Get Rich or Die Tryin’

A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture

by John M. Hagedorn, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

For years, John Hagedorn has made the honest study of gang culture and its institutionalization the cornerstone of his research and work. With A World of Gangs, he provides a valuable primer on the overall character of major gangs, building upon his previous work, including People and Folks, Female Gangs in America, Gangs in the Global City, and Neither War nor Peace. As Mike Davis points out in his forward to the book, the widely held belief that street gangs are simply a manifestation of social pathology is a misconception. Instead, Davis urges us to reconceptualize gangs through the lenses of urban history and street politics – an approach that fits nicely with the overall thrust of Hagedorn’s work.

After having spent years interviewing gang-involved youth around the world, Hagedorn has developed a nuanced understanding that contrasts with the monolithic stereotypes that pervade mainstream US criminology. As a result, the gangs presented in this book are not the stable, clearly defined entities of criminology textbooks. In this short work on a global phenomenon involving hundreds of thousands of members, Hagedorn teases out the contradictions within gangs and maps the historical shifts in their development. Gangs, Hagedorn believes, are a normal feature of today’s contested cities, “one of a panoply of angry, and often armed responses” to a new globalized economy. By viewing gangs and the membership that forms them as social actors rather than as terminally hostile neoliberal flotsam, Hagedorn concludes that we need to work on “bringing gangs and those on society’s margins into broader social movements, while demanding they take steps to shed their violent, anti-social skin.”

Leading the reader to this conclusion is as much a contribution to an understanding of our cities and the gangs they produce as can be hoped for from any one book. The global scope and local understanding constantly at play in A World of Gangs would have, in years past, been a difficult relationship for an uninitiated reader to understand. But at a time when middle-class white kids are as likely to know how to Crip walk as they were to do the Charleston in the 1920s, the inclusion of gang culture into popular culture has provided readers with the broad cultural touchstones necessary to grasp A World of Gangs. This is not to say that many of us have any real understanding of what is at play in this world of gangs, but merely that we have a greater ability to understand the language that describes it.

The focus of Hagedorn’s book is on what he calls institutionalized gangs: gangs that have cemented themselves as fixtures of the landscape. By this standard, he sees a distinction between the gangs of New York, London, and Buenos Aires on the one hand, and those of Chicago, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro on the other. Whereas the gangs in the former cities have historically been born, expanded, contracted, and disappeared, the latter have persisted – defying time, condition, and repression (albeit altered from time to time, in both name and lineage). What Hagedorn views as particular to gangs like the Vice Lords (Chicago), Commando Vermelho (Rio), and Hard Livings (Cape Town) is of more importance than the particularities of the environment that birthed them. Urbanization, deindustrialization, unemployment, and racism are all common among the experiences of these gangs, but equally common for countless millions of others within our globalized era. How, then, have these young men emerged from their ghettos, favelas, and townships with armed units, territory, history, and culture distinct from that of the society that sought to rob them of these very things? Further, why have they historically failed to move beyond that territory and insular culture and struggle against the system that leaves them with little but scraps to fight over?

Throughout A World of Gangs, the lesser-known history of gang culture is often used to contextualize its current expression. Sidestepping an overview of better known American gang history such as that of Capone’s Chicago, or the Five Points of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Hagedorn focuses on the history of groups like the Hamburg Athletic Association (HAA). The HAA is a Chicago institution. It is also a gang. The Association has instigated race riots and also produced Mayor Richard J. Daley – an institution almost unto himself. While characterizing itself as an organization for neighbourhood youth to involve themselves in both their community and in Irish culture, the HAA was also a vehicle for political influence peddling, thuggery, and the street-level enforcement of white supremacy (beyond that of the rather capable Chicago Police Department).

