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Gangs: What you need to know

Gang History:

Gangs have been around for hundreds of years in one form or another around the world. Experts say that gang activity within this country can be chronicled since the 18th-century. Philadelphia was trying to devise a way to deal with roaming youth disrupting the city in 1791. According to the National School Safety Center, officials in New York City acknowledged having gang problems as early as 1825. When looking at the amount of time that gang activity has been alive and well there appears to be no way to totally eliminate it.

Modern day gangs such as the notorious Crips and Bloods from California can be traced to the late 60’s. For many families there have been generations of gang members.

What are Gangs?

Webster defines a gang in several ways. Actually, all of us can be described as gang members. One definition is a group of persons working together. However, the definition that we would best associate with gangs is a “group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends or a band of antisocial adolescents.”

Gangs usually have a leader or group of leaders who coordinate activities, give orders and benefit from the “illegal” activities of the gangs. Gangs many times are recognized by the “colors” that they wear. They may wear certain types of clothing, tattoos, brands or may have other identifiable marks or products. Many gangs, reminiscent of movies that are popular classics today like Westside Story or the Outsiders may adopt certain types of hairstyles. Gangs also communicate through hand signals, graffiti and terms that may only be understood by particular gang members and/or their rivals. It is interesting to note that it is not illegal to be in a gang, but it is the illegal activities that make gangs a problem for the communities in which they reign.

Why do Young People Join Gangs?

  • A search for love, structure, and discipline
  • A sense of belonging and commitment
  • The need for recognition and power
  • Companionship, training, excitement, and activities
  • A sense of self-worth and status
  • A place of acceptance
  • The need for physical safety and protection
  • A family tradition

Risk Factors for Joining a Gang:

  • Racism: When young people encounter both personal and institutional racism (i.e., systematic denial of privileges), the risks are increased. When groups of people are denied access to power, privileges, and resources, they will often form their own anti-establishment group.
  • Poverty/Money: A sense of hopelessness can result from being unable to purchase wanted goods and services. Young people living in poverty may find it difficult to meet basic physical and psychological needs that can lead to a lack of self-worth and pride. One way to earn cash is to join a gang involved in the drug trade.
  • Lack of a support network: Gang members often come from homes where they feel alienated or neglected. They may turn to gangs when their needs for love are not being met at home. Risks increase when the community fails to provide sufficient youth programs or alternatives to violence.
  • Media influences: Television, movies, radio, and music all have profound effects on youth development. Before youth have established their own value systems and are able to make moral judgments, the media promotes drugs, sex, and violence as an acceptable lifestyle.

Protective Factors:

  • Well-developed social and interpersonal skills
  • High sense of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and personal responsibility
  • Reflectivity, rather than impulsive thought and behavior
  • Internal focus of control (i.e., the belief of being able to influence environment in a positive manner)
  • Flexible coping strategies, well-developed problem-solving skills and intellectual abilities

Gangs are constantly changing. Motivation to join a gang may not be the same for each member. Some may be fulfilling a destiny as a second-generation gang member, while others may have been reluctantly grafted in. For this reason, constant monitoring of gang activities is so important.

Signs and Symbols of Gangs: Graffiti

Graffiti is the most common way gangs communicate with each other and their rivals. This is a way of marking turfs and warning those that should not enter. Graffiti has been called the newspaper or bulletin boards for gangs and communicates many messages, including challenges, warnings and announcements of acts that are forthcoming or those that have been successful.

As a community, whenever graffiti is found it should be removed, painted over following documentation and investigation by local law enforcement. Police departments and school officials should have a representative proficient in reading and understanding graffiti.

(Click here to see signs that have been found around the country. These may not be specific to your particular area.)

