No popular media has influenced so many people on gangs as the History Channel's "Gangland." As a disclaimer, I was approached near the beginning of the series and asked to consult. After viewing their episode on the Aryan Nation, I declined. Gangland is long on scary images and gangsters looking and talking tough, but very short on context. It is the definition of stereotypes, not research.
The Gangland world is not the world of the streets, but the world of the TV studio. Its a world of black and white, good and evil, Us vs Them. As in this clip about the Traveling Vice Lords in Memphis.
So are gang members cockroaches to be exterminated by the blue-clad good guys? Are they "shitbags" as a Chicago law enforcement gang specialist insisted, and nothing else? Or are they human beings, who do wrong and very real damage but also live everyday lives, with mothers and grandmothers, children, wives or husbands? Here's a simple question: What do gang members do more: drive-bys or washing dishes? In other words, like all of us, gang members are real human beings. Their lives are mainly mundane.
But what about the violence? We should do everything we can to prevent it and people who kill and harm others need to be punished. I'll have more to say about violence in future blogs, but we need to keep in mind that street violence isn't the only kind of violence oppressing us. Let's not forget our wars of questionable legality and whose victims are mainly noncombatants. Phillipe Bourgeois calls that "Direct Political" violence. Bourgeois also reminds us of "structural violence" of unemployment, racism, and poverty. This leads to "Everyday Violence" of survival, with hyper-masculinity an ever present reality. Street violence needs to be kept in context.
Lest we forget, the police aren't always the good guys. What consequences do you think Jon Burge had in Chicago by torturing over a hundred black male gang members? And what example do CPD units like SOS provide in Chicago, when they robbed drug dealers, sold the drugs to gangs, and set up one gang to the benefit of another? And when the cover-up was threatened, its leader, CPD officer Jerome Finnigan, hired a "2-6" gang member to murder a fellow officer! Now that is setting an example. What a role model!
Finally, the "exterminating the cockroaches," "good vs evil" mindset is deeply embedded in western culture. While this is too much to deal with today, our designation of people as "evil" and our lives as a cosmic battle goes back to the early years of Christianity, according to Elaine Pagels in her classic, The Origin of Satan.
Its not that evil doesn't exist. But I think evil is mainly a quality of behavior, not a way to categorize humanity into good vs. evil, non-gang vs gang, white vs black..... oops! Maybe I spilled an official secret.