Street Gangs


Gangs in one form or another have been around for hundreds of years. Pirates were probably some of the original bad gangs. The groups that traditionally come to mind when one thinks of modern day gangs are the Crips and the Bloods from California. The origins of the Crips and Bloods can be traced to the late 60's, and the gang culture is so ingrained on the west coast that many families have three and even four generations of gangsters residing in the same residence. Depending on whose figures you listen to (government officials have a tendency to downsize the numbers), L.A. gangs number between 800 and 1000, with anywhere from 120,000 to 220,000 members. As of January, 1993, we have identified about 40 named street gangs in Pulaski County with 800 - 1000 identified members. These numbers are often debated, and depending on whose criteria is used to decide who is and is not a gang banger. The figures could be considerably higher. African Americans have a 75 year history a street gang involvement in Los Angeles, younger that its Latino counterparts in Los Angeles, namely the Mexicans, who date back to as early as 1900. African-American gangs first appeared in Los Angeles in the 1920's in the downtown area of Los Angeles where they first settled. During the years to follow, African-Americans began to move southward from downtown Los Angeles, down Central Avenue towards Slauson Ave. Between Slauson Avenue and Firestone (Manchester), during the 20's and 30's was occupied primarily by white residents, but just south of Firestone, African-American populations were growing. In 1968, youths who were too young to participate in the movement with organizations like the Black Panther Party and US Ordanization, began to form their own organizations. Raymond Washington a 15 year old youth who attended Fremont High School, Locke High School and who frequented the area of Washington High School in Los Angeles got together a few youths and started a gang called the Baby Avenues. The Avenues was a gang of older youths who had been active since the early 1960's, and Raymond Washington, along with Stanley "Tookie" Williams looked up to and admired the Avenue Boys. So in 1968 he created the baby Avenues, and to represent the new generation of this gang he called it the Avenue Cribs, or Baby Avenues. The word Crip is a derivative of the word Crib, but how the use of Crip occurred is not clear according to the available literature, but I will discuss this more in depth in a future publication. By early 1972, the use of "Crip" had been entrenched into Los Angeles Gang culture. By 1980 there were 30,000 gangs members in Los Angeles County. Today there are over 300 Blood and Crip gangs in Los Angeles County. Around the nation they can also be found in over 100 American Cities. Some gang members have migrated to these cities from Los Angeles, and also youths from other cities have copied Los Angeles gang culture. There is an estimated 150,000 gang members in Los Angeles County.


In order to better understand the gang mentality, the following are considered the "Three R's" of gang culture:

(1) REPUTATION/REP. This is of critical concern to gang bangers (gang members). A rep extends not only to each individual, but to the gang as a whole. In some groups, status (or rank) is gained within the gang by having the most "juice" based largely on one's reputation. While being "juiced" is very important, the manner by which the gang member gains the "juice" is just as important. Upon interview, many gang members embellish their past gang activities in an attempt to impress their conversation partner. Gang members freely admit crimes and it has been my experience that most in fact do embellish their stories to enhance their feeling of power. In many gangs, to become a member, you must be "jumped in" by members of the gang. This entails being "beaten down" until the leader calls for it to end. Afterwards, all gang members hug one another to further the "G thing". This action is meant to bond the members together as a family. Frequently, young gang members, whether hardcore or associate, will talk of fellowship and the feeling of sharing and belonging as their reason for joining a gang.

(2) RESPECT. This is something everyone wants and some gang members carry their desire for it to the extreme. Respect is sought for not only the individual, but also for one's set or gang, family, territory, and various other things, real or perceived in the mind of the gang banger. Some gangs require, by written or spoken regulation, that the gang member must always show disrespect to rival gang members. (Referred to in gang slang as dis). If a gang member witnesses a fellow member failing to dis a rival gang through hand signs, graffiti, or a simple "mad dog" or stare-down, they can issue a "violation" to their fellow posse member and he/she can actually be "beaten down" by their own gang as punishment. After dis has been issued, if it is witnessed, the third "R" will become evident.

