Chicago has become the center for many Midwestern black, Hispanic and mixed-race street gangs. There are literally hundreds of different gangs in the Midwest, but most align themselves with either the People or Folk Nations.
The Folk and People alliances were established in the 1980s and are not aligned along traditional racial boundaries. The alliances contain black, white and Hispanic street gangs, and the two nations are bitter rivals. One street gang may commit violent acts as a form of revenge while another gang uses violence to expand a drug business. "Consequently, street gangs and the crimes ... they engage (in) cannot be viewed as monolithic in nature," according to Carolyn and Richard Block, of the U.S. Department of Justice.
These Chicago-based gangs foIlow strict dress codes and use body language as a nonverbal form of communication. A gang member can simply cross his arms to "announce" his gang affiliation. Chicago-area, Nation-affiliated street gangs rely on subtle forms of body communication, in addition to verbal and written forms.
Numbers play an integral part in gang members' written communications. For example, gangs that ally themselves with the Folk Nation use the number "6," and those associated with the People Nation use the number "5."
Colors are equally important in Folk and People Nation gang subcultures. Folk Nation street gangs use blue and black in clothing and graffiti, while People Nation street gangs use red and black. The colors are worn on clothing, hats and even fingernail polish. Recently, however, many Chicago-based street gangs have started wearing black and white to hide their gang affiliation from the police. The neutral colors reveal a person's identification with the gang subculture, but not a specific gang.
Blood and Crip street gang members on the West Coast are using the same strategy because stylized clothing is easy to spot. Law enforcers quickly recognize specific clothing styles and colors as symbols of gang membership and affiliation. These "uniforms" announce "what side of the fence you're on." according a young member of the Chicago-based Vice Lord gang.
In addition to colors and numbers, Folk and People Nation street gangs identify with opposite sides of the body. The Folks place importance on the right side of the body, and the People emphasize the left side. For example, when a gang member wears a hat, the brim is tilted either to the right or left, announcing his gang affiliation.
Emphasis on the right or left side of the body may dictate where earrings are worn or what hand is covered by a glove. The right or left side rule also applies to belt buckles, colored bandannas worn around a leg and even whether or not a gym shoe is fully laced up on the right or left foot.
Symbols and Graffiti
Symbols have a special significance for Folk and People Nation gangs. Specific symbols represent gang affiliation and are used for the same purposes street gangs on the West Coast use graffiti. Whether in writings, symbols mark turf and announce gang affiliation and membership.
The Folk Nations use a six-pointed Star of David that has special quasireligious meaning to gang members. For example, the star's six points stand for (clockwise) life, loyalty, knowledge, wisdom, understanding and love. These points are called the "six principles of King David." Pitchforks with the points facing up and hearts with wings are also common symbols used by Folk Nation gangs. The Maniac Latin Disciples, a Folk gang, use devils' horns and swastikas in addition to the traditional Folk Nation symbols.
Another symbol significant to Folk Nation gangs is the pitchfork, which represents the gangs' power to overcome suppression. Other symbols used by Folk Nation gangs include devils' tails, which symbolize the oppression all nonwhite people suffer and hearts, which symbolize the gang members' love for the Nation. The numbers "7" and "8" are also used and represent the year the Sons and Daughters, a younger group of Folk Nation gangs, was founded. All of these symbols can be incorporated into one symbol using the six-pointed star as the base.
There are also specific symbols the People Nation gangs identify with. A circle symbolizes the 360 degrees of knowledge that gang members believe blacks once used to rule the world. Fire represents the gang members' knowledge of being oppressed and their inability to reach that knowledge because of the fire's heat. Darkness represents the black majority worldwide, and crescent moons illustrate the black nation's division into east and west. A five-pointed star symbolizes the eye of Allah watching over his people.
Folk and People Nation gangs also use pyramids to symbolize physical, mental and spiritual knowledge. Suns represent the rising of truth, and hats symbolize shelter. Canes and gloves represent strength and purity to many gang members.
Two of the larger groups that identify with the Folk and People Nations are the Black' Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords. These street gangs insult and challenge each other by displaying
their rival's symbols upside-down or being blown apart. This is the equivalent to West Coast gangs crossing out their rival's graffiti.
According to Youth Officer Robert Simandl of the Chicago Police Department, Chicago-area gangs have also started crossing out rival gang graffiti. As with any street gang, all insults, no matter how small, are answered with some form of retaliation.
The leadership structure of Folk and People Nation street gangs normally consists of the original founder and the members who started the gang. Gang membership generally falls into four categories based on a member's degree of commitment. Hard-core members are unwavering in their loyalty to the gang. While associate members believe in unity and loyalty to the gang, allegiance is left behind when self-preservation becomes an issue. Marginal or fringe members' loyalty is influenced by outside activities, and outsiders may join a gang to simply make money.
Membership within some of the larger gangs, such as the Black Gangster Disciples, can reach more than 50.000. With such a large membership, an organized chain of command is necessary. For example, "King Larry Hoover" controls the Black Gangster Disciples from behind bars. There is what is comparable to a separate board of directors for gang operations in prison and gang activities on the streets. Daily criminal activities arc run like legitimate businesses.
Folk and People Nation members are involved in all types of criminal activity from car thefts to drug sales. Drug sale networks can be large and complex, and all use extortion, intimidation and retaliation in conducting business. Some gang members have even organized themselves into daytime burglary teams.
Much of the street gang violence seems to be related to conflicts over turf instead of drugs. Guns are used in almost all gang-related homicides, and the use of high-calibre, automatic or semiautomatic weapons has dramatically increased. This trend applies to street gangs in general, not just those based in the Midwest.
Gang activity is not always criminal and violent in nature. Some street gangs have exerted such an influence in communities that political candidates supported by street gangs have run for office. The impact of such endeavors has demonstrated a new arena for gangs to operate in.
Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book. "Gangs'" He is also a consultant to the Orange County Board of Education, the California Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.