How Street Gangs Work

street gang graffiti
According to a 2005 report by the Department of Justice, there are at least 21,500 gangs and more than 731,000 active gang members in the United States. Maremagnum / Getty Images

Gang violence is a problem in every major city in the United States and membership is on the rise. According to the Department of Justice's 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, there are at least 21,500 gangs and more than 731,000 active gang members. While gangs are less prevalent in rural areas, in major cities, gang violence is responsible­ for roughly half of all ­­homicides. ­ Gangs are also becoming more savvy, using computers and other technology to commit crimes [ref].

Gathering accurate statistics on gangs and gang membership is difficult for a number of reasons. Gangs obviously don't keep official records of their membership. Some people hang out with gang members, but aren't actually in a gang themselves. If someone "runs with" a gang, but hasn't been initiated yet, is that person a member? Who do you count when compiling your statistics?­


It's also important to consider the source of the data. If a police officer asks a gang member, "Are you in a gang?" chances are the gang member will say no, knowing that police place extra scrutiny on known gang members. Some youths may claim gang membership around other teens to seem tough, and gangs might inflate membership numbers to make their gang seem more powerful. Police departments don't always report gang statistics accurately, either. Federal grants for fighting gang violence can give departments incentive to exaggerate gang numbers, while some departments deny having any gang problems at all to appease the public.

The National Center for Juvenile Justice used a combination of police department reports and self-reporting to compile the ­Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report. They estimated that 49 percent of gang members were Hispanic, 37 percent were black, 8 percent white, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent had another ethnicity. They also found that gang membership is not as prevalent among youth as some fear — between 1 and 2 percent of children ages 10 to 17 were gang members, although the percentage spikes when only "at-risk" youth are counted. Those that did join gangs didn't stay long, with the majority remaining in the gang for less than a year.

Why Do People Join Gangs?

There are many possible reasons for someone to join a gang, but four primary reasons seem to describe those of most gang members:

  1. Poverty. Many gangs exist mainly as a moneymaking enterprise. By committing thefts and dealing drugs, gang members can make relatively large amounts of money. People who are faced with a lack of money may turn to crime if they can't earn enough with a legitimate job. This partly explains why gangs exist in poor, rundown areas of cities. However, not everyone who is poor joins a gang, and not every gang member is poor.
  2. Peer pressure. Gang members tend to be young. This is partly because gangs intentionally recruit teenagers, but it's also because young people are very susceptible to peer pressure. If they live in a gang-dominated area, or go to a school with a strong gang presence, they might find that many of their friends are joining gangs. It can be difficult for a teen to understand the harm that joining a gang can bring if he's worried about losing all of his friends. Many teenagers do resist the temptation of gang membership, but for others it is easier to follow the crowd. Peer pressure is a driving force behind gang membership in affluent areas.
  3. Boredom. With nothing else to occupy their time, youths sometimes turn to mischief to entertain themselves. If gangs are already present in the neighborhood, that can provide an outlet. Alternatively, teenagers might form their own gangs. This is why many communities have tried to combat gangs by simply giving kids something to do. Dances, sports tournaments and other youth outreach programs can literally keep kids off the streets. Unfortunately, many youths and even gang experts use boredom as an excuse. Authors of articles about gang violence often write something like, "There's nothing else to do where they live." Indeed, youth sports programs, swimming pools or even libraries are often in short supply or poor repair in tough urban areas. But for every teenager who gets bored and joins a gang, there are 10 who find positive, productive ways to spend their time.
  4. Despair. If poverty is a condition, despair is a state of mind. People who have always lived in poverty with parents who lived in poverty often see no chance of ever getting a decent job, leaving their poor neighborhood or getting an education. They are surrounded by drugs and gangs, and their parents may be addicts or non-responsive. A neighborhood gang can seem like the only real family they'll ever have. Joining a gang gives them a sense of belonging and being a part of something important that they can't get otherwise. In some cases, parents approve of their children joining gangs and may have been a member of the same gang in the past.

Drug use is an underlying factor in all of these reasons. Not only does the sale of illegal drugs drive the profits of street gangs, they also create many of the conditions that lead to gang membership.


Gang History

Film covers about gang life
Gang history and gang life have been the subject of several popular films.
Image Courtesy Amazon

Criminal gangs have certainly been around as long as crime itself — it doesn't take a criminal mastermind to realize there is strength in numbers. The urbanization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the modern street gang.

New York City was the epicenter of gang activity in America in the 19th century. Poor sections of the city, such as the Five Points, provided a fertile ground for gangs with strong ethnic identities, usually Irish. Gangs based on Polish, Italian or other ethnicities were also common. The Forty Thieves, Shirt Tails and Plug Uglies fought over territory, robbed and mugged people and sometimes united to fight against gangs from other areas of the city, such as the waterfront and the Bowery district.


Gang activity gradually increased in the 20th century. Through the 1950s and 60s, most gangs were in large cities, although nearby towns and suburbs might have hosted offshoot gangs if they were connected via major highways. Gangs with European ethnicity had all but disappeared, and gangs became almost exclusively black or Hispanic in their membership [ref].