(3) RETALIATION/REVENGE. It must be understood that in gang culture, no challenge goes unanswered. Many times, drive-by shootings and other acts of violence follow an event perceived as dis. A common occurrence is a confrontation between a gang set and single rival gang banger. Outnumbered, he departs the area and returns with his homeboys to complete the confrontation to keep his reputation intact. This may occur immediately or follow a delay for planning and obtaining the necessary equipment to complete the retaliatory strike. It must also be understood that many acts of violence are the result of bad drug deals or infringement on drug territory. Some question the authenticity of gang rivalry in shootings and other acts of violence. However, if a group of individuals are together committing either random or pre- planned violence, aren't they a gang? If the gang aspect is learned about, many crimes can be solved through the use of accurate intelligence gathering techniques by law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem. In gangbanging, today's witness is tomorrow's suspect, is the next day's victim.

Hispanic Street Gangs

Hispanic gangs began forming in California during the early 1920s. They started as loose knit groups banding together for unity and socializing in the barrios (neighbourhoods) where the same culture, customs, and language prevailed. Gang members were male youths ranging from 14- to 20-years-old. Property crimes such as burglary, strong-arm robbery, and vandalism were their crimes of choice. These gangs had no formal structure nor leadership. They were very defensive of their barrio, and they would protect it with a vengeance. Gang fights occurred between rival gangs as a result of disputes, turf differences, or transgressions--whether real or imaginary. Often, their weapons included knives, zip guns, chains, clubs, rocks, and bottles. The commission of a crime became a way of gaining status within the gang. Imprisonment in the California Youth Authority or the California Department of Corrections earned a gang member great stature with other gang members. By the 1980s, these gangs began targeting their communities and surrounding neighbourhoods for drive-by shootings, assaults, murders, and other felonious crimes. Violence became a way of life. The gangs developed some organization and structure, and leaders emerged from the ranks of older gang members who had been stabbed or shot in gang fights or released from the youth authority or prison. Known as "veteranos," these gang leaders began to recruit new members and train them in gang-related criminal activities. They continued to be turf oriented, and gang fights progressed to gang wars. The age span for gang members widened, encompassing male youths ranging from 12- to 25-years-old who were willing to fight and die for the gang. Most of the gangs required new members to commit a crime, such as stealing a car or committing a burglary or robbery, before becoming a gang member. As the Hispanic gang members evolved, they established unique trademarks such tattoos, hand signs, monikers, and graffiti. Elaborate tattoos depicting the initials or name of a gang symbolized loyalty to a particular gang. Hand signs formed the letters of the gang's initials. Monikers were names assumed by--or given to--gang members, and they were usually retained for life. Intricate graffiti--or placa--clearly marked the gang's territorial boundaries and served as a warning to rival gangs. Gang members used these distinguishing characteristics to demonstrate gang allegiance, strengthen gang participation, and challenge rival gangs. The Department of Justice estimates there could be as many as 95,000 Hispanic gang members in California today. Located in all of the major metropolitan cities, these gangs vary in size from a few members to several hundred. The gang members range in age from 12- to 40-years-old, and many are second- or third-generation gang members. Adult Hispanic gang members recruit and use juvenile gang members to commit crimes or carry weapons because juveniles are subject to less severe sentences compared to adult penalties. Juvenile gang members are often arrested numerous times before actually serving time in jail or the California Youth Authority. Recruitment of new gang members often requires the prospective member to commit a drive-by shooting or some other form of felonious assault. Loyalty to their gang usually extends to their death. Reliance on tattoos, hand signs, and graffiti continues to dominate the gangs' characteristics. These symbols are frequently used to threaten rival gangs besides endorsing allegiance to their own gang. Their criminal activities now range from robberies, burglaries, grand thefts, vehicle thefts, receiving stolen property to assaults, batteries, drive-by shootings, and murders. They are becoming involved as entrepreneurs in the selling of narcotics--particularly PCP, Mexican tar heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The gangs' arsenals have expanded to large-caliber handguns, shotguns, and automatic weapons; and their crimes are becoming more violent. Hispanic gang members were responsible for approximately 80 gang-related drive-by shootings in Stockton, California, during 1991. Gang members will attack rival gangs in defence of their turf. The Eastside Longos--a Hispanic gang in Long Beach, California--has been involved in a gang war since October 1989 with the Tiny Rascal Gangsters--a Cambodian gang also located in Long Beach and in several other parts of the state including Fresno and San Diego. Drive-by shootings and assaults between these two gangs have resulted in 16 killings thus far. Law enforcement is an increasing target of gang violence. Hispanic gangs in the Los Angeles area, such as the Harbor City and the "Crazy," have attacked both on and off-duty officers. A few of the gangs are beginning to recruit non-Hispanic gang members, and some Hispanic gang members are joining different ethnic gangs. Various Hispanic gangs are aligning with other ethnic gangs, usually from the same neighbourhood. This affiliation allows them more neighbourhood protection from rival gangs. Hispanic female gangs are starting to evolve exclusive of the traditionally male-dominated Hispanic gangs. Some of the female gang members, such as the Fresno Bulldog Babes, are participating in drive-by shootings, auto thefts, and assaults.

