Gang wars have been raging on for over twenty-two years. A war without terms. A war fought by any means necessary, with anything at their disposal. This conflict has lasted nine years longer than the Vietnam. Though the setting is not jungle per se, its atmosphere is as dangerous and mysterious as any jungle in the world (Shakur xi, xii).
It is very disheartening to hear some of the facts about violence today; for example, rates of juvenile crime and weapons offenses are increasing and could end up uncontrollable by the year 2000 (Price). What kind of future can our children look forward to, other than a world plagued by vicious gangs? Why do our kids continue to flock to these gangs and what are their dangers; what can we do to alleviate this problem?
First of all, the appeal that gangs have for kids is incredible. Why do all of these children join up with gangs, when they are afraid of them and know the dangers? Many of them see gangs as some sort of escape from their existing problems. These kids come from broken homes, or possibly no homes at all. In many cases, living on the city streets is better than living with possible abuse or neglect at home. These kids are looking for safety. If they do not feel safe at home from the gangs, then they believe that turning to a gang for protection is the only way to go. In some ways, joining a gang is like having a family for the child. A gang may offer support and protection, something they often do not receive from their own families. Even though the gangs are the reason why protection is needed, they find themselves with brothers who will fight with them and for them on the streets. Along with protection, the gangs offer the children money and gifts, a place to live, and nourishment. The young boys are also drawn in by the sense of adventure and excitement of the gangs various "activities."
Also, as these children come from impoverished neighborhoods, they are quite needy. In Kotlowitz's book There Are No Children Here, he estimates that "one out of every five children live in the United States lives in poverty" (x). They go to the "nice side" of town and see the finer things that they will never have. The overwhelming desire to gain wealth and power leads these children to do just about anything for money. Meanwhile, gangmembers are pressuring and persuading kids, who are less conspicuous to the authorities, to do their drug trafficking for large amounts of money. A deal impossible to refuse, the kids accept the job; thus allowing themselves to become familiar with the city gangs at a young age. Between the need for attention, and the desire for wealth and excitement, city kids rarely turn away from their neighborhood gangs.
According to an article in PTA Today, there are many changes that take place within a child who is beginning to associate with a gang. Usually, a child will begin to change their dressing habits--wearing certain clothing to coincide with the gangs dress codes or colors. Most children show signs of withdrawal from those close to them, becoming disobedient and secretive. They may start using strange "slang" language, using graffiti, possessing large amounts of money, and even worse, showing signs of drug and alcohol use.
The violence of gangs is, by far, the most dangerous situation In which a child may be involved. In fact, using drugs and alcohol is probably one of the least dangerous activities that a child participates in within their gang involvement. Yes, it is a serious problem; however, the beatings, shootings, and deaths are comparatively worse. If a child happens to live through the fighting, which is often times unlikely, there is always the possibility of being caught and imprisoned by the law; although "80% of the most serious and frequent offenders escape detection and arrest" (qtd. In Price). By the time these city children reach their teenage years, they have dealt with more terror than some of us see within our lifetimes. "They have lived with fear and witnessed death. Some of them have lashed out. They have joined gangs, sold drugs, and in some cases, inflicted pain on others" (Kotlowitz xi).
Ideal children who fall victim to a gang are those living in poverty within large cities. Most children who choose to escape to a gang are, sadly, the victims of child abuse or neglect. They may come from a single-parent home and have a number of brothers and sisters. The child is simply overlooked and in need of attention and activities to occupy himself.
Indeed, gang violence is a sad problem we must deal with in today's society. Efforts are being done to control or stop the gang activities; however, the overwhelming number of gangmembers are difficult to manage. The most disheartening information is that our children's lives are being impacted upon by these people. What can we do to alleviate this problem? There needs to be stricter laws about owning weapons and crimes committed by juveniles, to protect our kids. Programs need to be organized so that children have somewhere else to turn besides the refuge that a gang may provide. If kids see that there are adults that care enough about them to protect them and be there when their own families are not, the gang population might not be as abundant and the authorities better able to handle the problem.
We need to do something to make this nation a safe place for our
future generations to live. The gang wars must be fought until their
elimination. Where the gangs have the greatest impact upon children,
society together, must fill the void and provide a healthy environment in
which our children may grow up safely.
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.