Cover of the book "The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member"
Saniya Shakur, formerly Kody "Monster" Scott, became a member of the Crips at 11 and stayed in the gang for 16 years.
Image courtesy Amazon

In the 1970s and '80s, narcotic drugs became more prevalent on the streets. Firearms also became easier to buy illegally. This combination made joining a street gang both more lucrative and more violent. Overall, gang activity peaked in the mid-1990s [ref].

Some of the most notorious gangs in the United States are the Crips and the Bloods. The Crips began in Los Angeles in the late 60s, partially in response to the activities of other gangs in their East L.A. neighborhood. As the gang grew in power, smaller gangs joined them until Crips-affiliated gangs dominated the city. The Bloods formed in response, as the smaller non-Crip gangs sought their own power base. The Crip-Blood rivalry is vicious and never-ending, but internal strife between different "sets" within each gang has probably resulted in more murders that the feud itself [ref]. Today, both gangs have "franchise" gangs operating out of cities across the country.

The history of the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples in Chicago follows a similar pattern. Starting out as smaller gangs, each attracted members, established control over large sections of the city and developed a fierce rivalry. The Lords and the Disciples are part of larger gang coalitions known as the People Nation and the Folk Nation, respectively. The influence of both gangs has spread to nearby cities.


Gang Life

Tattoo identifying prisoner as member of the Aryan Brotherhood
Many prisons catalog the tattoos of gang members to identify them. These tattoos identify the prisoner as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Image Courtesy of The Florida Department of Corrections

There are three major types of street gangs, each defined by factors such as prerequisites for inclusion, location or gang activities:

  1. Ethnic gangs. These gangs define themselves by the nationality or race of the gang members. One category of ethnic gang is defined less by the ethnicities of the members than by the ethnicities they hate. Neo-Nazi gangs, skinhead gangs and white supremacist gangs unite because of their hatred for non-Protestant Christians, Jews, blacks and Hispanics.
  2. Turf gangs. Turf gangs define themselves by the territory that they control. The gang members themselves usually live within this territory. There may be a common ethnicity within the gang simply because some neighborhoods have a certain amount of ethnic homogeneity. These gangs often name themselves after the area they control, such as the 10th Street Gang or the East Side Cobras. If members of other gangs stray into their territory, the punishment is usually a beating or death. This can spark deadly turf wars between rival gangs. Image courtesy Denver Police Gang Bureau Gangs have paticular recruitment strategies, initiations, and hierarchies. Explore gang life, from hand signs to tattoos.
  3. Prison gangs. When gang members go to prison, they don't necessarily relinquish their gang membership. Street gangs continue to exist (and fight other gangs) inside prison walls. But some gangs start inside prisons, and only later do they extend their reach to the outside world. These gangs obviously require members to have been in prison at one time, and are particularly tough and brutal. One gang expert wrote, "Putting young gang members in prison is like sending them to criminal college" [ref].

Most gang members are exposed to gangs at a young age. The money and respect that older gang members earn impresses them. They may begin hanging around gang members, finding out who is important and learning what the gang does. This can happen as early as age 10 or 11. Gangs intentionally recruit children and use them to carry weapons and drugs or commit other crimes because they tend to attract less attention from police. If caught they serve shorter sentences in juvenile detention centers than an adult gang member would serve in prison.


When a new member joins a gang, he must usually go through an initiation. Initiations don't usually involve elaborate ceremonies or formalities, but the initiate will have to endure certain rites. The most common is "jumping in," a beating issued by all the gang members. Gangs that accept female gang members sometimes rape them as their initiation. Instead of a "jumping in," or sometimes following it, the new gang member must participate in a mission. This can be anything from stealing a car to engaging in a firefight with a rival gang. Some gangs don't consider anyone a full member until they have shot or killed someone. Getting a tattoo with gang symbols may be another part of the initiation.

Daily gang life is generally not very exciting. Gang members sleep late, sit around the neighborhood, drink and do drugs and possibly go to a meeting place in the evening, such as a pool hall or roller rink. They may work a street corner selling drugs or commit petty crimes like vandalism or theft. The notion of respect drives gang life almost completely, and for many gang members, gaining respect means committing violent crimes. While it is relatively rare compared to their other activities, gangs do assault, shoot and assassinate people for money, turf, pride or revenge.

hand symbol for "blood"
A hand symbol for "blood"
Image © 2006 HowStuffWorks

Gangs are careful to identify themselves to each other and to others in their community. Members may dress similarly or wear the gang's colors. The Vice Lords wear black and gold, while the Crips vs. Blood feud is often called "Blue vs. Red." Gangs mark their turf with graffiti in their colors, displaying gang symbols. Gangs considering marking another gang's territory with their symbol, or defacing their symbol, an act of war, and this can easily lead to violent retribution.

Gang signs are elaborate hand signals that indicate gang membership. Gangs also explore other ways of displaying gang loyalty, such as the "C-Walk," a sort of dance-like walking pattern used by members of the Crips gang.