African American Street Gangs

African American gangs began forming in California during the 1920s. They were not territorial; rather, they were loose associations, unorganized, and rarely violent. They did not identify with graffiti, monikers, or other gang characteristics. These early gangs consisted generally of family members and neighbourhood friends who involved themselves in limited criminal activities designed to perpetrate a "tough guy" image and to provide an easy means of obtaining money. From 1955 to 1965, the African American gangs increased with larger memberships and operated primarily in south central Los Angeles and Compton. This was partly due to more African American youths bonding together for protection from rival gangs. It was not until the late 1960s when the Crips and Bloods--the two most violent and criminally active African American gangs--originated. The Crips began forming in southeast Los Angeles by terrorizing local neighbourhoods and schools with assaults and strong-arm robberies. They developed a reputation for being the most fierce and feared gang in the Los Angeles area. Other African American gangs formed at about the same time to protect themselves from the Crips. One such gang was the Bloods, which originated in and around the Piru Street area in Compton, California; thus, some Bloods gangs are referred to as Piru gangs. The Bloods, which were outnumbered at the time by the Crips three to one, became the second, most vicious African American gang in the Los Angeles area. Both the Crips and Bloods eventually divided into numerous, smaller gangs (or "sets") during the 1970s. They kept the Crips' and Bloods' (Piru) name, spread throughout Los Angeles County, and began to claim certain neighborhoods as their territory. Their gang rivalry became vicious and bloody. By 1980, there were approximately 15,000 Crips and Bloods gang members in and around the Los Angeles area. The gangs--or sets--ranged in size from a few gang members to several hundred and had little, if any, organized leadership. The typical age of a gang member varied from 14- to 24-years-old. Initiation into a gang required the prospective member to "jump in" and fight some of the members already in the gang. Another initiation rite required them to commit a crime within the neighbourhood or an assault against rival gang members. They remained territorial and motivated to protect their neighbourhoods from rival gang members. They established unique and basic trademarks such as colours, monikers, graffiti, and hand signs. The colour blue was adopted by the Crips as a symbol of gang recognition; red became the colour of the Bloods. Monikers--such as "Killer Dog," "12-Gauge," and "Cop Killer"--often reflected their criminal abilities or their ferociousness as gang members. Graffiti identified the gang and hand signs displayed symbols--usually letters--unique to the name of their gang. It was not unusual for members to "flash" hand signs at rival gang members as a challenge to fight. They took great pride in displaying their colours and defending them against rival gangs. They were willing to die for the gang, especially in defence of their colours and neighbourhood. It was not until the early 1980s that the era of drive-by shootings began. They became involved in a variety of neighbourhood crimes such as burglary; robbery; assault; and the selling of marijuana, LSD, and PCP. The issue of gang involvement in narcotics trafficking was generally considered to be of a minor nature prior to the 1980s. However, by 1983, African American Los Angeles gangs seized upon the availability of narcotics, particularly crack, as a means of income. Crack had supplemented cocaine as the most popular illicit drug of choice. Prime reasons for the widespread use of crack were its ease of conversion for smoking, the rapid onset of its effect on the user, and its comparatively inexpensive price. The migration of African American Los Angeles gang members during the 1980s to other United States cities, often for reasons other than some vast gang-inspired conspiracy, resulted in the spread of crack sales and an attendant wave of violence. This spread of crack sales can be traced back to the gang members' family ties in these cities and to the lure of quick profits. These two reasons provided most of the inspiration and motivation for the transplanted gang members. Considerable diversity is displayed by Crips and Bloods gangs and their members in narcotics trafficking, which allows for different levels of involvement from narcotic selling by adolescents to the more important roles of directing narcotics trafficking activities. In the past, an individual's age, physical structure, and arrest record were often principal factors in determining gang hierarchy; money derived from narcotic sales soon became the symbol which signified power and status.

