Gangs are groups of people with a common identity who are recognized as a distinct entity with leadership and an internal organization. Gangs, including street gangs, motorcycle, and prison gangs, typically have a territory and may be involved in antisocial, rebellious, or illegal activities.

A gang is a group of people whose members recognize themselves as a distinct entity and are recognized as such by their community. Gangs are characterized by a group name, a recognized leader; formal membership with initiation requirements and governing rules; its own territory, or turf; identifying marks or tattoos, hand signals, hair styles, jewelry and items of clothing; and private slang. The U.S. Department of Justice has divided gangs into several types:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that 33,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs are active in the United States, including about 1.4 million members. Many of these gangs are sophisticated and well organized and control their neighborhoods using violence. They are more involved in serious criminal activities than earlier in the twentieth century, with ever-younger perpetrators increasingly ready to use deadly force to handle rivalries or carry out drug activities. The National Gang Threat Assessment reports that gangs are responsible for about 48% of violent crime in most jurisdictions and up to 90% in larger cities. A major factor in increasing levels of gang violence is easy access to such weapons as automatic rifles, rapid-fire pistols, and submachine guns. Another factor in the increasing scope of gang activities is links to drug suppliers or customers outside the United States. Gang violence may involve illegal and nonpolitical acts of violence directed toward innocent people and property or against rival gangs. In 2006, Los Angeles officials reported that 58% of murders were gang-related. Most gang-related homicides are within large cities with larger gang member populations and racial issues.

Gangs are found among virtually all ethnic groups in the United States. Mexican American gangs, whose members are sometimes referred to as cholos, have long been active in the Southwest and have spread to other parts of the country as Hispanic populations have grown to include not only Mexican Americans but new immigrants from Central American countries, especially El Salvador. African American gang affiliations often center on the Crips and Bloods, two Los Angeles gangs that are bitter rivals, or the Chicago gangs, Vice Lords and Folk Nation. Chinese gangs began in New York in the 1960s and 1970s and still prey on the Asian community, extorting money in return for protection. With the wave of immigration from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs formed and terrorized their own communities. The FBI reports that Italian organized crime groups, including Cosa Nostra or Mafia, Camorra, and Sacra Corona Unita, have 25,000 members operating within the United States.

The most visible white gangs are the skinheads (named for their close-shaven heads), who typically embrace a racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay philosophy, often involving neo-Nazi symbolism and beliefs. Between 3,000 and 4,000 skinheads are believed to live in the United States, including members of the Aryan Youth Movement, Blitz Krieg, and White Power. Skinhead activities have included painting racial slurs on buildings, damaging synagogues and the homes of Jews and African Americans, and sometimes perpetrating fatal assaults on members of minority groups. The white Spur Posse, a gang of white high school athletes in California, received media attention in the late 1990s for sexually molesting teenage girls.

Gang involvement is associated with societal factors such as poverty, racism, and the disintegration of the nuclear family. Some critics claim that gangs are glamorized in the media and by the entertainment industry. On a personal level, adolescents whose families are not meeting their emotional needs turn to gangs as substitute families in which they can find acceptance, intimacy, and approval. Gangs may also provide the sense of identity that young people crave as they confront the dislocations of adolescence. Some young people already have a connection to a gang through family members who belong, sometimes even several generations of a single family. Another incentive for joining is money from lucrative drug trade, whose profits may easily exceed the income from any legitimate job.

The basic unit in gangs is a clique of members about the same age that may or may not be allied with similar groups as part of a larger gang. The Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles consist of many sets, with names such as the Playboy Gangster Crips, the Bounty Hunters, and the Piru Bloods, to which members give their loyalty. These neighborhood groups have leaders who may command as many as 200 followers. In groups affiliated with larger gangs, these local leaders are accountable to chiefs higher up in the gang hierarchy. At the top is the kingpin, who has the ultimate say in how the gang conducts its financial operations and who oversees its members.

Five primary stages of gang involvement have been identified, including initial exposure to gang members by at-risk or peripheral youngsters ages 7–9 who may know gang members and admire or imitate them; a second level of associates or affiliates between ages 9 and 18 who have regular contact with gang members and follow gang activities; actual gang members age 14–20 who have significant attachment to the gang mentality or code, may participate in activities, and will associate almost exclusively with gang members while excluding family and former friends; and finally hard-core gang members who are active adult members totally committed to the gang and gang lifestyle and who may have been arrested or who are already known within the justice system.

Gangs adopt certain dress codes by which members show their unity and make their gang affiliation visible both to members of other gangs and to the community at large. Gang members are usually identifiable by both the style and color of their clothing. Latino gangs traditionally wore khaki pants, white T-shirts, and plain cotton jackets, but in the early 2000s black pants and jackets are favored, often worn with black L.A. Raiders caps. The Crips are strongly associated with the color blue and typically wear blue jackets, running shoes with blue stripes and laces, and blue bandannas, either tied around their heads or hanging prominently from a back pocket. (The color of the rival Bloods is red.) Two rival African American gangs in Chicago wear hats tilted in different directions to signal their affiliation. With the increased use of deadly force by gang members, gang clothing codes can be very dangerous: Nonmembers have been killed for accidentally wandering onto gang turf wearing the colors of a rival group. In addition to their clothing, gang members express solidarity by adopting street names and using secret symbols and codes, often in graffiti spray painted in public places.

Although most gang members are male, women do join gangs, either mixed-gender or all-female gangs that are sometimes satellites of male gangs. Traditionally, women have played a subservient role in mixed gangs, assisting males in their activities and forming romantic attachments within the gang but generally not engaging in criminal activities more serious than shoplifting or fighting girls from other gangs. To be initiated into a mixed-sex gang, female members have often been required to have sex with multiple gang members. Girl gang members are increasingly apt to participate in serious violence such as drive-by shootings, armed robbery, and attacks on innocent victims in public places, often involving sexual assault.

A common feature of gang membership is the difficulty encountered by people who want to quit. They are typically punished in some way, ranging from ritualized beatings to murder. Sometimes the member's entire family is terrorized. Many persons, and sometimes their families as well, have had to move to another city in order to safely end gang affiliations. In some cities, organizations staffed by ex-gang members may help people who want to leave gangs.



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National Youth Gang Information Center, 4301 Fairfax Dr., Ste. 730, Arlington, VA, 22203, (800) 446-4264, .