Observing a Chicago Street Gang

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Chicago has long been one of America’s hotbeds for gang activity. Many different warring factions roam the streets, ranging from recognizable names like La Raza and Latin Kings to less-nationally- known organizations like the Almighty Popes and the Ridgeway Boys. For my ethnography, I chose to observe and investigate a primarily Latino street gang. From my observations, I have discerned that the gang becomes a new family for the boys and men in its ranks, superseding the member’s actual family in terms of importance and loyalty, often causing members to eschew any other responsibilities they may have.

The American gang has changed over the past several years. They still typically have a similar age makeup, being primarily comprised of male adolescents and youths. They are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods, even though only about ten percent of youth in most low-income neighborhoods join gangs. The ethnic makeup of gangs has shifted since the 1970s from being primarily white to being primarily African-American or Latino (Vigil 225-226). It comes as no surprise that gangs, including the one I observed (which appeared to be primarily Latino in makeup, though there may have been a few Caucasian members in the ranks as well), are typically comprised of minorities. Young minorities are among the most marginalized Americans. They often have to adapt to a family life involving a significant lack of one or both parents. More often than not, they come from fatherless families. They experience cultural and language differences at school that hinder their education. Wandering aimlessly, they look for any social construct they can become a part of in order to have some kind of structure. Gangs fill that structural void. However, since gangs engage in a certain kind of social mindset that fosters aggression and violence, termed “street socialization,” membership in a gang can provide some structure, but marries that structure with violence and delinquency. (Vigil 235) The gang I observed used a ranking system with its members. There are what were described as “stationary, bottom-of-the-barrel” positions with names like peasant, soldier, warrior, and rogue, and more elevated ones including commander, lordship, general, and royal, a group of terms usually reserved for what lower-ranked members simply call the “higher-ups.” Members among the lower ranks engage in favors and chores for higher-ups in order to curry favor with them in the hopes that they will someday reap the financial and social benefits of having a leadership position within the organization.

The most dramatic change in gang culture over the past several years was the transition from gangs fighting each other with fists, sticks, or knives to gangs fighting each other with firearms. This proliferation of guns has led to an explosion of violence perpetrated by gangs in low-income urban areas, who largely act in order to protect their turf. Violence is also used for protection during the illicit business dealings gangs use in order to generate income, such as drug dealing or robbing houses and stores. I didn’t personally see anyone engaging in violence, though through personal interviews with two affiliated members I know this organization uses violence against others during the initiation process. Prospective members are required to stab three people in order to gain some of the “street credits” that more senior members require before they allow you to join the organization. And although the business dealings I saw go down – breaking and entering, petty theft, drug dealing – did not involve any violence, I can only assume that the members involved would have resorted to violence if necessary.

One of the most important aspects of gang membership is the development of a group-oriented mindset. Members wear clothing with the same colors, use a series of hand signs for identification, and speak in a gang-specific slang or language. Furthermore, the use of group rituals in both the initiation process and in the gang’s regular activities helps the group-oriented mindset manifest itself faster in the organization’s members. One member I interviewed described a yearly ceremony involving the theft and destruction of electronics from people’s houses, tied in with a lesson about members never forgetting what they have or where they come from. Getting each member to think and act in a certain way in line with the group’s beliefs and efforts is essential in the success of a gang.

The two members I interviewed offered up different answers for what they thought motivated members to belong to their organizations. One said it was due to the protection the organization offers, one said it was due to the feeling of brotherhood fostered as a member combined with the fear of leaving. Both of these answers support the idea that gangs operate to keep their members thinking about acting for the benefit of the group instead of acting for personal gain. In my observation, I never saw a gang member acting alone unless it was a higher-up coming to collect from or give orders to some of the rank-and-file members. There was always at least a pair of them. I suspect that this was a result of the brotherhood mentality that gangs imbue within their members. Teaching members to work together and watch each others’ backs is a surefire way to achieve greater success in the illicit activities that gangs undergo in order to get money. My observation confirms this since the members employed a watchdog attitude when they conducted their business, always making sure to have someone keeping a lookout.