Asian Street Gangs

Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian gangs represent the bulk of the Asian criminal street gang problem in California. It was not until the late 1970s that Vietnamese gangs began to emerge, followed by Laotian and Cambodian gangs in the early 1980s. These gangs ranged in size from 5 to 200 gang members; and their crimes included residential and business robberies, auto thefts, and burglaries. Rarely were they involved in drive-by shootings. The gang members varied in age from 15- to 25-years-old, and the older gang members were usually the leaders. Early formation of Asian gangs was loose-knit, and the gang members did not associate with each other on a continuous basis. They had little, if any, loyalty to a particular gang. Unlike Hispanic and African American gangs, Asian. gangs began with no unique Characteristics such as tattoos, hand signs, or graffiti. They had no names for their gangs, nor were they organized or turf oriented. There were no female Asian gangs and few female Asian gang members. By 1985, the Vietnamese gangs were committing organized auto thefts, extortions, firearms violations, home-invasion robberies, witness intimidations, assaults, and murders. They frequently used some type of weapon during the commission of their crimes. Vietnamese gang members began targeting their own communities with ruthless and vicious crimes and would often travel to various Vietnamese communities throughout the country to commit these crimes. The Laotian and Cambodian gangs remained predatory. They became turf oriented, and their crimes were random property crimes--usually involving some form of robbery or burglary. The Department of Justice estimates there could be as many as 15,000 Asian gang members in California today. They are still principally representative of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian gangs; and their gang members vary in age from 13- to 35-years-old. They continue to terrorize and prey upon their communities with violent crimes, occasionally resulting in murders. They have increased their travelling patterns from coast to coast committing these crimes. Their growing level of mobility and violence has made them a national crime problem.

