Youth Gangs and Urban Riots

by Irving A. Spergel

in Riots and Rebellion: Civil Violence in the urban Community,
Edited by Louis H. Masotti and don R. Bowen. pp145; 154-156

Sage Publications


On the west side of Chicago during the summer riots of 1966, gang leaders known to youth workers of the Chicago Youth Centers were given arm bands and identification cards, and in some cases were paid to assist in the control of further violence and looting. They worked hand-in-hand with the police to pacify the crowds and communicate accurate information to youths and adults in the community. Gang leaders in other cities have played police auxilliary roles, both officially and unofficially, in the prevention and containment of riots....

Conditions For Increased Participation By Gang or Former Gang Members In Riot

I have proposed that fighting gangs as corporate entities tend not to precipitate or sustain riots and revolutionary activities, but certain types of gangs or former members do contribute to the ongoing development of civil disorders. It is important for purposes of social policy and social control to determine under which conditions gang members are likely to increase their participation in extremist activities and social disorders. The identification of certain conditions or variables- independent, intervening, and precipitant- is important for the creation of appropriate strategies of action, particularly by those concerned with minimizing the possibilities of extreme community disruption. These interrelated conditions which contribute to gang youth participation in riots are:

Civil Violence in the Urban Community

A. Independent Variables

1. Continued delimitation of social and economic opportunities for youth in the ghetto, relative to culturally induced high aspirations for achievement; consequently, a growing sense of failure to achieve desired status, more particularly a decreasing number of status-providing positions, whether at school or on the job.

2. At the same time, more youths are defined or stigmatized as deviant and subjected to degradation ceremonies-school failure, unemployment, arrest, imprisonment, etc.

3. Alternate meaningful illegitimate means to status achievement are further delimited; e.g. adult criminal structures are closed off and fighting gangs are suppressed or destroyed through the efforts of police and social agencies.

B. Intervening Variables

1. Increased adult organized effort is directed to radical social-change programs.

2. More effective efforts are made to involve deviant ghetto youths in these change programs, particularly through the provision of more meaningful status and inducements.

3. Mass communications, at formal and informal levels, more forcefully indicate the futility of the existing system of institutional relationships as a means of providing solutions to the status dilemma of youths.

C. Precipitating Variables

1. Control and socialization mechanisms, mediated especially by the police and the schools, become more in effective; e.g., the activities of the policed are defined as brutal and the attitudes of teachers as callous.

2. Social agency efforts in relation to problems of income maintenance, housing, recreation are decreased, and frustration on the part of clients is increased.

3. Crisis phenomena (natural and man-made) such as heat waves, cold spells, or communications or transportation breakdowns occur and serve to disrupt normal patterns of activity and produce frustrations.

These would appear to constitute necessary and sufficient conditions for the participation of ghetto youths, particularly gang youths, in civil disorder or riots. The presence of all these variables is probably essential for the involvement of youths in a riot. Thus, the reduction or elimination of one or more of these conditions would contribute to stabilizing a given community system. While the independent variables are the more fundamental conditions contributing to youth involvement in civil disorders, strategies of immediate control need to direct primary attention to the participant variables, where this is possible. Modification of police, school, and social agency attitudes and practices with a view toward at least minimally reducing status and situational frustration of ghetto delinquents would appear most useful. (Precipitant and intervening variables are, however, not unrelated to fundamental determining conditions).

In short, it may be more important-if the goal is to preserve community stability- not to summarily destroy fighting gangs, but to manage, control, and if possible, redirect the energies and interests of their members into both community and subculturally relevant enterprises.