Overview of Gangs

Originally the word gang had no negative connotation. In Old English, gang simply referred to a "number of people who went around together-a group." Today a gang can be defined in four basic ways:

• an organized group with a leader

• a unified group that usually remains together during peaceful times as well as times of conflict

• a group whose members show unity through clothing, language

• a group whose activities are criminal or threatening to the larger society.

Gangs are one of the results of poverty, discrimination and urban deterioration. Some experts believe that young people, undereducated and without access to good jobs, become frustrated with their lives and join gangs as an alternative to boredom, hopelessness and devastating poverty. Studies have attempted to determine why gangs plague some communities but there has been no definitive answer. As a result, people working to solve gang problems have great difficulty. They find the situation overwhelming, and the violence continues.


No groups completely fitting the above description of gangs existed in America until the early 1800s, but from the beginning of the European settlement in America there was gang-like activity, especially when class distinctions came into being. Gang members tended to be from the poorer classes and tended to be from the same race or ethnic background. They banded together for protection, recreation or financial gain.

The earliest identified American gangs formed after the Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783. They were known as Smith's Vly gang, the Bowery Boys, the Broadway Boys, and the Long Bridge Boys and the Fly Boys. The first three were white and the last two were African-American. Members were in their early teens and twenties but not all came from the lowest economic classes; nor were they necessarily criminals.



It was not until the 19th century that "criminal" gangs first formed. As the result of a worsening economy and growing population that increased competition for jobs, gangs began to specialize in crime and became a part of America 's cities.

Irish Gangs

Irish immigrants formed the first American criminal gangs in New York City . Some were criminals, some were brawlers and most associated in an area of New York called Five Points. They had dress codes and called their members by code nicknames. (Many of the gang rituals of today have their roots in this period.) The first Irish gang to have a recognized leader was the Forty Thieves, organized by Edward Coleman in 1826. Gangs also arose in the Bowery. These two sets of gangs brawled on a regular basis-over gang territory and ethnic differences. Sometimes the battles were so long and intense that the army had to be called in to stop them.

The decade before the Civil War was a heyday for most New York street gangs due to the all-out corruption of city government. Gang membership swelled. Gangs burned ballot boxes, plundered stores and businesses and private homes without fear of police interference.

Post Civil War

After the Civil War in 1865 New York records indicate a presence of Jewish, Italian, African-American and Irish gangs. With the increase in immigrant populations, so grew gang membership. Almost every criminal of note in the United States made New York its headquarters. Chinese gangs appeared in California in the mid-1800s. Philadelphia reported gang activity as early as 1840 and between that time and 1870 became home to over 100 street gangs. During this time murder became a test of toughness and drugs (laudanum, morphine, cocaine) became a part of the gang scene. The level of violence escalated. The Whyos of Five Points used murder as a membership requirement. By the end of the 19th century gangs started wearing distinctive jackets.



In the early 1900s the U.S. economy worsened, the population grew at a rapid pace, and the gap between the rich and poor widened. All across the nation gangs appeared where poor, hopeless people lived. The dawning of the 20th century also brought with it a widespread use of firearms.


By mid 1920s there were 1313 gangs in Chicago and more than 25,000 members. Gang warfare in Chicago was widespread and fighting took place along ethnic, cultural and racial lines. Some gangs had no noticeable cultural, ethnic or national ties and consisted mostly of whites.

Chicano Gangs

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of Chicano (Mexican-American) gangs in Los Angeles . By the 1940s Chicano gangs established their place in Los Angeles -their zoot suits (a style of dress incorporating tapered pants, long wide-shoulder coats and broad-brimmed hats) had become a familiar sight. Fighting back against harassment of white residents and visiting soldiers during the so-called zoot suit riots in 1943 strengthened their cause.

Post World War II

After World War II gang membership:

• became younger,

• the nationality of the membership became largely non-white (though Italians, Irish and other white ethnic groups still made up a percentage),

• drugs became a more publicized concern,

• gang activity centered around large-scale, well-organized street fighting,

• fire-arms were used more often,

• the structure of organization became more rigid,

• and society at large became concerned with gangs as a social problem and worked toward rehabilitation.

Changes in Ethnic Populations

Between 1941 and 1945 over half a million Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States , most settling in New York City . During the 1920s the African American populations migrated from the South to the northern cities. Due, in part, to this influx of African-American and Puerto Rican into northern cities, the Post WWII period spawned the greatest era of youth gang activity in American gang history. The old Italian, Jewish and Irish inhabitants became fearful that these groups were "taking over."