Although the HAA emerged from impoverished conditions, its alliance with the politics of racial domination distinguished its development from the black and brown gangs in the city. For example, the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL), developing in relation to the black community, tried painfully to grow from a street level gang into a full-fledged organization for social change. With broad social programs inspired by the civil rights and black power movements, they sought to uplift and contribute to their neighbourhoods, and they found themselves the victims of brutal repression by Mayor Daley’s regime. Bobby Gore, one of the architects of the new CVL, was quickly framed and convicted of murder. Daley’s “war on gangs” was focused heavily on those gangs that were in the early stages of orienting themselves toward achieving social justice for their respective communities. Supported by the white gang structure, Daley understood the capacity of Chicago’s gangs to affect change. But he also clearly differentiated his aspirations from the demands for justice emanating from the city’s racialized populations. Repressing the mobilization of marginalized communities and maintaining the white power structure, Daley would become the longest-serving mayor in Chicago’s history. His son, Richard M. Daley, would become the second longest. Would the black and brown neighbourhoods of “America’s Second City” be allowed to ascend through the ranks of power using the same tried-and-true methods of Irish working class communities? Certainly not.

Hagedorn consistently points to the centrality of race and white supremacy in his characterization of current gang reality. Racial oppression was not only a major factor in the creation of gangs so as to “show ‘social presence’ in the face of marginalization” – as it often was for Italians, Jews, and Irish in America – but white supremacy was also the major barrier that new (non-white) gangs encountered when they attempted to move beyond street corner hustling to take their collective interests to the next logical level. White supremacy, operating both at the institutional and street level to obliterate any prospect of change emerging from racially oppressed youth, leads the street cultures of ghettos around the world down the road of nihilism to a “get rich or die tryin’” mentality. For Hagedorn, hustling is less about following a black market puritan work ethic than it is about the actions of a youth robbed of other possibilities.

Hagerdorn argues that a new form of identity emerges when white supremacy marries itself to deindustrialization:

While in the industrial era, a faith existed that political action could bring lasting change and provide a secular “working class” or “civic” identity, the sober realism of people today demands an identity closer to home.

Drawing upon Manuel Castells’s concept of “resistance identities,” Hagedorn argues that this “sober realism” produces identities built around people’s origins as opposed to their activities. Race, ethnicity, and religion transcend class in an effort by oppressed communities to protect themselves from the uncertainty of globalization. It is unclear whether Hagedorn views the prioritization of these identities as a retreat from the failures of past social movements, a regrouping to rally for future struggles, a more realistic orientation to organizing, or simply a description of the situation.

Arguably one of the weaker points of A World of Gangs is when Hagedorn focuses on the broader cultural representation of gang life. Hip hop is put forward as the journal of gang culture or, as Public Enemy said, the black CNN. Hagedorn presents the diversity of, or apparent conflict at play within, the different articulations of hip hop culture as more than incidental. His uncritical glorification of “conscious” hip hop as preferable to its “gangster” foster brother reinforces the conservative caricature of rap and gangsta rap as offensive mixes of misogyny, materialism, and glorified violence.

Hagedorn characterizes Suge Knight, CEO of now-bankrupt Death Row Records, as capitalizing on his promotion of west coast gangster rappers. But while Knight enriched himself from gangster rap, he was also affiliated (if indirectly) with Mob Piru Bloods. While there was indeed a cultural shift in America that created a financial incentive for major record companies to invest in the promotion of gangsterism within hip hop, it can also be said that the music industry became another facet of the gang hustle. In the past, gangsters used real estate development, politics, and the entertainment industry to clean up their image and launder their money. These strategies of legitmation often entailed concealing gang connections. In contrast, Gangster rap banks on its association with gangsterism for credibility. While the simple glamourization of gang culture was once enough, stronger associations now garner greater caché. Actual membership is a sure-fire way to secure credibility and a deal selling sneakers. Trying to imagine where Snoop or The Game would be today without Crip and Blood membership is like trying to imagine where Eminem would be without being white.

