There is a criminal phenomenon that has been under continuous study by criminologists and has also pre-occupied American society, “criminal gangs”. When the general public thinks of the term “gangs”, the thought inevitably evokes feelings and images predominately associated with criminal activity that aids to the dilapidation of their neighborhoods and social settings. The term gangs and the crime associated are often viewed differently by the media and law enforcement personnel and even more distinctively by politicians.
There is little debate that understanding what a gang is or is not facilitates the identification of variant types of gangs and subsequently aids in developing policies and tactics for communities to address their gang problems. These problems associated with the criminal phenomenon of gang activity range from petty thefts and graffiti “tagging” to drug use, distribution and homicide. The ailments to a neighborhood caused and/or associated with gang activity are of a social disorder that is no longer considered a localized issue.
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Gangs have become broadly interconnected with separate chapters across the United States and even have a presence transnationally. Gangs are a criminological problem because the dilemmas of gang activity have grown beyond large cities and urban environments and found a home also in smaller cities and suburban life. According to an FBI study, criminal gangs commit as much as 80 percent of the crime in many communities and gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities, expanding the gangs’ influence in most regions (2009 National Gang Threat Assessment).
The various criminal street gangs in the United States range from small neighborhood-oriented petty units to much larger international and commercial gang oriented establishments. Gangs present a nationwide problem and the related issues are magnified by the continuous recruitment of local youth into gangs which are transnational and internationally based. Many suburban and rural communities are facing an increase in criminal acts attributed to gangs and their immediate influence on the social structure of the neighborhoods they reside in.
Los Angeles is one such city that has long been plagued by the presence of criminal gangs. In 1993, gang members were involved as suspects or victims in about one-third of all homicides and historically, between 1980 and 1989, the homicide rate in Los Angeles was more than double the rate for the State of California (Meehan and O’Carroll). Los Angeles has been a focal point for many studies conducted regarding the phenomenon of gang activity. As noted, the gang phenomenon has been a focal study of criminological researchers.
Various research theories have been employed in an attempt to identify social origins and the implications of gang activity. There is an abundance of facts that pertain to gang crime and the related byproduct of this type of criminal activity. But what are the explanation(s) as to how and why these facts became measurable and accountable? In other words, what are possible causes and explanations to the creation and survival of gangs and its members respectively?
Many different scientific theories could be employed to propose answers about the relationships between observable events in gang phenomena. To provide an explanation to this phenomenon, a review of gang related issues found in Celeste Freman’s “G-Dog and the Homeboys” is coupled with the contention that such issues are the result of a cultural imbalance between the socially accepted pursuit of wealth and the less desired value of hard work, honesty, and education. Such an explanation is most appropriately found when applying the criminology based Strain Theory.
This theory is derived from exploring the social structures in America and the accompanying opportunities available to pursue socially supported norms like the pursuit of wealth or status, often referred to as the American Dream. Ultimately, the result on individuals to acquire wealth or status creates undue stress propelling some to seek results through non-institutionalized means. This is a practice and a sub-culture that is readily accepted within gang phenomenon. The Strain Theory, originally presented by Robert K.
Merton, has been used in various studies to support the premise that the American Dream concept and the pressure to achieve some resemblance of it serves as a causation of crime. It is not uncommon to see reporting of individuals resulting to unconventional means like crime to obtain what they cannot through conventional means. The Strain Theory makes an effort to justify factors found in low-income and industrial neighborhoods. It presents these factors as barriers to opportunity and directly attributes them to crime and the formation of gangs.
The Strain Theory is part of the Positivist School of Criminology thought and supposes actions are observable and not socially created. Strain Theory consists of elements from social disorganization and an individual lack of norms, termed “anomie”. The social disorganization and anomie theories are derived from different research platforms but all have common arguments. The proposed thought is that the less there exists of solidarity, cohesion, or integration within a group, community or society, the higher will be crime, the rate of crime, and deviance (Akers and Sellers).
