“Two factors mark the major differentiation between earlier violent gangs and today’s violent gangs: the intensified commerce of drugs and the violence that surrounds the drug business, and the enormous increase in the availability of lethal automatic weapons that are used in gang murders.” —Lewis Yablonsky, Gangsters: Fifty Years of Madness,
Drugs, and Death on the Streets of America Gangs are not a new problem in the United States; they have existed in New York and other eastern cities for more than two hundred years. An examination of gang life in 1940s and 1950s New York and 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles helps explain the development of late twentieth-century gangs—gangs that scholars argue are far more violent than their mid-century predecessors.
Eric C. Schneider explored 1940s and 1950s gang life in his book Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Gangs: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. Unlike the Italian, Irish, and Jewish gangs of the early twentieth century, the gangs formed during and after World War II were increasingly non-European in origin. Among these gangs were the Rainbows and Hancocks (white gangs), the Chancellors and Negro Sabres (African American gangs) and the Viceroys and Latin Gents (Puerto Rican gangs). The influx of Puerto Rican and African American gangs into white neighborhoods sometimes led to violent conflicts between the newcomers and white gangs. Schneider observes that while serious injuries and murder did occasionally occur as a result of gang skirmishes in the early 1940s, “few gangs had access to real weapons, and when clashes occurred, nervous adolescents and single-shot weapons kept casualties low.” He also notes that gangs were able to keep violence to a relative minimum by “[imposing] their own order and codes for behavior.” These codes—which were not always observed— included establishing neutral territory and not attacking adults.
Although stabbings and hand-to-hand violence remained the primary methods of fighting, guns became easier to obtain in the postwar years, and consequently, New York gangs became more violent. According to Schneider, the homicide rate for adolescents nearly tripled between 1940 and 1946, increasing from 1.28 deaths per 100,000 to 3.45 deaths per 100,000. The number of adolescents arrested for murder increased from 34 arrests in 1940 to 88 arrests in 1946. By 1947, the gang problem prompted the formation of the New York City Youth Board, which sent social workers into the streets to gather information about and develop relationships with gangs. While the Youth Board, which was disbanded in 1976, did obtain a considerable amount of data about gangs, it did not solve the gang problem.
Like New York City, Los Angeles also has a lengthy gang history. The Los Angeles street gangs of the 1940s through the mid-1960s sometimes had violent confrontations but murders were rare. According to Alejandro A. Alonso, a professor at Santa Monica City College, most fights were handto- hand, though chains and bats were sometimes used. However, things began to change after the August 1965 Watts riots. African Americans, enraged by social injustice, rioted in the Watts neighborhood in southwestern Los Angeles; thirty-four people died and more than one thousand were injured. Some Los Angeles gangs, including the Gladiators, Slausons, and Rebel Rousers, formed an alliance and participated in the riots. Ironically, these gangs’ participation helped usher in new groups that were more political and less likely to participate in traditional gang confrontation.
Two of these post-Watts organizations were the Black Panthers (a black militant party, founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale) and the Brown Berets (formed in 1967 by a group of Hispanic students). Both groups replaced gang violence with social action; they established free health clinics, and the Black Panthers also developed free breakfast programs for children. The Black Panthers and Brown Berets protested against what they felt was racism and harassment by the police. Although intra-gang violence had been muted, conflicts with the police were often deadly.
While gang violence might have eased somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that era was not wholly peaceful, as it was during this period when the two most notorious Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, were formed. Raymond Johnson, Stanley Williams, and Jamiel Barnes founded the Crips—originally named the Avenue Cribs—in 1969. The Bloods were formed in 1972, following a conflict that summer between the Crips and another gang, the Pirus. The Pirus and other gangs that had fought with the Crips unified to become the Bloods.
Gang violence increased significantly in the 1980s, which is considered by experts to be the beginning of the contemporary gang era. Rather than relying on switchblades or hand-to-hand fighting, gang members were now using guns and automatic weapons to commit crimes. These weapons have significantly increased the number of gang-related homicides. Innocent bystanders are also more likely to be killed when these guns are used in a drive-by shooting. Lewis Yablonsky, an emeritus professor of criminology at California State University at Northridge, writes: “Only about 50 percent of gang-related murders hit the target of enemy gangsters.” Another major difference between gangs past and present is the explosion of the illegal drug market. The gangs of the 1940s to 1970s were largely uninvolved in the drug trade and more likely to hold regular jobs. By the 1980s, however, drug dealing had become a more prevalent income source. Schneider explains that lenient punishments for adolescent drug dealers, the development of crack in the 1980s, and an expanding market “converged to create an inner-city ‘enterprise zone’ based on illegal drugs.”
Although New York and Los Angeles have a long gang history, gangs are not just a city problem. Gangs have entered the suburbs and rural areas as well, making modern gangs an issue that can affect almost anybody. In Gangs: Opposing Viewpoints, the authors analyze modern gangs in these chapters: What Factors Influence Gang Behavior? How Widespread Is the Problem of Gangs? Can the Criminal Justice System Reduce Gang Violence? How Can Society End the Threat of Gangs? In those chapters, the authors debate how to respond to the problems posed by the growing gang presence.