The 1950s

During the 1950s gang fighting rose to an all time high in cities like New York , Philadelphia , Boston , Chicago , Detroit , Los Angeles and Cleveland . Gang members were usually in their teens. Codes of dress (black leather jackets were popular) and mannerisms were an important means of identification. Body language said a lot about the nature of the gang. When a gang decided to become a fighting, or "bopping" gang, its members immediately took on a different way of walking. A rhythmic gait, characterized by the forward movement of the head with each step. Terms for fighting were: bopping, rumbling, jitterbugging. Gang members used guns, knives, and homemade weapons. Most common drugs-alcohol, marijuana, heroin. New York gangs fought along racial lines-African-American, white, Puerto Rican. Usually they fought over girls or turf. Turf could be anything from a few blocks to an entire neighborhood. Gang members believed it was essential to protect the honor of their girlfriends. And in the late 1950, girl gangs, with strong ties to boy gangs, began to form. Revenge was required by an inflexible code of gang loyalty. It was from such incidents that gangs drew their sense of pride, of "being somebody." In order to combat the rise of violence, organizations like the New York City Youth Board sent social workers into the slums to form relationships with the gangs. In some cases it worked; in many it did not.

The 1960s

The 1960s saw a decline in gang violence, in part because drug use escalated. Where there was more drug use there was less gang violence. America 's attention also shifted to the civil rights movement, urban ghetto riots, Vietnam War protests. A new racial consciousness had its effect on local street gang, creating organizations that were more involved in communities. The Black Panthers arose in Oakland in 1968, the Black Muslims gained national prominence in the '60s and a Puerto Rican gang, the Young Lords, formed in the early '70s.

The 1970s

By early 1972 gangs were making headlines again. Drug use seemed to be decreasing and violence increasing. Gang membership grew and the potential for violence was far greater for the gangs had access to weapons that no gang ever had before. They did not make their headquarters in public places, but in private places. Gangs also acquired greater legal and political sophistication. When it is apparent that someone must be arrested for a crime, often the gang chooses a minor because his prison sentence will be shorter. Serving a term in jail helps boost his reputation.



Since the 1980s, as the ghettos become more and more overcrowded, a gang's territory has become no more than a single corner or a block. Guns decide arguments quickly and gang wars today are usually fought like guerrilla warfare with sniping from rooftops and quick shots from speeding cars replacing face to face confrontations.

Gangs have been reported in all 50 states and come from many backgrounds. Some gangs still form in immigrant communities populated, for example, by recent arrivals from Vietnam , El Salvador and Haiti . Others cultivate members in neighborhoods consisting of families who have lived in the United States for generations. Members are still usually male, between the ages 13 and 24.

Geography of Today's Gangs

Although gangs are more common in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles , Chicago and New York , gang activity also occurs in midsize cities such as Fort Wayne , Indiana ; Albuquerque , New Mexico and Louisville , Kentucky . In 1984 there were an estimated 450 gangs and 40,000 members in Los Angeles , today there are twice as many gangs and more than 100,000 members. In 1987 Louisville reported 1000 gang members, Albuquerque 1757 members and Fort Wayne 50 members.

Reasons for Gang Membership

Gangs are still largely populated by young people from disenfranchised neighborhoods characterized by overcrowding, high unemployment, high drop out rates, lack of social and recreational services, and a general feeling of hopelessness. Some experts estimate than more than 80% of gang members are illiterate and find it nearly impossible to get a job.

Earning a Living

Young people turn to gangs as a means to earn a living through drug trafficking, illegal weapons sales, robbery and theft. The need for protection draws some young people who live in communities where non-gang members are continually harassed bygang members. Some young people join gangs as a way to gain the respect they lack at home and in the community. Or they may join gangs because all their friends are doing it; it just seems like a natural thing to do. Some experts say that young people from troubled homes attempt to find substitute families in gangs. Abuse, neglect, and loss seem to be common themes among many gang members.

Gang Structure

Gang structure varies. The largest gangs, some with as many as 2,000 members, break up into smaller groups called clubs and cliques. Clubs typically bring more territory to a gang-they are branches of the gang that move into a new neighborhood to develop new business (usually drug trafficking). Cliques assemble new gang members and unite them along similar interests (street fighting, burglary). In the 1970s many small gangs changed their names to create an association with the reputation of two Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Today Bloods and Crips can be found all across the United States .

