What We Should Know About Gangs
Wade, a former member of a California gang, said: “We were simply guys who lived in the same neighborhood. We started in elementary school together. We just didn’t make the right decisions.”
GANGS often began more or less as neighborhood groups. People in their early teens or younger gathered on a street corner. They did things together and then united to protect themselves from a more established group nearby. But soon their group began to sink to the level of its most violent members, and it became involved in dangerous criminal activities.
A rival gang from another street may have viewed the new group as its enemy. Anger then led to violence. Drug traffickers used the gang to sell illegal drugs. Other criminal activities followed.
Luis was 11 years old when friends formed a gang. At age 12 he began using drugs. At 13 he was arrested for the first time. He took part in auto thefts, burglaries, and armed robberies. And he was in and out of jails for gang fighting and rioting.
We may be surprised at times by those who belong to gangs. Martha, a clean-cut, overachieving high school student, got good grades and was well behaved in school. However, she was the leader of a gang that dealt marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. It was not until one of her friends was shot several times and killed that she was frightened into changing her life.
Why They Join Gangs
Surprisingly, some gang members say they joined for love. They were looking for camaraderie, for a closeness they did not find at home. The newspaper Die Zeit of Hamburg, Germany, said that in street gangs young people try to find the security that they cannot find elsewhere. Eric, a former gang member, said that if you don’t find love at home, “you go outside looking for something better.”
One father, a former gang member, wrote about his early life experiences: “I was in and out of jails for disorderly conduct, gang fighting, rioting and eventually for attempted murder in a drive-by shooting.” Later, when he had his son Ramiro, he had little time for the boy. When Ramiro grew older, he also joined a gang, and he was arrested by the police after a gang fight. When his father insisted that he get out of the gang, he shouted: “They are my family now.”
A nurse in a Texas hospital, who had spoken with 114 young gunshot victims in slightly more than a year, said: “It’s strange. I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them ask for their mother or any family member.”
Significantly, it is not only children from poorer parts of town who join gangs. Several years ago the Canadian magazine Maclean’s quoted police as saying that they had found youngsters from both the city’s most affluent and its most impoverished neighborhoods in the same gang. These young ones from diverse backgrounds band together for a similar reason—they seek a sense of family togetherness that they do not find at home.
In some areas young people grow up viewing gang membership as a normal way of life. Sixteen-year-old Fernando explained: “They think joining the gang will help them solve their problems. They think: ‘I’ll get me some friends. They are big and carry guns. They will protect me, and nobody will do nothing.’” But new gang members soon find that being in a gang makes them the target of the gang’s enemies.
Often gangs are found in neighborhoods where there is little money and too many guns. News reports tell of big-city schoolrooms in which 2 out of 3 students live in single-parent homes. Sometimes, a student’s parent is a drug addict who may not come home at night, and the student must take her own fatherless child to day care before she goes to school in the mornings.
California’s governor, Pete Wilson, said: “We have a terrible problem because a lot of kids are growing up without a father, without a male role model to give them love, direction, discipline and values—without a sense of why they should respect themselves or respect others.” He said that this inability of some young people to sympathize with others is the reason they “can seemingly blow somebody away [shoot them dead] with not a flicker of remorse.”
Although lack of family togetherness, personal training, and solid moral example are major factors in the growth of gangs, other factors are also involved. These include TV programs and movies that present violence as an easy solution to problems, a society that often labels the poor as failures and continually reminds them that they can’t afford to do the things others do, and the growing number of single-parent families in which an overworked young mother must struggle to support one or more unsupervised children. A combination of most or all of these factors, and perhaps of still others, has led to the growing worldwide plague of street gangs.
It’s Hard to Get Out
True, after a time some gang members drift away from their gang, occupying themselves with other activities. Others may go to live with relatives in another area and thereby escape life in a gang. But often, getting out of a gang is not that easy.
Commonly, gang members have to undergo a violent beating by several members before they are permitted to leave a gang alive. In fact, people who have wanted to get out of certain gangs have actually had to suffer being shot. If they survived, they were permitted to leave! Is it worth such severe abuse to get out of a gang?
One former gang member explained why he wanted to get out: “Five of my friends are already dead.” Indeed, life as a gang member can be almost unbelievably dangerous. Time magazine reported regarding one former member of a Chicago gang: “In his seven-year career, he’s been shot in the stomach, hit in the head with a railroad tie, had his arm broken in a fight and been jailed twice for auto theft . . . But now that he’s finally gone straight, even his former friends are out to get him.”
A Better Life Possible
Eleno, a Brazilian, was once a member of the Headbangers, a gang that fought with knives and sometimes guns. Feeling underprivileged, he found satisfaction in breaking things and attacking people. A workmate talked with him about the Bible. Later Eleno attended an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where he met former associates who had left his gang as well as a former member of a rival gang. They greeted each other as brothers—so different from what would have occurred at an earlier time.
Does this really happen? Indeed it does! Recently a representative of Awake! sat down with former members of major gangs in Los Angeles who now serve with congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After several hours of talking, one of them paused, leaned back, and said: “Look at this! Former Bloods and Crips sitting here loving each other as brothers!” They agreed that their change from ruthless gang members to men of kindness and love had resulted from the fact that they had learned godly principles through careful Bible study.
Could this really happen in the 1990’s? Can gang members actually make such changes now? They can if they are willing to look into the powerful encouragement provided in God’s Word and then bring their lives into harmony with Bible principles. If you should happen to be a gang member, why not consider making such a change?
The Bible urges us to “put away the old personality which conforms to your former course of conduct” and to “put on the new personality which was created according to God’s will in true righteousness and loyalty.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) How is that new personality developed? “Through accurate knowledge,” the Bible says, one’s personality can be “made new according to the image of [God] who created it.”—Colossians 3:9-11.
Is it worth trying to make a change? Yes, it is! If you are a gang member, you will probably need help to make such a change. There are people in your own neighborhood who will be glad to assist you. Yet, parents are often in the position to exercise the greatest positive influence on their children. So we will now consider what parents can do to protect their children from gangs.
[Picture on page 7]
Former members of rival gangs now united by Bible truth