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The Gang Tax

A few days ago, New York’s State Senate passed a bill making it illegal to recruit someone into a street gang.

In the never-ending fight by city officials and legislators to combat gangs, this is one of the latest efforts to outmaneuver gang members. Other similar initiatives have included: city ordinances that limit two or more gang members from hanging out in public space; school codes that ban the use of hats, clothing, and colors that signify gang membership; and public housing authorities that evict leaseholders who allow gang members (or any other so-called “criminal”) to live inside the housing unit.

These laws rarely lead to reductions in gang membership, gang violence, or gang crime. In fact, police officers I know find these ordinances and statutes a waste of time. Cops would much rather “control and contain” gang activity. Most officers who work in inner cities understand that you cannot eliminate gang activity entirely — arrest two gang members and you will find a dozen others waiting in line to take their places. Police know that gang members have great knowledge about local crimes, so they rely on a trade off: keep gangs isolated to particular areas, don’t let their criminal activities spill over into other spaces, and use high-ranking gang members for information.

This strategy actually prevents membership from expanding, at least in big cities where gangs are economically oriented. Beat cops who run the streets make sure that gang leaders don’t prey upon too many kids for recruiting purposes. In effect, this kind of policing limits the reach of gangs. It may not be socially desirable policing, but it works if you measure effectiveness by reductions in gang membership.

I called a few gang leaders in Chicago and asked them what the greatest obstacles to recruiting and retaining members are. Here are a few answers:

Michael (30 years old, African-American) was insistent that today’s gangs are mostly “drug crews,” i.e., businesses.

We always lose people to jobs. If a n–er in my crew gets a good job, he’s gone. So, as long as there ain’t no work for a brother, then we have no problem. Most of us have families, we’re not in school beating each other up, acting stupid. We’re out here on the streets trying to make our money. You got all these people telling us to get an education — I’m making thousands of dollars each month. Why do I need to go to school?

Darnell (32 years old, African-American) said police should be more creative.

Let’s say you catch one of us — I’d make the boy wear a dress and makeup. Maybe for two weeks. Let the boy go to school looking like a girl. Let him walk the streets looking like he’s gay. I guarantee you, we’d have a hard time holding on to n–rs if you do sh–t like that!

Jo-Jo (49 years old, half Puerto Rican, half black) said the cops should do:

… what they did when I was younger. Drop a Disciples off in Vicelords territory late at night. Let him get his a– kicked. And keep doing it! I remember growing up and all these cats used to get beat up. You know what? This would actually help me because it would get rid of a lot of these folks who do nothing for us except cause trouble. In fact, I’d be willing to work with the cops if they want to call me. Maybe we could help each other out?

My good friend Dorothy never ran a gang, but as an outreach worker who helps young people in the ghetto turn their lives around, she has pretty good insight. She recalled some of her own gang-intervention efforts in the 1990’s and came up with the following suggestion:

Tax the n–rs! That’s what I would do if I was the mayor. Don’t put them in jail, but take 50 percent of their money. You know what I mean? Find them on the streets if they’re misbehaving, grab half of their cash, and put it into a community fund. Let the block clubs have it, let the churches have the money. I guarantee you that a lot of brothers will think twice if you get to their pocketbooks.

Interesting thought. I wonder whether market forces might exert the kind of discipline required to limit the involvement of young people in gang-controlled drug economies. If, as Treasury Secretary Paulson reminds us, “market discipline” is sufficient to regulate the financial markets, perhaps it could be effective in the underground. Oh, yes, I forgot about Bear Stearns. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)