The Top Ten Myths About Gangs and Gang Members
What every community should know about gangs and best practices
In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to study the rioting that took place in several different parts of the country during the summer of 1967. It was a defining moment and turning point for the nation as protests among the black community broke out in rioting and civil disobedience that shook the nation to the core of its conscience. The riots made it acutely obvious that something was definitely wrong, and could no longer be ignored, in the relationship between blacks and whites in American society. In an effort to get to the root of the problems President Johnson directed the commission by saying in part:
“…The only genuine, long range solution for what has happened lies in an attack – mounted at every level – upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions – not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.” (U.S. Riot Commission Report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, 1967)
When it was all said and done, and the report was produced on how to address the violence crisis, one of the witnesses that were invited to appear before the commission stated:
“I read that report… and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
Having been on the “front lines” of gang prevention and intervention work for over two decades, like the gentlemen in the above quote, I’ve also witnessed many communities continuing to repeat “the same analysis” and “the same recommendations” over and over again in regards to youth gangs and how to best go about addressing this growing community problem.
Why Youth Violence Exist
In his comments made to the National Investigative Committee, President Johnson summed up why youth violence exists:
- Not enough jobs
It is important for community leaders and decision makers to understand these larger social issues as the conditions that breed youth violence because it helps to develop strategy and prioritize use of limited community resources.
Gangs are not a problem that a community can get rid of “once and for all”, anymore than a gardener can get rid of the problem of weeds. They just keep coming back due to the natural laws of the environment that produce them. Yet, in light of this, we continue to hear community authority figures say things like, “We are declaring war on gangs” and “we will remove this scourge” from our community. For example, in 2011 the heavily gang infested area of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, the Contra Costa Times newspaper reported, “Gang members in the central San Fernando Valley were put on notice this week: Stop the violence, or law enforcement will come down hard on not just you, but your entire gang…it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before…it’s going to be relentless.” (Contracostatimes.com – posted 6/1/2011). As I stated above, this type of police response is certainly a piece of the answer, but the point I’m making here is too many communities resort to this as their priority response and where they invest the majority of their resources.
Information these days regarding gangs has evolved into quite an industry with gang conferences springing up all over the country providing information on the latest trends, statistics and best community practices. Yet, despite these efforts to educate, there is still a tendency for “gang myths” to drive the agenda of local, state and national gang policies. To be fair, taken as a whole, today’s gangs are a much more complex issue than they were in the past, thus gang conferences can serve to help clarify the ongoing evolution of the different types of gangs communities must respond to.
Using a sports metaphor, I encourage communities to call a community “time out” or, as I like to call it, a “community two minute warning.” For those of you not familiar with football, a two minute warning is a specific time in the game where the officials call an automatic time out for both teams. This time is used for strategic purposes where the coaches and players can confer and assess where they are in the game and make the necessary adjustments to give them the best advantage to either stay ahead and win, or come from behind and win.
I believe NOW is an important time for city officials to step back, call time out and think about what we’re doing, whether or not what we’re doing is working, and if it is the best use of community resources. Just like football teams that develop special plays and players to implement specific strategic plays during those final two minutes before the end of the game, so we also need to make sure we have the right “players” on the field to deal with our specific needs to win. This requires an accurate assessment of where we are weak, where we are strong, as well as, the weaknesses and strengths of our competition. No coach worth their salt would devise a strategy on faulty information about their team or their competition. They are dependent on accuracy, facts, and discoveries that guide them into an advantage. They would feel sabotaged by their assistants (who are charged with these responsibilities and supposed to be watching and recording all the tendencies and areas of opportunity for exploitation to win the game) if they did not report back “the good, the bad and the ugly”. As expert gang researcher Malcolm Klein says:
“In short, gang proliferation has changed important aspects of our society and seldom in desirable ways. Thus the extent to which responses are based on inappropriate, conventional wisdom versus accumulated fact-based understandings takes on special importance.”
Thus, if we are to avoid repeating the same analysis, which leads to the same ineffective recommendations of the past on how to deal with gangs, we must be sure about the facts vs. myths. Like an assistant coach sitting up in the coaches’ box overlooking the field and game, I have developed a series of common myths and facts that I will be sharing here over the next few weeks to assist in giving you a viewpoint of where we are weak, where we are strong and what we need to do to stay relevant and competitive in the game. As the “head coach” of your community, it’s up to you to either receive or reject the accumulated information and understanding of youth gangs and make the calls on your own home field.