White Street Gangs

White gangs have been forming in California for decades. Early white gangs were oriented around motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels. Today's outlaw motorcycle gangs are not considered street gangs but, rather, organized crime groups. It was not until the late 1980s that the Skinheads were identified as the primary source of white street gang violence in this state. They were characterized by their shaven heads and white-supremacy philosophy and, for the most part, were fictionalized and unorganized. Skinheads formed as racist gangs and were not turf oriented nor profit motivated. Their crimes ranged from vandalism and assaults to murders. Generally, targets of their crimes included non-white, Jewish, homeless, and homosexual individuals. Confrontations between the Skinheads and their targeted victims were often random, but they usually culminated in serious injury or death to the victim. The age of the Skinhead gang members varied from early teens to mid-20s. Both males and females belonged to the gang; and their weapons included baseball bats, knives, fists, and steel-toed boots. Similar to other gangs, Skinheads resort to graffiti, hand signs, and tattoos as typical gang characteristics. Common graffiti includes swastikas and lightning bolts. Most of the graffiti is used to deface property rather than indicate gang territory. Hand signs include both the Nazi salute and formation of the letters "W" and "P" for White Power. Tattoos include swastikas, Nazi flags, hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, and the letters SWP for Supreme White Power and WAR for White Aryan Resistance. Skinheads began to establish associations with some of the more traditional white supremacy groups--such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). Gang members would travel throughout California and other parts of the country to attend KKK and WAR rallies, marches, and demonstrations. Skinheads have participated in cross-burnings and become members of the American Klan in Modesto. Skinheads have attended the annual meeting of the Aryan Nations' Church, a Neo-Nazi organization in Idaho linked to The Order--a former domestic terrorist organization. Skinhead gang members identify with the imprisoned and deceased Order members as "prisoners of war" and "martyrs" in the white-supremacist movement. Skinheads from California were residing with Skinheads in Portland, Oregon, during December 1988 when the Portland Skinheads used a baseball bat to beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death. The Oregon Skinheads were arrested and convicted for the murder, and the San Diego leader of WAR was indicted by a federal grand jury and found guilty of inciting violence by encouraging them to commit the murder. He had sent Skinheads from California to teach the Skinheads in Oregon how to commit crimes of violence against minorities. The California Department of Justice estimates there could be as many as 5,000 white gang members in California today. The Skinheads, with approximately 400 members, remain the most violent of the white gangs. Although small in numbers when compared to other criminal street gangs, their potential for violence is significant. Skinheads remain racially motivated instead of being territorial or inspired to commit crimes for profit. They are still loose-knit and unorganized, but there is some evidence that a few of the gangs have developed an internal gang structure. Some have printed and distributed membership applications, collected dues, established rules and regulations, and conducted meetings with formal minutes. The application for the American Front Skinhead gang implies that if a member betrays the organization, the punishment is "death by crucifixion." Some of the gangs have established phone hot lines, post office boxes, and their own publications intended to recruit new members.

The Look

The advent of teens wearing baggies and the gang-banger look, and more recently--the junkie look, does not necessarily mean that gangs have arrived in a particular neighbourhood. Neither do graffiti, code words, and symbols automatically translate into gang activity. A number of other studies agree (Clay and Frank 1994) (Also see "Taggers" above). A good deal of the literature suggests that "Clothing is a primary form of gang member identification." It further suggests that where gang activity threatens the school environment, school boards are pressured to respond to the gang-fashion so popular nowadays (Lane et al l994:64). School personnel may be overreacting as a result. Instead, school and police should look for the escalation of crime. The gang attire in and of itself does not mean that more crimes are also being committed. However, on the opposite side of this coin is the fact that if gangs are present in an area, the crime rate will certainly escalate. Growing out of the "grunge" look and with the adulation of the hip-hop culture with its "attitude," baggies and shaved heads, or gang attire, has become popular nation-wide among teens including upper and middle-class white adolescents as well. Gang attire is d8isplayed everywhere as the chic fashion statement for young people. It is shown all over MTV and other teen videos. Of course, teens have for many years adopted the dress of one another, particularly in ways found offensive to teachers, parents, and other authority figures--nothing is new about that. Today, however, gang attire is displayed with fanfare; it is widespread even among the wares of some of the very posh, expensive designers. But in the wrong neighbourhood, gang attire can get a youth in a lot of trouble and maybe even shot! On the other hand, white teens in upper and middle class white suburbia who sport the look will probably not be rounded up in "sweeps. In addition, focusing too much on attire as a tool for gang identification clearly leads to outright discrimination giving authorities license to apprehend and investigate young people when there is no rational basis for either inquiry or arrest. The community must act as the vanguard ever watchful of its constitutional guarantees. A case in point occurred in 1985. In the midst of public outcry for protection, Chief of Police Gates, in Los Angeles proposed civil sanctions against suspected offenders who wore gang attire. The proposal was quietly dropped. Obviously, imposing legal sanctions based on the way people dress is inconceivable under our system of government. Quite a stir arose as a result, and an outraged and justifiable protest came from the Latino as well as from the Black communities. Of course, all the wannabes and peewees wear the gang look although many are not yet involved in drug dealing and other criminal activity. In the peewee age group, shopping for clothes is still done with Mom, but it would seem that even she is willingly to buy the "in" look, the very clothes that could get her youngster shot! By the same token, many hardcore members have adopted designer labels or insignias of sports teams to wear with their baggies. Hence we have an odd admixture today, a crossover between the sports fan and gang attire. And marketing and merchandising strategies have grabbed the look and taken off with it in advertising gimmicks featuring gang and junkie themes to sell their fashions. Efforts to mandate clothing standards by school personnel have failed miserably short of going to a school-wide uniform. In Bannister v Paradis (1970) a lower court ruled that the prohibition of clothing because of style and taste was unconstitutional unless such clothing imposed a danger to the health and safety of others or caused a disturbance or other disruption (Lane et al. 1994:64). There have been numerous other cases dealing with clothes: one arguing about skirt length -- Wallace V. Ford (1972), and another one dealing directly with the issue of gang attire Olesen v. Board of Education of School District No. 228 (1987).On the other hand, school uniforms have served some schools well in dealing with the gang problem. MacClay Junior High, situated in the midst of gang infested projects, in Pacoima, California--a Los Angles barrio suburb, applauds the uniform established on their campus in the last few years. School administrators and teachers like the idea of everyone looking the same. Whether or not the uniform has done anything to ameliorate the gang problem is not clear, but at least on campus, there is no longer a gang banger image.


