Street gangs in America are nothing new.
Some of the earliest identified groups with gang-like behaviors formed after the Revolutionary War in 1793. The Smith's Vly gang, the Bowery Boys and the Broadway Boys all had white members, The first African American gangs were known as the Long Bridge Boys and the Fly Boys.
At that time not all members were criminals. The majority were in their early teens and 20s. While most members were from the same race or ethnic background they were not necessarily from the same economic class, though most were from the poorer classes.
These early proto-street gangs became the first in a long gang lineage that ended up establishing customs, practices and behavior expectations for the next generation of street gangs.
Criminal Street Gangs
The American criminal street gangs first appeared in the early 9th century. The most famous were the Irish street gangs that formed in New York. The membership for these gangs was comprised of Irish immigrants. Some were brawlers and others were criminals.
Even in this early segment of U.S. gang history, you can find gang profile characteristics that are still used today to help identify street gang members. For example, the Irish gangs had developed a particular dress code. They used monikers (nicknames) and most associated in one area of New York: Five Points (their turf).
The Forty Thieves was the first Irish street gang to have a recognized leader. In 1826, Edward Coleman organized the gang to rebel against the low social status and prejudice shown toward the Irish immigrants. ]n the end, the gang members turned to crime for profit to relieve their frustrations.
The younger Irish immigrants formed a clique called the Little Forty Thieves. Forming a sub-set of a gang has been referred to as a clique, click, clicke or set. Clique formation is a phenomenon currently seen in many street gangs today.
At the same time, additional street gangs developed in the Bowery section of New York. The Bowery area gangs and the Forty Thieves became bitter rivals and routinely fought over turf and ethnic differences.
Another Irish gang also formed in the Five Points area. Membership in the Kerryonians was limited to those who could who trace their ancestry back to County Kerry, Ireland. This was the original home of the Irish immigrants who established the gang.
The development of some Mexican street gangs in the Los Angeles area also followed this membership philosophy. No mixed-race Mexicans were allowed to join certain gangs. Prejudice and bias within gangs is not a new phenomenon.
By the mid 1800s, Chinese gangs appeared in California. Chinese railroad workers had suffered a great deal of abuse and class distinction was again the motivation for the formation of the first Chinese gangs.
Philadelphia reported gang activity as early as 1840. Between that time and 1870, Philadelphia was home to more than 100 street gangs. Murder had become a test of toughness for these gangsters and drug use became pm1 of street gang life. Cocaine, morphine and laudanum were the main drugs of abuse. Laudanum was a liquid containing alcohol and opium, or a solid preparation containing opium. With the introduction of drug use, gang violence escalated.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, records showed the presence of Jewish, Italian, African-American and Irish street gangs in New York. As immigrant populations increased, so did the gang populations. At one time or another, New York became the operations center for many gangs; including the forerunners of some La Costra Nostra-type organized crime families.
20th -Century Gangs
In the early 1900s, populations grew at a rapid pace in major cities throughout the country. In the mid-I920s, Chicago reportedly had more than 1,300 street gangs and more than 25,000 gang members. Some Chicago gangs had an all white membership. Increasingly, gang warfare was based along racial, ethnic and cultural lines. Some pm1s of Chicago literally became gang war zones.
New York also continued to experience the appearance of new street gangs and the accompanying degree of violence. At the same time, the early West Coast African American gangs started to form in the Los Angeles area, a place where Mexican street gangs were already established.
As the U.S. headed into the Great Depression era, the economy worsened and street gangs developed in many poor neighborhoods. To complicate matters further, there was a widespread use of firearms.
Immigrant populations also continued to have an effect on the development of street gangs. For example, during 1941 and 1945 more than one half million Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States. Most settled in New York, the port of entry.
World War II marked another milestone for street-gang activity. In 1943 during the war, the now famous "Zoot Suit Wars" between the Mexican street gangs and military personnel happened in Los Angeles. The conflict with the U.S. military actually helped to establish a new standard for gang behaviors. Street gang members began to develop certain guidelines or street rules to follow.
Post World War II
After the war, the United States experienced the greatest era of gang activity ever seen. Gang fighting rose to an all time high in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Cleveland. Most of the gang members were in their early teens.
By this time street gangs had also developed dress codes, expected behaviors, a special gang slang and rules of conduct to follow. Part of the rules of conduct were based on respect and revenge.
The post-war era also brought forth a couple of new types of gangs. Between 1956 and 1957 prison gangs started to grow and develop within the California state prison system. Prison gangs had been identified in other states since the early 1930s.
Some military personnel who could not adapt to the postwar civilian life, star1ed a new life style. The West Coast saw the appearance of the first motorcycle gangs. Today, there are over 1,200 different motorcycle groups in the United States and Canada.
By the early 1960s, Folk Nation gangs were beginning to establish themselves in Chicago. The Black Panthers were established in Oakland, Calif., in 1968 and the
Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang, formed in New York during the early 1970s.
In the late 1960s early1970s, the occult movement started to gain momentum and the now well-known Crip and Blood gangs started to form in Los Angeles County. At the same time, the Jamaican street gangs appeared in the southeast and eastern portions of the country.
The earliest academic studies around 1960 concluded that gangs were present in only 58 cities across the country. Ten years later, 101 cities reported the presence of street gangs.
The Skinhead gangs of the early 1970s were originally associated only with a certain type of music. By the late 1970s the white supremacist philosophy and a particular kind of music was heavily associated with the movement. Simultaneously, the People Nation gangs stm1ed to fom1 in the Chicago area.
By 1980, even with the high level of gang violence and massive criminal justice response, 197 cities reported the presence of street gangs. During this time, methamphetamine made its debut. It rapidly started to become popular and competed with the new way to use cocaine - crack. The mid 1980s gave birth to the crack wars between rival drug dealing Blood and Crip gangs.
The first Southeast Asian street gangs were forming in the West Coast by the early 1980s. The mid- to late 1980s brought many undocumented EI Salvadorian, Haitian and Honduran immigrants into America. Undocumented immigrants found it difficult to find work. This made them prime candidates to become either victims or members of gangs.
Also at this time, Tagger and Party Crews developed on the West Coast.
By 1990, gang migration started to playa small role in the formation of gangs outside California. By the mid1990s Surefio gangs could be found in the Southwest, Northwest, South, Native-American lands and middle America. Hybrid gangs were also formally recognized. These gangs had broken the race and gender membership barriers, allowing for quick growth.
In an effort to help control the gang problem, the government deported undocumented immigrant gang members back to their countries of origin, after their prison sentences had been served. This practice helped local law enforcement, but only produced foreign versions of L.A.-based street gangs.
By late1998, no one could deny the impact of the modern street gangs. Between 1989 and 1999, gang culture was spread throughout the country with the help of the media, urban decay, the drug trade, bias, prejudice, boredom, the use of guns, and poverty. Now, in the year 2000, the United States is home to an estimated 2 million gang members.
AI Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.