Only a few gangs have far-reaching influences and run like a business. These are sometimes called "supergangs." For the most part, a street gang has a rough hierarchy based on experience — members who have spent time in jail or have participated in serious crimes get the most respect. However, age often divides gangs into groups, with senior groups, junior groups and younger initiates. Senior members do not always have leadership over the younger groups, though — it all depends on street status.

Female gangs were once rare and existed mainly as offshoots of other gangs. For example, the girlfriends of gang members form their own group to show loyalty to the original gang. However, female gang membership is rising, with all-female gangs forming and fighting male gangs for turf and respect. Some gangs accept members regardless of race or gender.


Stopping Gangs

Neighborhood graffiti
Forming neighborhood groups to clean up graffiti and maintain the area can help to drive out gangs.
Image Courtesy of Stock.xchng

There is no easy way to stop gangs, because the underlying conditions that lead to gangs are complex. Police crackdowns can temporarily lower gang influence in a specific area. However, when poverty and despair remain, gangs will inevitably recruit new gang members to replace those who go to prison [ref].

Extra police enforcement in one area can simply drive the gang activity to another nearby area. As the head of a Buffalo community center said in a Buffalo News article, "The problem we have in this part of the community is that when they shut down a drug house, it just moves down the street."


Furthermore, a police crackdown can help unify what was otherwise a loose, non-cohesive gang. Under outside pressure, the gang members turn to each other, take more pride in their gang affiliation and become capable of greater acts of violence. While police presence is vital in keeping neighborhoods safe, a more successful long-term approach requires multiple tactics that all boil down to one thing: give people something to live for other than a gang. This can include helping at-risk youth or current gang members find decent jobs or obtain an education. Block clubs and community centers bring the non-gang members (the majority of people) together to clean and maintain their streets, get rid of graffiti and otherwise show pride in where they live. Community events such as dances, football games and game nights give youth something to do other than hang out on porches with gang members. If held outdoors, they make those areas less attractive for gang activity because of all the non-gang members around.

The preferred method of gang suppression today is the Department of Justice's "Weed and Seed" program. This combines police enforcement (weeding out the worst gang members) with community activism and economic opportunities (seeding the neighborhood with the means to overcome negative conditions). More than 3,000 Weed and Seed programs are active in the United States. Each site can receive up to $1 million to help fund "law enforcement; community policing; prevention, intervention, and treatment; and neighborhood restoration" [ref].

In the words of former Crip gang member Kody Scott (who had the gang name Monster), "When gang members stop their wars and find that there is no longer a need for their sets to exist, banging will cease. But until then, all attempts by law enforcement to seriously curtail its forward motion will be in vain" [ref].

For lots more information on gangs, gang members and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Street Gangs FAQ

What does Crips stand for?
The Crips are a gang in Southern California that was founded in LA in the late 1960s. “Crip” is short for “Community Revolution in Progress.”
What does Bloods stand for?
Some people say that Bloods is short for “Brotherly Love Overcomes Overrides and Destruction.” But it’s more likely that the name is short for “blood brother”, which was taken from the 1960s slang word that referred to a fellow Black person.
What's the difference between the Bloods and Crips?
The Crips were formed in LA during the late sixties while the Bloods were actually formed as an anti-crip gang in the early 70s. They participate in many of the same criminal activities, but have different gang signs and colors. The Crips are also estimated to be slightly larger with membership somewhere in the 30,000 to 35,000 range.
Are the Bloods and Crips still at war?
For around 30 years, these two rival gangs went head-to-head in a deadly turf war that resulted in hundreds of fatalities. Even though a peace deal was struck, gang violence between members continues to be a problem in 2021.
How many street gangs are in the United States?
The U.S. is host to somewhere around 33,000 violent gangs including street, motorcycle and prison gangs - all of which are involved in criminal activities.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Asbury, Herbert. "The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld." Thunder's Mouth Press, Oct. 10, 2001. ISBN 1560252758.
  • Egley, Arlen Jr., and Major, Aline K. "Highlights of the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention." (April 13, 2018)
  • Goldentyer, Debra. "Gangs (Teen Hot Line)." Heinemann Library, June 1994. ISBN 081143527X.
  • Klein, Malcolm W. "The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control." Oxford University Press, July 31, 1997. ISBN 0195115732.
  • Snyder, Howard N., and Sickmund, Melissa. 2006. "Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (April 13, 2018)
  • Rey, Jay. "New initiative targets lower East Side gangs." Buffalo News, Aug. 30, 2006. (April 13, 2018)
  • Rosen, Roger and McSharry, Patra (editors). "Street Gangs: Gaining Turf, Losing Ground." Rosen Publishing Group, October 1991. ISBN 0823913325.
  • Shakur, Sanyika. "Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member." Grove Press, July 2004. ISBN 0802141447.
  • Thomas, Vanessa. "Drugs, gangs blamed for surge in killings." Buffalo News, Aug. 28, 2006.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Weed & Seed."
  • U.S. Department of Justice: 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment. (April 13, 2018) GangThreatAssessment.pdf
  • Valdez, Al. "Gangs: A Guide to Understanding Street Gangs." Law Tech Pub Ltd, January 2005. ISBN 1563250780.