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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Street Gangs (But Didn’t Know Whom to Ask)

We recently solicited your questions about street gangs for Sudhir Venkatesh, the then-grad student we wrote about in Freakonomics who is now a professor of sociology at Columbia. His answers are, IMHO, fascinating. Your questions were really good, too; thanks. Venkatesh will publish a book, Gang Leader for a Day, in early 2008.

Q: Do you think the HBO series The Wire gives an accurate portrayal of gang life? It is clear from the show (if it is as real as it seems) that traditional policing strategies are very ineffective.

A: I am a huge fan of The Wire. I actually watched Season Two with a group of high ranking gang leaders/drug dealers in Chicago, who desperately wished that the series producers would make a separate show about Chicago! Everyone in the room agreed that the writers did well to show the nuances in the underground economy.

Q: A lot of rappers, particularly Jay-Z and 50 Cent, claim to have been successful crack dealers. Any thoughts on this? Were they just low-level dealers barely making a profit, or did they really have something to pay for their future studio time? Did any of the gang members you knew claim to be on the dealer-to-rapper fast track program?

A: In all my years of studying gangs, I have met only a handful of individuals who have actually participated in the dealer-to-rapper fast track program. Alas, they end up going to jail before they get successful, and most of the ones I’ve seen can’t sing worth a lick. I’m deeply skeptical about rappers who proclaim experience with drug sales. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but for the most part I would be very careful about the claims that are made in songs. Many rappers are highly trained musicians who have spent little time on the streets, as it were — think of Mos Def.

Q: How do you define a gang?

A: Great question. There are a few important legal cases where prosecutors tried to prosecute college fraternities as “gangs.” They suggested that the fraternity was an organization that existed to promote criminal behavior, such as the abuse of women and underage drinking. Most judges threw these cases out because they thought that fraternities were not, by definition, “gangs.” But judges rarely gave a logical reason for excluding (typically white) fraternities from the “gang category.”

Indeed, by any valid social scientific definition of a gang – “an established organization whose members come together for solidarity reasons and who engage in delinquent and/or criminal activities” – a fraternity most certainly qualifies. But race, as we know, can be a factor in shaping judicial outcomes.

Q: Yakima, WA, just passed a law that makes it illegal for anyone to be a gang member, with penalties of up to one year in prison. Also, fines can be imposed on parents for failing to prevent their kids from joining. Do you think laws like this help? Are they effective in any way, shape or form?

A: The problem with these municipal ordinances is that police do not always have a foolproof way of determining gang membership. In Chicago, for example, police department officials told me that 4 out of 5 youths are mistakenly believed to be gang members. In smaller cities — like Yakima — I am almost positive that the rate is much lower. However, police often do not have an effective way of figuring out whether someone is in a gang, so they round up many young people who have never had any involvement in gang activity.

You can imagine that the ACLU typically challenges these ordinances, although they are not always successful in their efforts to overturn them.

A modified version of this initiative is used informally in many poor communities. Police will use a “scared straight” approach by taking young people to the station where they frighten them with information about jail conditions, the possibility of being beaten up by imprisoned gang members, and so on. I know many parents who love it when police “scare” their children into getting off the corner and back into school.

Q: What role do women play in gangs? Are they just for sex? Do they ever get to be in charge? Are they low-level peons?

A: In the 1970s and 1980s, female gangs were independent organizations in places like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. They tended to be non-criminal, and usually distributed common funds to their members for day care, rent, groceries, and other needs of single mothers. On occasion, they might have engaged in petty fighting, but not often. They were largely political outfits and functioned like social service agencies in ghetto communities that lacked services.

But toward the end of the ’80s, they became wrapped up in drug trafficking — and, just like gender subordination in corporate America, they were under the thumbs of males in the gang who controlled the economy. They were indeed “peons” who were given the lowest level jobs by men — e.g., watching out for cops, holding drugs, cleaning up after gang parties, prostitution — and they had no power at all. No surprise that the female gangs dissolved over time.