What surprised me most about the gang I observed was the age of its members. The ones I observed were all young. They couldn’t have been more than 16. The two I interviewed started young, both dropping out of school by 16 to work in the gang full-time, and even claimed that they knew members who were as young as 9 years old. However, when considering that most gang members, especially lower-ranked members like the ones I observed, are right in the thick of adolescence, it makes more sense to see how they can get so seduced by the gang lifestyle. Adolescent boys in the environments that gangs are most prominent tend to worry about the social stigma behind becoming a man, and when there are organizations in these neighborhoods that promote brotherhood, development, and personal growth, they will seek out these organizations in order to develop as a man in the same way that men develop in their neighborhood. (Vigil 236) Once in the gang, proving one’s manliness becomes showing that you can protect your turf through violence. As the members I interviewed revealed, this gang sees anyone not affiliated as the enemy, and the enemy must be eliminated. Youthful aggression combined with both the teachings of a gang leader and deadly weaponry leads to extensive violence: “drive-bys, wanton shootings of innocent bystanders, and other physical harm.” (Vigil 236)

Gangs don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. This one has members who are in their sixties now and will likely age out of the business before they quit voluntarily. Especially when considering the way that gangs make it so their members think of the gang as a family or brotherhood, replacing their actual family, it is obvious that gangs like the one I observed will long perpetuate Chicago gang violence and in other major cities in the United States until an effective way to keep crime out of low-income areas makes itself apparent. Until that day comes, watch out for the boys roaming the streets wearing royal blue and white.

Works Cited

“Joe”. Personal interview. 1 Oct. 2013.

“Pedro”. Personal interview. 1 Oct. 2013.

Vigil, James Diego. “Urban Violence And Street Gangs.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32.1 (2003): 225-242. Print.

Wednesday Afternoon, Cicero Ave. and Roosevelt Rd.

Observations: Departed L at Cicero-Forest Park stop around noon. Ate lunch on the street corner. Not much traffic, but the L passing by can be heard intermittently. Around ten minutes to one o’clock, spotted two teenaged boys, Hispanic, wearing blue and white track jackets approach the northwest corner of the intersection. One wears a backpack. They have an elaborate handshake.

1:36 PM: Young Hispanic man walks over to boys, converses with them for a few minutes. The boy without a backpack keeps watching while the boy with the backpack reaches inside and pulls out a brown paper bag. They exchange it with the young Hispanic man for what looks like a wad of bills. The Hispanic man goes on his way. The boys excitedly talk to each other in what sounds like Spanish.

2:04 PM: A young black man walks over to boys, engages in a transaction in a similar fashion to the Hispanic man from earlier. The boys are speaking English to their customers.

3:14 PM: Three more similar transactions have occurred. An older-looking Hispanic man wearing blue and white Nikes and wearing a shirt with a stylized bunny head on the back approaches the kids. They talk, make some hand signs. The older Hispanic man takes the backpack from the boys, then walks down the block.

3:42 PM: Young boys enter the convenience store. They exit about five minutes later, looking around, then run down the sidewalk. About a minute after that, the man who looks like a store owner comes out, looks both ways for the boys. Unable to find them, he throws his hands in the air and returns inside.

Ideas: Looks like these two kids are foot soldiers within the organization, likely drug dealers as well. They seemed very young for the tasks they were assigned – is this normal for the organization? Maybe I’ll find more about this in interviews. Common colors of blue and white between two boys and Hispanic man who took backpack from them suggest he is their superior, or at least affiliated with them.

Friday Morning, 35th St. and Clinton Ave.

Observations: Departed Metra at Harlem Ave. around nine-fifteen. Mostly adults around the neighborhood this early. I sit on the stoop of the apartment building.

9:46 AM: Mail carrier drives through, drops off mail in boxes.

10 AM: Three boys on bikes ride through. Look to be young teenagers, light-skinned, maybe Hispanic. All wear backpacks and at least one article of royal blue clothing – bandanas and hats. Sounds like they are speaking Spanish. The boys ride around to all the mailboxes on the street and rifle through them. A few of them take packages or envelopes, then ride down to the next block.

10:40 AM: Boys from bikes ride by again. They stop in front of a house with no car out front. The oldest-looking boy pulls out a cell phone, makes a call, then returns the phone to his pocket. He makes some signs towards the boys with him and points at the house. The boys nod, then ditch their bikes on the sidewalk and enter the house. The oldest boy gets off his bike, stays near the fence.

11:02 AM: Boys exit house with backpacks looking much fuller. One looks boxy, like there’s a VCR or DVD player inside. All three hop back on their bikes and ride away.

Ideas: Looks like these boys were committing some robberies. Hierarchy appears to be based around age – the oldest boy didn’t have to enter the house, and he was the one who talked on the phone. Maybe these younger boys are still in the initiation process? I’m also curious about the motive for the robbery. Was it to intimidate a deadbeat customer who owed them money? Was it purely for economic gain, to find something to pawn off and get money for the organization?