Urban street gang graffiti is the most common way for gangs to communicate their message. Organized graffiti is one of the first signs that street gangs are taking hold in your neighbourhood and is also an excellent way to track gang growth, affiliation, and sometimes even provides membership information.

Graffiti serves several purposes, all of which is understood by other gang bangers, even members of rival sets. Graffiti has been called the newspaper or bulletin boards for gangs and communicates many messages, including challenges, warnings, and pronouncements of deeds accomplished or about to occur. Local authorities should establish procedures to deal with this public eyesore. This is an area where the community can band together to show gangs they will not be tolerated. Graffiti should be removed or painted over after it is documented and investigated by the police. Some graffiti is nothing more than "tagging." An example of this is "Johnny loves Mary". Police departments and school officials should be sure someone within their respective departments develops an expertise in reading and understanding graffiti.

This is considered gang "knowledge" and is only a small part of what gang members must learn. In fact, many gang sets have extensive books, usually handwritten, of rules and regulations and gang history. These rules must be memorized. Often, gangs have set meeting dates and read from their "Book", and discuss gang business. In a strange sort of way, these meetings resemble fraternity or civic meetings. Many gang members have told of being "violated" for not knowing certain portions of their knowledge when called upon by a gang leader to recite it.

Other gangs use other codes and alphabets which must be broken locally. It should be understood that gangs may adopt other types of graffiti or make up their own. That once again illustrates the importance of developing local intelligence about groups by exercising cooperation among law enforcement officials, school authorities, and the general public. Gangs are certainly a community problem, and the community must galvanize to properly respond by dealing with those already involved and offering alternatives to those who accept.

While these illustrate gang activity in the Little Rock area, many of the same or similar markings will be found throughout the state and region. Roll call, "RIP", graffiti for a Little Rock Blood gang member killed in a shooting was recently found in a small community three hours away. While many gang members wear certain types of clothing, one must be very careful in assuming that a young person is a "banger" simply because they are wearing a Colorado Rockies or Los Angeles Raiders cap or jacket. Much other criteria is required. Some gang members have said that they joined up because it was trendy and cool while others are intimidated into joining for protection. Other kids who exhibit gang style are, in fact, only "being cool" by dressing the part.

Gang members are not all black. Indeed, one of the largest street gangs in the Little Rock area has only a few black members. Several members of this gang were recently arrested for attempted murder after fire-bombing a home in an attempt at retaliation. We have also identified several all female gangs who have their own reputations that are as ferocious as any of the male gangs. Male gang members privately have even expressed fear of several of the ladies of the female gangs.

There are also many white teens who are joining hate groups and various other groups who promote racial disharmony. These groups appear to be growing in number and may have organized recruitment efforts planned for your area. Recently while speaking to a parent/teacher group, I was told by a mother of her son's activity burning crosses and wearing white robes and hoods. When asked why she allowed this activity, she said she was afraid of her son and would not intervene. Any activity by or information about these groups should be passed along to your local police authorities.


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