Q: Is there a correlation between illegal drug consumption and gangs? If so, do you support drug legalization?

A: To answer the first question, gang members actually have a fairly low rate of hard drug consumption. Certainly they consume alcohol and marijuana (some may call these hard drugs, of course), but they usually don’t have high rates of heroin, crack, and synthetic drug use. This will change as the gang members get older. Those in their late twenties can be users on occasion, particularly if they are unemployed and looking to the gang for earnings.

I am not sure if I support legalization. I support control by the government, but not necessarily legalization. The former would be immensely helpful from the point of crime control and limiting the secondary effects of drug use, such as hardships on families and devastating impacts on communities. The reason I don’t support legalization is that, whenever an illegal substance becomes legalized (think of alcohol), minorities get the short end of the stick; usually, white ethnic groups have the capital to control the market. This was the story for gambling in the ghetto.

Q: My impression is that increasing police presence in a neighborhood where a gang is operating just moves the problem. I lived for four months in such a neighborhood in Portland, OR, and that seemed to be the case there. The police in my community tell me that … moving the problem is like taking care of a lawn: you have to keep after it all the time or the weeds will take over. What do you think?

A: This is a tough question to answer, because drug trafficking has really changed the behavior of urban gangs. In general, entrepreneur-oriented gangs care about making money, so they will certainly move to new locations when their current place of business proves inhospitable. That is, they differ from gangs in the old days (i.e., before the 1980s when drug-related commerce arrived in force). The earlier gangs protected “turf” and took great pride in being a neighborhood outfit. All forms of illegal commercial activity were a rarity for them.

Having said this, a gang is limited in terms of places where it can go. Gangs have to have some relationship with local residents, store owners, etc. — even if the tie is only that of intimidation. So police usually find that gangs who deal drugs tend to maintain several locations, shifting their movements among different street corners, alleys, apartment buildings, abandoned structures, and so on.

Q: What effect has the rise in crystal methamphetamine (meth) had on gang structures? Following Levitt’s “corporate” description, did the gangs develop different departments, split up completely, or merge? Is meth really that major an issue, or is it simply the new crack?

A: Levitt and I worked on the corporate description in the context of African-American urban street gangs. Meth tends to be rural/suburban and most users are white. The meth economy seems to be controlled by individuals or teams who distribute in a highly localized area. They usually come together only to sell the product, and then they disband until a new sales initiative is put into place. They are not really gangs in the traditional sense of the term, but independent mercenary producers/distributors.

Q: How do gang members see themselves as fitting in with society at large? Do gang members have a real comprehension that the things they do – dealing drugs, engaging in violence, destroying property, scaring people – are widely perceived as not only illegal but also morally wrong?

A: Many gang members who attain leadership status are deeply conscious of their perception by wider society. They tend to make two arguments when discussing their behavior: first, that whites also work in the underground economy but are not prosecuted (or stigmatized) to the same degree (just look at the differential rates of punishment for powder cocaine and crack cocaine — the former is distributed by whites to a far greater degree); and second, that corporations also engage in criminal activity, but are rarely viewed as outlaws — not just Enron, but oil and other companies that have established histories of supporting anti-democratic regimes in developing counties to secure their own profits.

Now, you could say that these analogies are bogus and bold-face rationalizations, and I would agree to some degree. But it is important to look at the world from the perspective of the gang member — who sees everyone as a hustler.

Q: Did you go to all four [Grateful Dead] Alpine Valley shows in 1988 (June 19, 20, 22, 23)? Which one did you think was best?

A: Funny you ask. That year, I made it to the Chicago, Irvine, Oakland, and Stanford shows, most of which were worth remembering. And I was getting ready for a mini-summer tour before grad school began — Minnesota, Alpine Valley and Maine — when my girlfriend told me I needed to make a choice: Jerry Garcia or her. So the answer is, “No, I never made it to Alpine Valley.” And, to this day, I have great regrets: I heard they played Blackbird, which I always wanted to hear…