At times Hagedorn portrays hip hop as split between opposing camps in an internal struggle, a culture war over content. It’s unclear how true this is and, even if it were true, framing hip hop within this paradigm obscures important realities. For better or for worse, hip hop is an integral part of the creation and maintenance of those resistance identities Hagedorn is so fond of. But it’s a mistake to confuse a part for the whole. Singing and dancing - no matter how political the content - can only ever be a component of struggle. To view the “struggle” over hip hop as a struggle for the hearts and minds of urban youth is viewing the situation in reverse. Instead, hip hop, like gangs generally, needs to be positioned within an analysis of the social structure within which it is situated. Art is vital to the struggle, but hype styled in the tradition of claims that “John Lennon was bigger than Jesus” or “Woodstock changed the world” misses the importance of social relations in understanding cultural phenomena.

Beyond the notion that misogyny is bad, especially in gangsta rap, Hagedorn hardly touches on the role of women in institutionalized gangs and the gendered culture fostered within gangs. This is a huge oversight. To write at length on the artistic differences of performers like KRS One and Easy E and not dedicate even a tenth of the space to patriarchy and how it informs gang culture and resistance identities seems a glaring and deliberate omission. Hagedorn has written on the experiences of female gangs and any discussion on gangs and their social possibilities or weaknesses must address not only race, but gender as well. His failure to draw out the contradictions within the gendered roles of gangs and the contributions women have made to gang culture is a serious gap in this book.

Hagedorn also fails to address the relationships between gangs and military institutions. This is a serious misstep, especially now, in a book focused on the institutionalization of armed groups of working and poor young men. The armed forces have long been filling men’s heads with tripe, putting a gun in their hands, and directing them to shoot (in the wrong directions). What are the interactions between the economic draft for the state’s armed forces and the cultural draft for gang life? What happens to gang culture and identity when young men are stationed in Iraq as occupiers? With MS13 and Vice Lords graffiti appearing in Baghdad, gang culture has gone global in more ways than one. How does the military brass respond to their soldiers’ dual carding membership in what may or may not be oppositional forces? Does this dual identity make it more difficult to control active service men and women? Could anti-war organizing work be more productive if it worked within gang culture to build opposition and used gang connections to connect with troops?

Hagedorn was able with A World of Gangs to do what generations of criminologists and social scientists have refused or failed to do – namely, to present a realistic and comprehensive overview of institutionalized gang culture and the environment in which it is fostered. However, while proponents of a “Revolutionary but Gangster” politic could be accused of being a little trigger happy, Hagedorn seems gun shy in his assessment of what can be done with this reality of “armed young men and gangsta culture.”

Although Hagedorn believes gangs have an important role to play in social movements, what that role should be is unclear, or at least contradictory. His injunctions to avoid romanticizing gang members are followed by warnings not to underestimate their resourcefulness and creativity. Gang members should be integrated into social movements, while struggling to overcome the reactionary elements of their past. Hagedorn admits this process would be difficult. But without nailing down what practically can or should be done, he avoids getting into just how difficult this would be. There are, however, some lessons from the history he presents. Many of the gang transformations presented in A World of Gangs took place internally. Preexisting members fought to transform their institutions to serve the people. One of Hagedorn’s few concrete suggestions is that gang members should be given the history of their institutions, their lineage, and their true potential.

Gangs are spectacular at taking territory, occupying space and authority left vacant, recruiting, and persisting. All of these things are commendable achievements, but one achievement that’s missing is liberating their communities. Even the more successful gangs of times past – whether they be Italian, Chinese, or Irish like the HAA – have never actually won power. They’ve carved out a niche here, a fiefdom there, but someone else always calls the shots. Gangs do not take power, they secure it for others. So, no, we shouldn’t romanticize these armed young men – we shouldn’t romanticize anything. These institutions are a reality, they present opportunities for social change, and they have inherent flaws. The benefits and pitfalls of the gang model need to be understood and A World of Gangs does well in starting that process.