Gang Leadership

Some gangs operate informally, with leadership falling to whoever takes control. Other gangs have distinct leaders and highly structured gangs have officers, much like a corporation. The president might direct the gang's business dealings and the vice president might keep members in line, overseeing the gang's communication network, including car phones, walkie-talkies, pagers and beepers. Gang members use these devices to coordinate drug deals and to protect themselves from arrest. The warlord keeps order at gang meetings, plans fights against rival gangs and controls the gang's arsenal. Highly structured gangs can be found all around the country, but are most common in New York where competition for drug money and status is high.



Although there are no easy solutions to the gang problem in this country the following are some ideas that have been put forward by sociologists, social workers, law enforcement personnel and citizens from battered communities.

.  Create jobs for young people.

.  Develop community programs in the arts, sports, etc.

.  Make sure young people receive a good education.

.  Prevent children from joining gangs in the first place by providing other challenging opportunities.

.  Create alternate living situations for children who cannot stay at home.

.  Provide counseling services for families and young people.

.  Society as a whole must look at problems of poverty and discrimination.

.  Individuals can fight prejudice by beginning to appreciate cultural differences.

.  Young people can do their part by being open to alternative activities.

Sources: Karen Osman, Gangs James Haskins, Street Gangs Yesterday and Today




Street gang membership encompasses all races from most socioeconomic levels and are not limited to larger cities . Active prevention is now required virtually from the start of a child's entry into the school system. Street gangs have national scope, many are localized imitation of larger cities. In Madison , Chicago street gangs are the most imitated.

A street gang is a group or association of three or more persons who may have a common identifying sign, symbol or name, and who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, criminal activity, or as a juvenile commits an act that if committed by an adult would be a criminal act


"Gang related incident" - An incident shall be considered gang related when one or more of the following criteria are met:

1. When an incident occurs where the participants, suspects or victims, are identified as gang members or affiliates.

2. When a law enforcement agency or reliable informant identifies an incident as gang activity.

3. When an informant of previously untested reliability identifies an incident as gang activity and it is corroborated.

4. When the conduct is consistent with street gang activity. Indicators of street gang involvement may be based on the suspects' description, method of operation, or other evidence that reasonably indicates that gang members were involved in the incident.


An individual shall be considered a "Street Gang Member" when that person meets any one of the following criteria:

1. When the individual admits membership in a gang.

2. When a law enforcement agency or reliable informant identifies an individual as a gang member.

3. When an informant of previously untested reliability identifies an individual as a gang member, and it is corroborated by independent information.

4. When the individual resides in or frequents a particular gang's area and affects their style of dress, use of hand signs, symbols or tattoos, and/or maintains ongoing relationships with known gang members; or has been arrested several times in the company of identified gang members for offenses which are consistent with usual gang activity; and where the law enforcement officer believes there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in gang-related criminal activity or enterprise.


An individual who does not meet the criteria for a "Street Gang Member," but is known to affiliate with active gang members, and law enforcement personnel have established a reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity or enterprise, or promotes the criminal activity of a gang.


Activities that gangs are involved in include fighting, vandalism, graffiti, armed robbery weapon offenses, auto theft battery and drug dealing. Not all gang members are engaged in illegal activities. Criminal activity is usually committed by gang members for monetary benefit to either the gang itself or to an individual member.


Peer pressure plays an important role in a decision to join a gang. Gang members come from all walks of life, from low income to high income. Some gang members have relatives who belong to a gang. Gang members are placed in the following categories:

1. "Leaders" are usually the oldest members with extensive criminal backgrounds. They direct the activities and recruitment of the gang members. Each gang has a particular command structure. Currently in the Dane County area there are limited numbers of gang member that are considered to be officers. Most of the high ranking officers in the gangs come from source cities, such as Chicago .

2. " Hard-core members " are usually the most violent members of the gang with criminal backgrounds. They generally commit the more serious crimes and are behind the drug dealing trade for the gang. They intimidate the younger members of the gang and show them what is required to display loyalty to the gang. Locally these gang members are currently the most influential gang members and are the link between Chicago and Madison.

3. "Fringe and/or marginal members" are usually the youngest and the newest members of the gang with little criminal backgrounds. They may have joined the gang or are thinking about joining the gang. They may only be involved temporarily or on a limited basis, or they may progress into hard-core members. This group represents the majority of gang members seen in Dane County .


