Gang Culture


Now appearing in your neighborhood as pop culture Story by Kathryn Monroee • Illustrations by Madeleine Avirov


From sideways hats and hand signals to 05 jerseys and rap music, our children seem to be adopting gang culture as pop culture.


And in a world where gang influence and gang members are everywhere, what children think is just the new cool thing can be dangerous. Especially in Chicago, one of the oldest and biggest gang cities in the country.

Every generation of kids needs a look, a style and a culture of its own. The music is usually where it starts. Parents usually find it offensive, although future generations are likely to make it into a musical, just as past generations have done with the greasers of the 1950s, hippies of the 1960s and disco queens of the 1970s.

"For kids 9 and above, the music to listen to is rap," says John Hagedorn, a senior research fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute. The father of six, including two boys, 10 and 12, has been studying gangs and violence for about 20 years.

Children with older brothers and sisters start even earlier. It's not unusual for them to catch on to the culture as young as 6 and 7.

Hagedorn says rap culture and hip-hop are much broader than gang culture, "but the most popular artists out there are the rebels, the ones pushing the envelope." They are the ones representing themselves as gangsters.

He continues: "This music is the nature of rebellion today in small towns, suburbs and central cities... and so this is the kind of culture that kids are being brought up on today.

"These things are very powerful."

But is the rise of a hip-hop culture that's so closely associated with and imitative of gang styles dangerous? It can be, especially since gangs have grown beyond the city and have infiltrated every suburb.

Most worrisome are the messages being sent to kids who idolize gang culture. There are ethics and morals being served up that glorify pimps, whores, violence and crime.

Parents always have to wonder whenever the line is being pushed-is it too far this time?

Gangs are cool

Kids imitate the look, the dress, the walk, the talk and the style of hip-hop music.

Most kids learn about gangs from music videos and movies, seeing the flashy lifestyle of money, women and power. They see a sense of family and belonging, the excitement of a secret society and the respect they think comes from living dangerously.

"I think there has been an over-romanticization of gang life in the media in general," says John Williams, director of youth services for Oak Park and River Forest Townships and a gang specialist.

But kids don't realize the consequences and tragedies of real gang life or of imitating the gangsta image. They don't understand that the styles they adopt get kids killed in the street or that gangs are violent, criminal groups.

Oscar Contreras coordinates gang outreach efforts for Catholic Charities at Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side. He also works with suburban kids to educate them on the reality of gangs.

"I tell kids they have to be able to understand what it is out there in the street. The street, it's a jungle at times. If you don't know how to survive it, you can be dead or in prison or paralyzed," he says.

But Contreras' picture of the real streets is not one that most kids see. Instead, they equate gangs with being cool.

"Their knowledge comes from movies, Internet, the music they listen to. Generally it's a kind of a Hollywood concept of gangs," says Jared Lewis, director of Know Gangs, a national organization based in Wisconsin that trains police, teachers and social service workers about gangs and drugs. He sees kids mimic these media images.

This massive attention in the mainstream lends credibility to gang culture, says Steven L. Sachs, a Lake County probation officer who lives in Highland Park. He further blames merchandisers and manufacturers for making the gang style so popular and available.

Toy giant Mattel is trying to cash in with its Flavas dolls, marketed to girls 8 to 12 years old.

The six dolls with names such as Happy D., Tika and P. Bo, come complete with hair extensions, baggy clothes, hip-hop jewelry and sideways hats. The two guy dolls have earrings and sagging pants to show their boxers. They come in boxes that are urban settings themselves with graffiti walls and street photos.

"There's so much money to be made in this lifestyle. It's a huge business," Sachs says, further fueling its popularity with kids.

But what happens if a kid walks like a gang member, talks like a gang member and dresses like a gang member?

"There's almost a seamless kind of stretch from being a gang member, wearing gang attire and throwing signs to a kid who is kind of not really knowing what he's doing for sure, but copying some of their styles," says John Moore, director of the National Youth Gang Center at the Institute for Intergovernmental Research in Tallahassee, Fla.

Take baseball hats. Tilting a hat to the left represents one of Chicago's two largest gangs, tilting it to right represents the other. While it may be nothing but a style to some, to others it's a sign of gang affiliation.

Now that everyone is using the styles and signs, it's hard for not only police, but also school officials, parents and community members to identify who is involved with gangs and who is not, says Rod Brunson, an associate professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who did his gang-related dissertation in Chicago.

There are possible frightening consequences of this mixing of cultures: Kids who sport the styles without fully understanding their gang-related meanings have found themselves victims of gang violence.

How dangerous?

It's not big numbers, the kids mistaken as gang members or victimized as a result of their dress and actions. Still, opinions are mixed if you ask experts: How dangerous is this?

Freddy Calixto, a Chicago father with a 14-year-old and three grown children, knows kids wear their hats one way to emulate what they see in music videos. But he also knows, "You can't walk around the street like that cause you're gonna be representing."