What drives someone to commit such unconventional acts in pursuit of wealth or status? Merton’s position concerning an individual pursuing non-institutional means is derived from a person’s “attitude” toward the pursuit of cultural goals such as wealth and status. Merton presented manners that an individual may resort to from undergoing strain caused by the limited access to resources needed to obtain these institutional goals. The way an individual responds or the adaptive manners is dependent on their acceptance or rejection toward social goals, the American Dream and status, and the opportunity available to attain them.
Not having available resources and opportunity will directly attribute to gang association and membership recruitment. A study of Strain Theory regarding attributing factors of gang membership identified the stigma of poverty status to have a positive effect on gang membership and may even aid to the perception of blocked opportunities (Vowell and May). A neighborhood that is ripe with social problems, low income housing, and little opportunity offers a higher potential for juvenile delinquency and assimilation of like minds such as gangs.
Evidence to this is noted in the study of Strain Theory which found evidence that living in a neighborhood where social problems and physical deterioration were perceived to be a problem and was positively related to delinquency. Additionally, this study noted that general strain leads to delinquent involvement by weakening the conventional social bond and strengthening the unconventional bond with delinquent peers (Paternoster and Mazerolle). This presents the likelihood of individuals finding similar non-institutional means to obtain social goals from gang membership.
Gangs do offer knowledge of non-institutional means and in many cases offer the peer support to an individual pursing what they desire, often it is a derivative of the American Dream. The Strain Theory provides a plausible reason why most crime is fixated in certain areas of urban cities, supported by the assertion that social culture and structure must be weighed as equal parts. The theory by Merton emphasizes that society places more importance on the success of an individual achieving wealth or status than on the socially accepted means by which this success is obtained.
All classes of American society have been inundated through the media, politics, education, and marketing that success is the most important social value. Yet, the opportunities to attain this success are limited in the lower-class of society and thus provide a breeding ground for gang creation and advancement. When these opportunities are pursued, they are expected to be sought out in truthful and socially accepted ways. Unfortunately for our society, more emphasis is placed on obtaining the American Dream and the success of wealth than the manner in which it is accomplished.
There is a dominant belief in the American Dream or social status and this belief is one that encompasses all classes of society. However, equal opportunity, the socially recognized need to attain the American Dream or status is unfortunately distorted among the lower-class of society. There is an outcry from these citizens who consider resources available to capture their goals as distorted when compared to other classes creating a springboard of stress.
Even though all citizens of our society believe and measure their success by obtaining some portion of the wealth and status, some are not provided the standard resources to meet the expectations demanded to acquire it. Building on the strain theory, Albert K. Cohen pursued a position where male deviant behavior was in response to “blocked opportunities” and was an assimilating attribute of the lower-class subculture produced from social structure strain (Vowell, & May). The deviance provoked behavior was due to the inability to gain social prominence.
This is similar to Merton’s variation of Strain. However, Merton centered on material wealth rather than a position in society or status. Middle-class citizens are accepted and supported in work and education environments because of they typically are able to meet social expectations required of them for status or of wealth. Unlike the middle-class, the lower-class populous finds it difficult to meet socially accepted standards due to the limited access to available resources and result to deviant behavior.
This is often materialized by the formation and acceptance into the social subculture of gangs where the rejected find common ideology and share in access to unconventional means such as crime. It is in this subculture of gangs that the unconventional measure to achieve a certain status or respect is found. The Strain Theory proposed that the deviant assimilation is carried out by identifying the opportunities that are also legal means, not just the illegal ones.
In essence, the premise is made that an individual is not driven to conduct criminal behavior solely by the singular desire to acquire wealth or status but also there is a learned behavior of criminal means and acts derived from the social environment they are reside in and ultimately exposed to. This can be expounded on within a gang environment producing criminal acts of different sorts to foster the pursuit of status and wealth. As mentioned, the issues of gang activity in Los Angeles present an overwhelming constraint on positive social development brought on by criminal activity.
The criminal acts carried out by the likes of gang members within the Los Angeles neighborhoods highlighted in G-Dog and the Home Boys are a result of the absent non-supportive family structure needed. Employment opportunities, when provided by Father Greg (G-Dog), are ridden with social hurdles. To even pursue the opportunity, they must first escape beyond the concrete island their gang resides on and “trespass” into those areas marked as enemy territory. Such enormous impediments can seem overwhelming and result in an individual retreating into the fold of his fellow “homies”, dismissing the potential of an opportunity.
