Street Gangs

VII. Gang Control

Thus far, little has been said in this research paper about efforts to address the problem of gangs, saving for last what has become an enormously important and controversial topic. Reflecting multiple points of view, the history of gang control in the United States has changed drastically since the early days of street worker programs, an indirect descendent of the Chicago Area Project emphasizing community organization. Fast forward roughly 50 years, and the picture appears quite different. Weapons, drugs, money, and cars have all made gang violence more deadly, fueling American society’s long-term reliance on the police and the nation’s prisons for “suppression” of such problems.

Although programs emphasizing suppression have dominated gang control policy, little success can be demonstrated that is based on rigorous evaluation. Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson (2006) express skepticism, however, noting that the vast majority of gang control programs in the United States have targeted individuals rather than groups, thus ignoring the group processes and structures that are so important to gang behavior. A few consequences of this approach are illustrated by anthropologist Elana Zilberg’s (2007) ethnographic study of criminal, immigration, refugee, and human rights law within and between the United States and El Salvador. Zilberg studied the rise and decline of Homies Unidos, “a transnational youth violence prevention organization,” an organization of young people, many of them members or former members of Salvadoran gangs who had been deported from the United States:

Homies functions as a liaison between gangs, civil society, and the state, and is one of the only alternative spaces of representation available to gang and deported gang youth. While the organization works with gang-affiliated, -alleged, and -impacted youth in general to redirect the gang structure, its disciplines, and its solidarities into tools for stopping the violence committed by gangs and against gangs, it also functions as a support group for gang members deported from the United States who are seeking an alternative to violence. (p. 62)

Pointing to the paradox that the United States has championed both human rights legislation and draconian law enforcement policies with respect to street gangs, Zilberg (2007) attributes the declining effectiveness of Homies Unidos to the “boomerang effects of the globalization of zero tolerance policing strategies” (p. 83), which undermine their efforts by treating members of the organization as active gang members. Further, to earlier criticisms that deportation globalizes gangs and gang violence, she adds that the U.S. policy of forced exile has had especially devastating effects on the identity and future prospects of targeted youth.

As indicated by recent calls for expanded police gang units and punitive legislation such as the Gangbusters’ Bill, suppression is likely to remain for some time the single most popular strategy for dealing with gang problems. However, there is growing consensus concerning the need to get past “business as usual” and focus on community involvement, investment, and institutional support. In California, for example, authorities continue to experiment with civil gang injunctions and other civil—as opposed to criminal—remedies, albeit often involving legal controversy. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has supported the (Irving) Spergel model for a comprehensive, community-wide approach to gangs, seemingly embracing the importance of prevention and intervention as well as suppression. The Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program brings gang education to many classrooms throughout the country, and encouraging results have been reported for Operation Ceasefire, an initiative of the Boston Gun Project. Father Gregory Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, offering “at-risk and former gang involved youth . . . a variety of services [e.g., tattoo removal, job training, counseling, and so on] in response to their multiple needs,” emphasizes mentoring, life skills, and “first chances” ( Several other programs have placed workers (i.e., ex–gang members) back on the streets, in an effort to build capital and promote collective efficacy among gang youth and their communities.

Determining the efficacy of such programs is extremely complex, if not impossible. Few systematic evaluations have been conducted, and criteria for “success” among existing studies are often defined and measured narrowly in terms of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. The issues discussed in this research paper underscore the need for an expanded view of gangs and strategies for their control. In addition to problems of capital and their effects on families, communities, and individual socialization, both in the short and long term, much greater attention must be paid to the relationship between prison and street gangs. In view of America’s heavy reliance on incarceration and suppression as means of crime control, it is also important to understand the nexus of prison and street. Since James Jacobs (1977) documented the dramatic rise of Chicago gangs in an Illinois maximum security prison during the 1970s, the consequences of prison gang influences on the street, as well as street gang activity behind bars, have received little consideration.

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