Most municipalities have codes or laws that deal with the defacing of property. Many have seen the need to pass laws that deal directly with graffiti perpetrators and many of these laws have severe penalties to deal with violators who are convicted. You can learn about some of these laws and ordinances by clicking here.
(Courtesy of


  • Read – Read the graffiti to determine the gang(s) involved. If you are unable to interpret what is observed, find someone who can. Frequently, a great deal of intelligence can be gathered, such as the nicknames or monikers of gang members, warnings, threats to other gangs, availability of drugs, pending gang wars, and more.
  • Report -Educators, parents and other concerned citizens should report found graffiti to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Law enforcement or corrections personnel should report the existence of graffiti to the departments gang intelligence unit.
  • Record – Use a still or video camera to record the graffiti for possible later use. If graffiti continues to appear after removal, the photographic record may serve as a history of the efforts made to combat the problem.
  • Remove – Remove ALL graffiti as soon as possible after it is discovered. When removing graffiti, paint the entire wall, post, sign, etc. on which the graffiti is found. Studies have shown that "spot" painting to blot out the graffiti is not as effective for the permanent discouragement of graffiti as is covering the entire subject area.

Signs and Symbols of Gangs: Clothing

Wearing particular styles, types and colors of clothing, jewelry, shoes and other items, is not a positive indicator of gang affiliation. It is merely one of the indicators or factors to be considered when identifying gang members. In many areas, particularly where gangs are constantly involved in turf wars, where drive-by shootings are a common occurrence, where persons are frequently assaulted or murdered, many of the victims were identified as a rival gang member because he or she was wearing clothes of a particular color. Occasionally, youths with no gang connections have become targets or victims because they too, were wearing the wrong colors or clothes. NOTE: It has been reported that some gangs are starting to change their clothing style by no longer wearing their colors in an effort to deceive law enforcement and conceal their gang affiliation.

Signs and Symbols of Gangs: Signs and Symbols

Symbols are an important part of the gang culture. These symbols are used to identify a particular gang or to intimidate and disrespect rival gangs. These symbols may be seen in many forms. Some are known universally, such as a heart, a pyramid, a walking cane or a five or six pointed star. These symbols have all been adopted by gangs and have become nationally known to represent certain gangs. Other symbols have been created or drawn and have also become well known.

To VIEW common Hand signs that gang members use, click here.

Gang Prevention

Here are a few gang-prevention strategies:

  • The family and the community are essential to the development of the child's social, emotional, and physical needs. If the family is the source of love, guidance, and protection that youths seek, they are not forced to search for these basic needs from a gang. The family and community share responsibility for teaching children the risk of drugs.
  • Strong education and training are directly related to a youth's positive development. Young people who successfully participate in and complete education have greater opportunities to develop into reasonable adults.
  • Graffiti removal reduces the chance that crimes will be committed. Since gangs use graffiti to mark their turf, advertise themselves, and claim credit for a crime, quick removal is essential.
  • Conflict resolution programs teach gangs how to deal better with conflicts and help eliminate gang intimidation tactics.
  • Recreational programs such as sports, music, drama, and community activities help build a sense of self-worth and self-respect in young people. Youth involved in such activities are less likely to seek membership in a gang.

The Role of Parents and Schools

Parents are the first lines of defense in combating the gang problem. It is up to each parent to show the child that they are loved. It is not enough to simply say, "I love you." The child needs parental interaction to show him or her that you really do love him and you care about his welfare. Youths join gangs for a variety of reasons. Many join because they do not have, or do not feel like they have, a family life. A gang promises to give this feeling of "family" to the youth. Other youths join gangs due to peer pressure, excitement, money, or intimidation. Whatever the reason, a parent needs to recognize the identifiers and telltale signs of gang membership in order to make every possible attempt to keep the youth in, or return him to, his "real family."

Educators are equally important in shaping a child's life. Like the parents, an educator must show the child that they not only care about them as individuals, but also, about the future that lies ahead of each of them.

Schools should not allow gang clothing, colors, or gang signs and symbols to be worn or displayed on school grounds. "Zero tolerance" is a policy adopted by many school districts.

Classroom discussions about gangs are an excellent means to convey the proper message to the students. These discussions can lead to a real learning experience, not only for the students, but for the educator as well. Like the parents, the educator, without some knowledge as to how to identify gangs, will not recognize the signs of gang activity and therefore lose a valuable tool; a tool or aid that not only will assist in communications and interactions with the students, but with other educators, parents and law enforcement.