Gangs in the suburbs

Suburbanites often dream that they have escaped or avoided the problems of the big city. But some of these issues are no longer just big city problems: gangs have been in the suburbs for some time now.

Gangs, once a threat confined to city streets, began expanding outward two decades ago. Now, suburban and rural communities are the center of a significant and growing gang problem, according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment report.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found that nearly all communities surrounding Nashville have gang activity, including the traditional suburbs of Nashville, such as those around Hickory Hollow Mall, and small towns in Williamson, Rutherford, Sumner and Wilson counties.

These smaller, residential communities offer fresh territory for selling drugs and that increases the gang’s revenue.

“There’s money out in the suburbs,” said Mike Carlie, criminology and sociology professor at Missouri State University. “There are people in the suburbs that want drugs.”

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I can recall when local law enforcement and other officials started talking about gangs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was something that people in the community weren’t completely prepared for and that threatened the idyllic suburban lifestyle.

I haven’t read much research about suburban gang activity, particularly beyond inner-ring suburbs and in more affluent communities. I would be interested to know how it affects average suburban residents and civic organizations: are they willing to combat the problem and deal with some larger social issues or would they prefer to throw the book at gang members or would they move to further out or more affluent suburbs that don’t have a perceived gang problem?

One of my favorite scenes from Gang Leader for a Day involved the gang leaders meeting at a large suburban house to talk business. While the gang business, mainly involving poor neighborhoods in Chicago, was taking place, their kids were swimming in the pool and acting out the suburban lifestyle. What did the neighbors think? Even a more realistic show like The Wire is set in a place where the public would expect gang activity: run-down areas of Baltimore. Why not put together another show that takes gangs to the suburbs?This would perhaps be too scary for many Americans to consider.

Seeing murder as part of a series of social exchanges

Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic quotes a summary of a recent study in American Sociological Review. The study views murders as part of a larger system of social exchanges between gangs:

In a remarkable 2010 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, academic Andrew Papachristos took these findings to their logical conclusion and conceptualised each murder over a three-year period in Chicago as a social interaction between groups. Surprisingly, the pattern of homicides resembled an exchange of gifts. One gang ‘presents’ a murder to another, and that group must reciprocate the ‘gift’ or risk losing their social status in the criminal underworld. From this perspective, murder is perhaps the purest of social exchanges as the individual is left in no position to reciprocate on his own.

An interesting take that limits the role of individuals in the process.

Would this apply to other crimes as well?

Chicago police and meeting with gangs

When the story came out last week that Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis had met with gang leaders to deliver a warning that the police would crack down if the violence continued, I wondered if there would be some backlash. Many people looking at this story might be incredulous: why didn’t the police just arrest the gang members? If they know who the people are who are responsible for the violence, why not crack down already? Why are the Chicago police negotiating with gangs?

Mayor Daley defended Weis today:

The mayor, who faces re-election in February, has been trying to address criticism about continued violence on city streets. One approach has been to send Weis out for more public appearances to talk about crime…

Today, Daley likened the idea to the negotiations between war combatants.

“It’s a good concept. You’ll sit down with anyone,” Daley said. “We’ll negotiate after the Second World War. We’ll negotiate with anyone to have peace. Even during the war. So you sit down with anyone. If you can save one life, if I can save your son’s life, you’d want me to sit down with them,” the mayor said.

While this may not convince people (just read the comments after the story), the story behind such negotiations is much more complicated. Sudhir Venkatesh’s research about poor Chicago neighborhoods reveals that the police and the gangs actually have a relationship. Gang members may be partaking in criminal activities but they are also active, powerful, and important actors in their community. It is not as simple as just going in and arresting everyone.

The TV show The Wire illustrates this gray area. In the series, the police are generally after the leaders of the gangs, the guys in charge. They could crack down on the small-time dealers or runners but others just pop into place. While the crack-downs may look good for the media (and outsiders looking in), it doesn’t solve the larger problems.

Both Venkatesh’s research and The Wire suggest the problems of these neighborhoods are deeper than the gang activity. There are persistent problems of poverty, a lack of jobs, a lack of opportunities, poor schools, broken infrastructure, and isolation from the outside world. How to solve these issues and the problems of gangs is difficult – and would require a much broader perspective than just counting the number of crimes, arrests, and meetings between the police and gangs.