combined nationalist appeals with the pedaling of protection
and control of gambling, prostitution, and drugs.
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 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 of
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
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 quiet in
the early 20 century as well as terrorize southern Blacks. The nadir of
racist gang activity was to occur in Chicago in the period after World
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.
Gangs in South Asia 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.
Gangs, Politics and Social Movements of the 1960s and 1970s
In 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/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
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
and 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 demoraliza¬tion, 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.
Globalization, the Drug Economy, and tlhe Power of Identity
Gangs, as organizations of the
street and participants in the drug economy, play an important political
role in the global era. The nation state 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 onto 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”, or domestic 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 the Islamic state to enforce Sharia, or Muslim law while
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 few got jobs
as policemen. The others had to choose between starvation and working
for the drug gangs. In South American, 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 mafiyas. 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 grisley 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
Gangs today have strong ethnic and/or religious identities. Their political
agendas often coincide with those of their ethnio-religious group. When
their group is in power, gangs can be used as shock troops in repression.
When street organizations are drawn from oppressed 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 all represented in different
hip hop artists and forms of music.
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 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.
The lesson for political activism is 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
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.