Gangs: Identity Groups and Street Capitalists

- By Sergio Jimenez

Gang cultures were first developed amongst isolated, alienated, and harassed minority groups who sought solidarity and understanding amongst people of their own race, culture, and ethnicity; people who were constantly being ostracized and left to die in their own misery by our racist system. The phenomenon of gangs isn't something new, as commentators and politicians would like to have you think. They have been around for a several hundred years, first growing out of the community bonds of tribes who sought to join up and live together as common people with shared values and with a sense of protection from other groups. There have been pirates, Mafiosi from the Italian and Irish mobs, cholos from the Latino community, and the crips and bloods, from mostly underdeveloped and working-class Black neighborhoods. However, the rise of the industrial revolution and capitalist ideology has sped the rise of gangs due to the amount of poverty and income inequalities, along with the need of rich entrepreneurs and their middle class servants to create paramilitary-like police officers and to write into law racist policies that mainly target minority communities. The increase in gangs has been further fueled by the ever growing and unexpected migration to the cities.

Today, countless gangs exist. They range from migrant Latino gangs, Black, Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese, White, and Filipino gangs, to middle class punk-rocker gangs, and taggers. They have all, in one way or another, suffered direct racism, class oppression, segregation, and other forms of discrimination in their lives. Latinos, for instance, have suffered for being brown skinned, mostly migrants, using another language, and for not assimilating to American culture. The same can be said for the other Asian and Pacific Asian groups. Blacks have suffered in being brought to this country by force in order to be used to produce and exploit as cheaply as possible, forced into segregated communities, lynched by racist mobs, and denied their rights as full-fledged human beings. This forced lack of having an identity, bonds, and solidarity with people of their own color and class, added by the few opportunities and the depressing environment which is faced on a daily basis, gave rise to the founding of gang structures. Sarah Healey, commenting on the reasons for the formation of South African gangs in the apartheid and post-apartheid era noted:

"Poverty, unemployment and urban ward migration swelled the ranks of the young. For many, joining gangs became a way to make friends, a sekiree of income and a means of survival in the wasteland. With the backing of the web in state coercion, the only defense the youths had was to build something coherent out of the one thing they had left-each other "(Pinnock, D, 1995:33).

This is particularly accurate for American reality. Starting at an early age, American history teaches us to be individualistic, to acquire property, to submit to the laws of capitalism, to know (and eventually try to forget) the brutal and violent history of this nation. This history, marked by the sole goal of profit and violence, has led groups who were once seeking shelter amongst their kind outside of American society into becoming practitioners of criminal capitalist thugery.

In a society where over 45% of families are not stable enough to provide adequate childcare for their children due to the lack of income, television becomes the poor man's babysitter. Thus, violent shows which are on every hour of the day, including cartoons for the children, fuel violent reactions in youth, causing them to believe that it is normal for one to use violence to protect their interests. The mass media in this country:

"plays an important role in popularizing violence. Images of wealth, happy families, power and violence are flashed onto the television and cinema screens and are given credibility and respect. We watch people gain privilege, power and respect through money, backstabbing and violence. Unemployed, poorly educated, bored and frustrated, the youth learn to use illegal and abusive means to become powerful".

On a typical day, any person with cable can sit down with their entire family and turn on HBO. This cable channel is the main founder and producer of a very violent gangster television show such as "The Sopranos." They glorify the daily life of Italian gangsters and the power they wield, the fine suits, wines, dinners, cars, etc., allows the viewers from all sectors of society to become familiar with gang life- although television gangs are more upper-middle class. The popularization of gang cultures on primetime television, the love-hate relationship our system has with gangs, contributes to the development of criminal groups who seek to attain a livelihood that America does not and cannot permit them to achieve through legitimate means.

It is the mixture of poverty, alienation, the search for power, violence, individuality, media, and other tools of oppression that give rise to gangs in our society. There are over half a million gangs in the United States. The numbers includes members every single sector of oppressed communities. Over one quarter of gang members have done time in a local or federal penitentiary. About one third of them are involved in petty crimes, shootings, robbery, rapes, dealing, growing, and now importing drugs from well-known Mafias from Colombia and Northern Mexico. Gang Mafias have sprung up in every major prison in the nation, and their numbers are rising, despite the fruitless efforts by the city police and attorneys office to dismantle them.

Gangs have been an integral part of society from the beginning of history. It is only in the last couple of decades that they have become more brutal in their tactics, the violence increasing due to the effects of our brutal world. The only way gangs will cease to exist will be with the elimination of private property and capitalist ideology. Too many people have died violently or have wasted their lives rotting in prison trying to acquire the rich man's dream of property and power.

Gang members fail to organize into real community and self-help groups different from the system due to their lack of understanding of class and racism. This misunderstanding causes them to side with those who are perpetrating violence against them, even if they still claim they are rivals. The police and gangs don't interact with each other. They are bitter enemies. This is because, first, the police are hired by the ruling class to protect their own self-interests and private property. Second, gangs try to achieve the same goals of acquiring the same private property the ruling class has, but in a different manner and meaning, one outside of the system, clandestine and illegal. Yet, both the police and gangs are bands of thugs. Both use violence to achieve their goals and remove any sign of dissent. They are able to survive due to the similarities in their ideology and will continue to do so only until the values of the rich cease to exist and newer values of community, solidarity, equality and redistribution of wealth and an end to racist policies come into being.

In short, American capitalism has always created various forms of gangs throughout its existence. The chaos created by capitalism for minority groups encourages the birth and development of gang members who seek each other out in order to alleviate their suffering, a suffering caused by the exploitation and alienation they endure from birth until death. Both gangs and capitalism have been able to coexist since the founding of this nation due to the individualist and racial hatred that has been a staple in American national policy in regards to the poor minority groups of color. That they in turn have adopted various capitalist methods is not surprising- regardless of the amount of autonomy or lack of assimilation by these groups, they are still influenced by the values of our system in one way or another.

If another, more humane system were to replace the current one, the problems of gangs would eventually decrease to near oblivion. Until that moment comes, gangs in America will continue to grow to an ever greater number, due to the increased police harassment and exploitative policies directed against poor, minority communities.

Sergio Jimenez, 26, lives in Los Angeles and is active with the Bus Riders Union. He's currently a student at Santa Monica College and Los Angeles City College. You can give him feedback at

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