Gang violence is a huge problem in America today. More and more children are joining gangs every day. It has become evident that these gangs made up of young people are causing numerous problems. Gang violence and gang activities impact all of those around the gang members. The kids in these gangs are hurting themselves, each other, their families, and the communities around them. Those who are associated with the gangs through family ties or just those who are associated with the gangs through geographical location. Before we can understand how gangs effect the people and communities around them we must first understand what gangs actually are. We must try and understand how the gang members think, how they react to certain situations, and what makes them do what they do.
First of all, why do youth join gangs in the first place? Often young people join gangs for a sense of belonging. When children are not getting the attention they need from other people they turn to those who will give them the sense of belonging that they long for. Often gangs form in, ìareas with weak family and neighborhood controls, especially poor urban slum areas. Children with low parental supervision often spend much of their time on the streetsî(Lo,38). Once in a gang, the gang becomes the childís family. Everything the child does is for the gang. ìGang members fight to protect what the members value, and to protect the integrity of the group...gang members engage in violent behavior to impress others and to reinforce their own self-esteemî(Lo,40). In order to gain status and respect in a gang, the gang member must give everything for the gang. The gang member must in fact have ìthe willingness to risk injury, defend personal integrity, and maintain gang honor....The juvenile who fails to live up to his gangís requirements (for example, the member who does not defend his honor) incurs an immediate, and perhaps irrevocable, loss of status and is forced to find new friends and form new alliancesî(Kennedy,90).
Violence is a common practice for children in gangs. If a gang is violated by another gang then violence is usually the method of retaliation. In todayís society gangs rarely fight using hand to hand combat. This method of violence has been phased out and replaced by a more vicious and deadly type of violence. The use of firearms has become the most efficient way of destruction. Having a gun gives the gang member a feeling of power and invincibility. ìIn settings where youths are overwhelmed by feelings of being powerless and where they sense no legitimate escape route from poverty and despair, guns assume a powerful symbolic, as well as practical, presence. In such situations an increasing number of youths perceive guns as the quickest and surest route to empowermentî(Brantley,3). Children in gangs often resort to stealing and robbing to get guns. Guns are imperative parts of gangs and are necessities. Gang members often feel powerless and vulnerable without a gun. Violence is used mainly when one gang or gang member feels challenged or threatened by a rival.
The conception that gang activities only concern the actual members of the gang is a false belief. The activities of a gang actually concern everyone associated with the gang and itís members. Families are specific examples of those who are not in gangs yet are still subject to the problems and hardships of gang life. Like I stated before, when a youth joins a gang, the gang becomes their family. To the child involved, the ìgang becomes their corporation, college, religion, and lifeî(Shakur,118). This usually means that the gang memberís real family falls by the way side. The relationship between family and gang member begins to deteriorate rapidly. The family becomes the new threat. Not a threat that the gang member wants to kill or eliminate, but a threat that is trying to change the gang members life style unwillingly. Shakur explains that in relationships between gang member and parent, communication has long been broken with that parent, who the child looks upon as a familiar intruder trying once again to offset stability. In this light, anything proposed by the parent - whether positive or not - is rejected The intruding parent becomes enemy like in thought, and is to be avoided. Nothing is to alter the setís existence.(Shakur,118).
A gang member feels that his or her lifestyle is their own choice. ìThe decision to commit a crime or entry into a delinquent lifestyle is a matter of personal decision making. This suggests that routine activities are shaped by, and in turn shape, choicesî(Kennedy,93). Like many youths across America, an adult trying to pressure that youth into changing his or her lifestyle only leads to the child doing the opposite.
Besides bad relations, the families must deal with other issues as well. The family must deal with the gang member getting in and out of trouble. Going from incarceration to freedom on a regular basis. Worse than prison is the issue of death. It is a fact that gang members, often very young gang members, die everyday from gang related violence. This is no secret. Knowing this, a parent, sibling, or other relative must constantly have the idea in their mind that their loved one could be killed at any time. This must be a never ending feeling of stress for a parent.
Communities in which gang activity is rampant must have stress placed upon them as well. Children in gangs are completely loyal to their respective gangs. They stop at nothing to further the progression of their gangs. While non gang members, or civilians as Sanyika Shakur, an x-gang member refers to them, are not the target of gangs, they will not stand in the way of them either. Youths in gangs often rob or steal from these civilians to get things for their gangs. Shakur explains how he use to ìbreak into neighborsí homes and steal their weaponsî(25). Also, these gang youths will jack or hold up civilians for their automobiles , cash, or possessions. Though this is a problem, it is the least of their worries. Civilians live in fear of being shot or killed by stray gunfire intended for other gang members. When gangs encounter rival gangs, violence often follows. Gangs usually begin to exchange gun fire regardless of their location or surroundings. Bystanders are killed every year by bullets which were not intended for them. These misdirected bullets have no bias and often kill small children and helpless babies. Shakur himself admits to have shot bystanders accidentally in the heat of battle.
In conclusion, we as Americans know that we have a serious gang problem in todayís society. Children all over the country are beginning to join gangs for one reason or another. It is evident that gang memberís families and the communities around gang activity are greatly impacted. Once in gangs, children often find themselves in situations which do nothing but hurt themselves and the people around them. From the sources I have used to help me write my paper to the guest speakers who have seen first hand the gang lifestyle, it is easy to see that gang activity is no doubt a huge problem that is plaguing our country. Gangs are effecting all of us. Whether in a gang or not, it is a problem which needs to be addressed. We must try to help the children in our own individual communities by giving them the attention that they need and providing them with alternatives to entering the gang lifestyle.
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.