This hurdle is secondary to the perceived reprisal waiting in the wings of the Los Angeles Police Department and the subsequent sentiment fellow gang members have of abandonment. The various gangs, primarily Clarence Street Locos, viewed by Fremont over the shoulder of Father Greg all were comprised of members who were predominately juvenile, from a broken or deteriorating family structure, out of or were recoiling from school and education, jobless and possessed little belief in the prospect of a future without the support of their fellow gang members.
Whether the East L. A. Dukes, Capones, The Mob Crew, East Coast Crips or another Latino or African American gang, the predominant make-up of its membership were part of an unskilled and poor community searching for a sense of belonging and a way for survival. Members like Dreamer, Turtle, Ghost, Droopy, Ghost, Oso, Silent, etc. , all battled a daily routine of gang life in and out of the projects. Members of the community of gang ridden neighborhoods of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village had little to offer its inhabitants. These predominately Latino immigrant ommunities possessed little in way of educational or employment opportunities. There were little options for jobs and instead the community youth found themselves marketing the gang arenas for membership. Most of the Clarence Street gang members became role models for their siblings and continuously offered “veterano” advice for participating in gang life. This type of life was all that seemed to be obtainable, due in no small part to the lack of opportunities. This then became the only way they knew to get what they wanted in life.
The lack of opportunity is magnified without a solid role model and father figure in their home. This was a constant variable throughout the insights collected by Freeman provided by individual gang members. When there was a father figure present, it was one that showed little compassion or even interest into their life. The lifestyle as a gang member was the opportunity that was available to them and is what filled the void of family and acceptance. Their daily struggle is evident in the simple but deadly decisions they had to make; visible in determining a roundabout path to a party or through an enemy’s territory.
The homicides that occur, the decisions to “hit back”, the dishonorable choices made when confronted by another gang, the fear of police, the need to find employment, the hopelessness of education, the constrained choices to sleep in cars or homeless shelters, etc. , all are attributing factors of stress that result from a lack of opportunity when pursuing a life of normalcy. “Gangs come into existence and flourish because the needs of the young people in a neighborhood or culture or family are not being met.
The gang, in essence, fills the void” (Gardner). The American Dream and the need for status present the same “needs” often sought after by unconventional means through gang activity. No doubt Father Greg’s commitment witnessed by his numerous attempts to help over and over again through mental and economic support created opportunities otherwise unavailable. Not to mention his eventual creation of Homeboy Industries and the overwhelming economic advantage it offered in reducing negative employment and neighborhood induced stress.
Gang Phenomenon is a socially adaptive instrument that offers the mechanism to fill the needs, such as the wealth and status, of the deprived juveniles. The gang and its members discussed in G-Dog and the Home Boys sought nontraditional means that were socially unacceptable but filled the emptiness caused by the lack of opportunities in the lower-class communities they resided in. As long as there is apparent or perceived blocked opportunities and unequal resources in the lower-class, gangs and their related criminal activity will be a continuing issue for America.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Akers, Robert, & C. S Sellers. (2009). “Criminological Theories, Introduction, Evaluation and Application”. New York: Oxford University Press. Fremon, Celeste. (2004) G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles. University of New Mexico Press. Gardner, Sandra. (1992). Street Gangs in America. Franklin Watts, New York, NY. Meehan, Patrick and Patrick O’Carroll. (1992). “Gangs, Drugs, and Homicide in Los Angeles. ” American Journal of Diseases of Children 146.
Paternoster, Raymond and Paul Mazerolle. (1994). General Strain Theory and Delinquency: “A Replication and Extension”. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. Volume 31. The National Gang Intelligence Center. (2009). Product No. 2009-M0335-001. “National Gang Threat Assessment. ” Vowell, Paul and David May. (2000). Another Look at Classic Strain Theory: “Poverty Status, Perceived Blocked Opportunity, and Gang Membership as Predictors of Adolescent Violent Behavior”. Sociological Inquiry. Volume 70.