"It's a serious thing. It could really cost you your life," says Cheryl Williams, an Oak Park mom who battles to keep her 12-year-old son's hat on straight. She knows he comes in contact with gang members both at his Oak Park school and at their South Side church.

"If you're mimicking some signs of gangs, people are going to assume you're a gang member. I think it could put him into a volatile situation. He could end up with someone shooting at him," Williams says. (She is no relation to John Williams, the Oak Park gang specialist.)

Sometimes parents don't even understand the gang connection. Consider 05 jerseys. They're popular with kids, but the symbol actually means "down with the police." Police are often called "five-oh," a throwback to the 1970s police television series, "Hawaii Five-O." And in gang culture, anytime you turn a symbol backwards or upside down, it's a sign of disrespect.

Ava Greenwell, an Evanston parent of three, thinks all the fear and worry is excessive. "Sometimes, as parents, I think we overdo it. Sometimes it's just a fad. I think we have to not read too much into it," she says.

Cheryl Williams also believes the trend is mostly innocent, and that her son doesn't really understand all the meanings behind the styles.

"He doesn't know and kids don't know; they're just trying to be cool. It's what they see in the rap music videos and what they see their friends doing," she says.

But she knows there are dangers to the styles.

"I explain about gang signs. I keep reiterating that's the reason you gotta keep your hat straight. He looks at me like I'm overreacting," Williams says.

It's everywhere

Gangs are no longer just urban, they are now suburban as well.

Parents move their children out of the city to escape a neighborhood gang only to find the adolescents stay in touch with their gang contacts from the city or gang friends come out to visit, says Paula Brand, a chief investigator with the Chicago Crime Commission.

"No community is free from gang influence," Brand says.

"They [suburbanites] don't want to think it can come into their areas. It's not that they're ignoring it. They might have their heads in the sand."

Oak Park found itself in the height of a gang problem in 1995 when "things were boiling," says John Williams, who also chairs Oak Park and River Forest's gang and drug task forces.

"We hit a real dangerous point Aug. 25, 1995," he recalls. "We had a drive-by shooting and a beating death in the same night."

The communities kicked into gear. They put in place programs to get to kids before problems occurred. Their motto is ongoing intervention and prevention in both the middle and high schools.

No gangs claim Oak Park as territory, says Williams, but at any given time he estimates there are about 55 kids with some level of gang involvement.

And Oak Park is not unique.

"It is the same in every community in the United States," Williams says. "Every parent, no matter where they live, should be concerned about gangs and looking for signs of gang recruitment. They have a knack for viewing every kid as a potential resource."

In the schools

"Schools are the number one recruiting grounds for gangs," says Andrew Grascia, who has seen the direct effects of this as a gang specialist in New York.

Most recruitment occurs at the beginning and end of the school year, according to John J. Guzman, a retired Chicago police officer and gang expert.

"Parents have to be more aware of what's really going on," says Sachs, the probation officer. "In the suburbs, there is a lot of recruitment in the school districts."

Middle schools, junior highs and high schools create dress codes to cut down on gang colors and obvious displays of gang membership. Some schools have police officers on campus.

Melissa Green, a teacher at Haven Middle School in Evanston, sees the gang influence in her school.

She knows some students are affiliated with different gangs, and also sees subtle signs such as symbols written in notebooks or kids throwing signs in the hallways.

In response, her school has a dress code prohibiting hats and rolling up pant legs, two ways of identifying yourself as in a particular gang.

Many schools have started educating staff, teachers and students.

Staff learns about gang signs, the latest trends, news and how to respond. Other programs are aimed at kids in hopes of preventing their involvement by showing them the reality and dangers of gang life.

GREAT-Gang Resistance Education and Training-is a national prevention program directed at third- and fourth-graders, and seventh- and eighth-graders.

Sgt. Edward Madgett of the Chicago Police Department says the city has about 75 officers using it. GREAT touches on topics such as self-esteem, problem solving, handling peer pressure and gang awareness.

Another program, known as Street SMART-Skills, Mastery and Resistance Training-is also used in schools to teach kids about gangs. This 27-week curriculum teaches gang awareness and resistance, conflict resolution and positive influences.

Betsy Jenkins, who works with a parent advocacy group in Evanston, believes kids need more education. "There needs to be more outreach from the police department. Officer Friendly needs to be a little more friendly," she says.

Evanston parent Ava Greenwell disagrees. While she applauds the school education efforts, she believes the real outreach must come from parents and people in the community.

Roman Matthews of the Chicago Police Department agrees. "Police and gangs go back a long way. It's been a fun fight but it's gotten nowhere. Police aren't the answer," he says. "The answer is prevention and the strongest person in the prevention chain is the parent."

Gangs on the rise

As gang culture spreads to new areas, gang populations are on the rise-Chicago has 125 organized gangs and more than 100,000 gang members, according to Matthews.

Oscar Contreras of the Back of the Yards sees this vast increase in both gangs and gang culture and says it affects all children.