Gang members use graffiti, hand signs, jewelry, tattoos, clothing and colors to signify their membership in a gang and to communicate their gang affiliation to others. Each gang has its own unique graffiti, signs and colors.

HAND SIGNS Are used to communicate within the gang and as a challenge to rival gangs. The signs are made by forming letters and/or numbers with fingers.

TATTOOS Are used to mark ones body as an identifier indicating membership in a particular gang. The tattoos can include the name, initials, street of origin, initials, or symbols of a gang. Some tattoos are professionally drawn while others are homemade. Tattoos can be found on any part of the body, but are commonly found on the hands, arms, chest, back, thighs or ankles.

COLORS Most gangs have particular colors that they use to identify themselves. Many of the gang members will frequently dress in these colors. In Madison the two colors most associated with gang activity are blue and red.

CLOTHING Some gangs use particular sports team clothing to represent their gang by picking a team that uses the particular colors associated with gangs. They may also pick out a teams clothing because of the symbol represented by that team, such as the five point star used by the Dallas Cowboys.

JEWELRY Gangs are usually divided into two groups, the folks and peoples. Jewelry with a six point star indicate a membership with a gang related to the folks, while a five point star is associated with peoples.

STREET NAMES Members of gangs use street-names with each other. They are used to conceal identification from law enforcement. Sometimes gang members use addressers such as "folks" and "people" when talking to each other.

NOTE: The wearing of particular items of clothing should not be used alone as an indication of gang involvement. Current clothing style imitate gang membership.





1. Baseball caps worn distinctively to the left or the right.

2. Tattoos of stars, pitchforks, or unexplained symbols.

3. Jewelry, including rings, earrings, and necklaces with nicknames, stars, pitchforks or unexplained initials or symbols.

4. Money from an unexplained source.

5. Certain clothes with particular colors and sport team identification which are the only type a child will wear.

6. New friends that parents are not acquainted with and whom they are not allowed to meet.

7. Unexplained signs and symbols on books, folders, clothes, bedroom walls and personal belongings.

8. Truancy or poor progress in school.

9. Frequent negative contacts with police.




Gang members mark their territory with graffiti, such as pitch forks, initials and symbols. The markings can range from simple to elaborate. Typically graffiti is used to warn competing gangs that there is a threat of takeover. It is essential to remove graffiti as soon as possible, so that it will not be defaced by a rival gang. "Dissing" is done by insulting rival gangs. This occurs when original gang graffiti is crossed out and an opposing gang graffiti written over or next to it, or by graffiti representing the original gang written upside down by the rival gang.

Again it is important to remove the graffiti as soon as possible. Business and property owners should be made aware of graffiti and encouraged to remove it as soon as possible. Graffiti should be reported to your local police or sheriff's precinct as soon as possible.

NOTE: Keep in mind that graffiti is not isolated to any particular neighborhood. Several Dane County communities have reported having graffiti.


1. Don't ignore your suspicions, talk to your child.

2. Watch for some of the signs mentioned previously.

3. Listen to conversations your child has with friends or new acquittance.

4. Check your child's room periodically for signs and symbols.

5. Talk to your child's teachers about your suspicions.

6. Divert your child's attention away from friends unknown to you and into other activities.

7. Ask for help from the many community agencies.

8. Call the police. We will respond to your questions and if desired talk with you and child about gangs.

*** Do not think that a gang is just a phase. Older gang members use newer gang member or people looking to get into the gang by having them take most of the risk. Large quantities of "crack" cocaine have been found on newer members, while older members refuse to associate with them when they get caught.


1. Report all crimes and gang activity to the police.

2. Identify any suspects to the police, as well as any Street Names. Remember information can be kept confidential.

3. Remember that we cannot do the job alone and we need the help of those in the community.


Teachers, safety aides, counselors, administrators, and coaches can help to identify gang members or those at risk by:

1. Monitor known gang members.

2. Monitor associates who are commonly seen with known gang members.

3. Discourage those that may be at risk, especially in elementary and middle schools.

4. Recognize of graffiti that students may mark on books, folders, lockers, clothing.

5. Recognize of gang related tattoos that students may have .

6. Recognize of gang related jewelry that students may wear.

7. Recognize of gang signs used by gang members.

8. Work with students and staff to discourage gang involvement and related activities.

If You Have Any Questions or Need Assistance Please Call:

MADISON , WI 53710
(608) 266-4248 or (608) 266-4524