In Ferguson, gangs are among those protesting the police murder of Michael Brown. In Baltimore Bloods and Crips denounce rioting and call for peace. Are we witnessing something new where black gangs join in political protest rather than shooting one another? No, we’ve seen this before and there are important lessons from history for the “new civil rights movement” about gangs.
As a scholar who has called for the inclusion of gangs in social movements from People & Folks, to The In$ane Chicago Way, I’m closely focused on current developments. Police killings, brutality, and corruption are daily realities on the streets and gangs have a self interest in opposing police misconduct. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has created an “injustice frame” that has mobilized people from all walks of life, including gangs. It has long been my mantra that “gangs are not one thing” and gang members have “multiple conflicting identities.” Among other things this means gangs can take an activist role — and historically they have.
In the 1960s, gangs in both LA and Chicago were politicized. In the HBO movie, Bastards of the Party, gangs are described as the offspring of the Black Panther Party, following Mike Davis’s history in City of Quartz. At the same time in Chicago, the Black Panther Party sought an alliance with street gangs mediated by civil rights leaders, including Useni Perkins, whose book The Explosion of Chicago’s Black Street Gangs is must reading. In the 1990s the NYC Latin King and Queen Nation took a pro-social path richly documented by David Brotherton and Luis Barrios. My own book, A World of Gangs, finds many examples of politicized gangs around the world.
What have these historical experiences taught us about gangs and activist politics?
- Law Enforcement will make concerted efforts to suppress any gang involvement in social movements and create divisions between gangs and activists. We see this today in Baltimore. After the gangs announced a truce the Baltimore Police Department spread the slanderous story they had “credible information” that the truce was designed to allow gangs to target police officers for assassination. In 1969, Chicago gang politicization prompted Mayor Daley to declare “war on gangs” killing and jailing important leaders. In both LA and Chicago the FBI did all they could to incite violence between the Black Panthers and gangs. In the 1990s the New York City Latin Kings' leadership were indicted in order to crush a transformed ALKQN. Gang involvement in politics in all three cities were effectively suppressed by law enforcement.
- Historically, gangs who turned to activism had strong organization and progressive leaders, unlike the situation today. In Chicago Bobby Gore was a transformational leader of the Vice Lords as was King Tone in New York. These leaders inherited strong organizational structures and through force of personality led their gangs into pro-social action. Today, at least in Chicago, the black gangs have little formal organization. The old leaders were discredited by the horrendous gang wars of the 1990s that cost thousands of lives. Contemporary black gangs are not nearly as organized as their 1960s counterparts. On the other hand, with weakened organization, the alienated and hostile young gang members may be open to being individually or in small groups pulled into activism. There is an important opportunity today to reach out to gang members who may be willing to join the protests.
- Unfortunately, desperation on the streets and police repression means other paths, including organized crime, remain attractive options for street youth. What we learned from Chicago in the 1960s was that while the gangs were being politicized some of their leaders were also negotiating with the mafia to control retail drug markets. Both progressive politics and organized crime coexisted among gang leaders who led a desperate, alienated membership. Both then and now the uncertainties of real progress, repressive policies of law enforcement, and the seduction of a lucrative and ‘always hiring’ entrepreneurial gang, means sustained activism by gang members is unlikely.
This does not mean we should neglect or reject participation of gangs and their members from the new civil rights movement. If we are ever to build a real movement that benefits those on the bottom of society, we need to include the US's one million gang members as allies. We must resist the lies of law enforcement and oppose their transparent tactics promoting disunity. But we also need to heed the lessons of history and understand gangs are not one thing. For me, the guiding point remains: #BlackLivesMatters includes gangs.