How Street Gangs Work

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.

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" 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.