History of Gangs in the United States


Gangs are thought to have first emerged in America in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. These gangs did not commit any serious offenses and generally consisted of few members. The gangs found amusement in “breaking windows and demolishing taverns. They also fought among themselves dressed in colored ribbons to distinguish the different factions” (Pearson, 1983). Territorial wars were also common.


In the 1900s, gangs began to thrive in large cities due to the arrival of African and Mexican immigrants en-masse. Their growth was also spurned by the arrival of Poles, Italians, and Jews in New York City between 1880 and 1920. Gangs became more violent and could even be hired to perform various services, including punching ($2), nose and jawbone-breaking ($10), breaking legs or arms ($19), shooting in the leg ($25), and “doing the big job” ($100 and up) (Sante, 1991; Valdez, 2007). The gangs also terrorized streets, particularly in New York.


Gangs continued to grow in number strengthened by Latino immigrant groups moving into cities, especially in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Black gangs also increased in number. Interracial conflicts became common with white male gangs violently resisting racial integration. Black gangs evolved into social protection groups to protect their interests.


The construction of high-rise public buildings across the country that had begun from 1940 to the mid-1960s encouraged segregation among communities in various cities. The gangs engaged in systematic and widespread violence and extortion. Large gangs with thousands of members emerged during this time and this increased the scope of their criminal activities (Sullivan, 2006). Gang violence was further extended to prisons as several states reported an increase in gang-related inmate violence.


During the 1970s, between 6 and 12 million Mexicans settled in the US. The steadily increasing Hispanic/Latino population replaced white gangs in streets across New York City. Rivalry among gang members became rife in state prisons. Numerous Hispanic/Latino and black street gangs emerged from 1970-1972 to fight racial intimidation, school and residential segregation, extreme marginalization, and racial exclusion from mainstream city populations.


The 1980s saw increased mobility and access to more dangerous weapons. Consequently, gangs became more dangerous and while previous instances of violence had involved bare knuckles or crude weapons, they now used guns. In addition to ease of gun access, the growing availability of vehicles led to an increase in drive-by shootings, a tact that had previously been done on foot. Gangs during this period consisted of both hard-core older members and younger persons. Most of the older members had had prison terms or had connections to prison inmates. Gangs also sold drugs, alcohol, and women, besides finding amusement in disturbing the peace through their large stereo systems that we’re able to blast music through a 6-mile range. Authorities also reported the emergence of hybrid gangs distinguished by racial/ethnic mixing.


Gangs had access to more dangerous weapons, appeared to have less concern for territorial attachments, and used alcohol and drugs more widely while also taking part in drug trafficking on a wider scale than before. As a result, gang violence increased. Some gangs also became entrepreneurial and engaged in the multi-million cocaine business. In the late 1990s, they began to decline in number as the US government identified and deported not only undocumented citizens but also persons involved in gang activity.


The government had already instituted several measures to curb gang activity, including strict border screening and the Grant Research Evaluation and Tracking (GREAT), an electronic system that tracked the movements of more than 2000 notorious gang members (Cureton, 2009). The government also enacted the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention act of 1998. These measures reduced gang violence continued.


Currently, most street gangs do not have organized command structures. However, individual gangs occupying sections of streets or flats still engage in isolated violent activities. Reports have also shown that gang membership now exists even in the military.


Cureton, S. R. (2009). Something Wicked This Way Comes: A Historical Account of Black Gangsterism Offers Wisdom and Warning for African American Leadership. Journal of Black Studies, 40, 347–361.

Pearson, G. (1983). Hooligan: A History of Reportable Fears. London: Macmillan.

Sante, L. (1991). Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. New York: Vintage Books.

Sullivan, J. P. (2006). Maras morphing: Revisiting third generation gangs. Global Crime, August – November, 488–490.

Valdez, A. (2007). Gangs: A Guide to Understanding Street Gangs (5th ed.). San Clemente, CA: LawTech Publishing Co.

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