"We don't want to accept that it's part of our responsibility, so we look at it as an inner-city problem. But it's affecting our suburban areas and suburban kids," says Contreras.

"It's all of our problems," he says. "It's very popular. I call it a cancer. We as a society have to become a chemotherapy team. If we don't try to find alternatives, it's gonna keep on spreading and spreading and eat us up. And it'll take more and more of our kids."

The biggest influence is also big business, music.

Music is always an area that reaches and influences young people. And some music, such as gangster rap, openly promotes the gang lifestyle and culture with lyrics about drugs, violence and rape.

The difficulty in censoring the messages that children get from this music is that most parents don't know or understand the music.

"I would bet that 99 percent of parents have no idea what the lyrics are of the music our kids are listening to," Lewis says.

And what parents are not hearing can be bad for kids.

"It is more outrageous now. Some of this stuff is detrimental to kids," says Hagedorn of UIC. "It's the kind of culture that kids are brought up in that fashions their outlook."

Hagedorn suggests that almost every kid knows the lyrics to "P.I.M.P," a song performed by rappers 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.

"Snoop Dogg openly talks about his gang all the time, throughout his CD. [He] does shout-outs to different Crip sets. He's basically made it a legitimate organization," says Grascia, the New York gang specialist. The Crips are a gang, known for being particularly violent.

In its 2002 album, Tha Dogg Pound (DPG) featured a song entitled "Crip Wit Us." Their gang involvement is clear in the lines: "All my niggas won't you crip with me/ All my bitches won't you crip with me/ If you ain't crippin,' you my e-ne-my/ everybody won't you crip with me."

Some Chicago-area parents know enough of the lyrics to know they don't approve. But they still struggle with the music because their kids enjoy it. Often, they say, it's the kids who don't understand the meaning of the lyrics, but are just trying to be cool or they like the beat.

"It is real and a part of their life," says Hagedorn. "You can't dismiss it and you can't suppress it. If you tell kids you can't listen to it, you better be ready to be with the kids 24 hours a day, when they are with their friends.

"But some of this stuff is really detrimental to kids," says Hagedorn.

"Who wants to raise kids to think that women are a commodity and that life is valued so little?"

Gang culture perpetuates not just sexist stereotypes but racists ones as well.

When the general public thinks of gangs, it makes an automatic link to African-American and Latino youth. But in fact, many white kids are involved in gangs and many gangs today, especially those in the suburbs, are racially mixed. So why the misconceptions?

"It's the racist society we live in choosing to capitalize on people's fears," says Matthews of the Chicago Police Department. "Society at large chose to accept a small group and keep everyone else out," he says.

Ava Greenwell believes racial overtones, especially in music, have harmful impacts on the entire African-American community.

"A steady diet of those kinds of negative images where it relates not just to a poor image of women, but a poor image of men, particularly men and women of color, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," she says.

But experts also say that instead of banning the music, parents will achieve more if they talk to kids about what is being said in the songs.

Hagedorn says he often downloads the lyrics to these songs and sits with his sons talking about what it means.

"Parents have the responsibility to talk about these things with their kids and make sure they understand ... it is portrayed as being cool, and they should not be allowed to think a pimp is cool. They should know what a pimp does and what he does to women and that none of that is cool."

Chicago parent Calixto has a difficult time trying to keep his children from rap music. He and his wife don't approve of the messages about sex, drugs, violence and disrespect found in the music, but they know their kids listen to it anyway.

"Sometimes we lose a lot of battles, but we just hope to win the war," he says.

What can parents do? Talk it up Communication is the key to educating your children and keeping them safe. Talk to them about the music they listen to. Read the lyrics. Make sure they understand what the words mean. Talk to them about gangs. While music and dress doesn't mean a child will join a gang, don't think gangs are only other people's problem. Here are some suggestions to keep your children safe.

• Start early. Most gang prevention and education programs target middle-school children, an age susceptible to peer pressure. But police recommend starting as early as age 8 to ensure children get their information from parents rather than another, less reliable, source.

• Know your children. Know where your children are going, who they're with and what they're doing. Know their interests. Talk to them about their music and clothing choices.

• Meet the parents. It's harder when they get to middle and high school because the pool of friends grows. But meet their friend's and those friends' parents. Make sure you know when they go to someone's home that a parent is home. It's not always a given.

• Be involved. Talk to your kids, be aware of their activities, show interest in their school performance and extracurricular activities.

• Educate yourself. Kids need to hear more than "just say no." So seek out sources of information you can trust and make sure you're up on the latest trends, teenspeak and clothing styles.

• Look for changed behaviors. If you're worried your child is going too far, watch for signs the child is losing interest in school, has friends you haven't met, flashes money you don't know the source of or exhibits symptoms of drug or alcohol use.

• Don't give up. Says Jared Lewis, director of Know Gangs, "I think it's important for parents to realize it's better for them to hate me today than to have a messed-up future."



Kathryn Monroe is a writer and a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.


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