There is no actual date to determine when gangs started or location to figure out where they began, but according to history the first active gangs were reported to have been around since the 17th century, highway robbers in England. (James C. Howell, 2010) Even though these gangs weren’t the same gangs that are around today, they brought havoc to people around them and terrorized properties such as breaking windows, bringing down homes and demolishing anything that they could get their hands on. In the United States, the first gangs started around 1783, around the time that the American Revolution ended. The question that has been on everyone’s minds is what caused these gangs to start? Why are there people in the world that join gangs to bring harm to other people? This research paper will answer the above questions as well as provide psychological explanations on why people join gangs and how these influences affect people both young and old.

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It has been stated that gang emergence in the Northeast and Midwest was “fueled by immigration and poverty, first by two waves of poor, largely white families in Europe.” (James C. Howell, 2010) First, there were the “old immigrants” that came from Europe and the second wave, which was significantly bigger than the first, had people that came from all over such as Italians, Irish and Jews. These people were considered to be low skilled, low-wage laborers and only added to the crime problems that the United States had already. As years passed more gangs started to form and the problems only got worse. This brings up the question of why do people join gangs? Researchers Tom Cadwallader and Robert Cairns did a research study on developmental influences and gang awareness and, through their studies, evidence showed that young individuals hugely rely on their own experiences with others in the neighborhood gangs to decide if they want to join or not. Through the cognitive process, as stated by Cadwallader, children are more likely to remember material that is meaningful to them. (Tom W. Cadwallader, 2002) If an individual sees something over and over again it becomes more familiar to them, which is another possible reason that people become involved in gangs. Growing up in an area where gangs are prominent there is a higher possibility that someone will join a gang than there is that someone will grow up with no gang affiliation at all. Sarah Kelly and colleagues performed research to determine the effects of exposure to gang violence on adolescent boys’ mental health and found that adolescents that lived in areas that were highly exposed to violence had slightly more anger, posttraumatic stress, dissociation and sexual concerns than those that didn’t. These, unfortunately, are the ones that are more likely to grow up to be gang members to “find themselves” in the society that they live in. (S. Kelly, 2012)

Though gangs have a reputation for being bad people, this is not true in all cases. There have been unfair instances were gang members were wrongly accused and prosecuted for things that they did not do or sometimes for just being who they are. In 1942, a California man was found unconscious on the side of a road in Los Angeles. He later died and members of the 38th Street gang were arrested and charged with murder. The members of the gang were convicted even though there were no ties to them committing any crimes. This case became infamously known because it brought members from other gangs to come together and support each other due to the prejudice and racism against the gang. It made gangs seem more innocent than they were guilty which made more people want to be apart of them because of the solidity of their relationships toward each other. It was stated that the gang maintained their dignity and “demonstrated a type of gang pride and resolve never seen before.” (James C. Howell, 2010) Another historical event involving gangs that made an impact was the Zoot Suit Riots. Zoot suits were a type of suit with an oversized jacket and baggy pants that some Mexican gang members wore. In 1943, police and the media labeled these suit wearers as a “savage group that presumably had attacked vulnerable white women and was also said to be responsible for several local homicides” (James C. Howell, 2010) During a five-day riot, military personnel and citizen mobs chased and beat down anyone that had on a zoot suit, even though these people were presumed to be not dangerous. Law enforcement in the situation sided with the mobs and only arrested “gang members” instead of helping them.

Opposed to these two cases there are more events that aren’t in favor of gang members than events that are such as the case of then 24-year-old Rances Amaya. Amaya was a leader of the largest street gangs in North and Central America, MS-13. Amaya was sentenced to 50 years in prison for trafficking underage girls for sexual acts on behalf of the gang. U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride said that Amaya told the girls that he “owned them and that he would hurt their loved ones if they didn’t comply”. Amaya joined the gang at the age of 13 and grew his status to become a leader of his MS-13 group, the Guanacos Lokotes Salvatruchas. When arrested and convicted Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office James W. McJunkin proclaimed that the sentencing “demonstrated the commitment of law enforcement and the judicial system to combat juvenile prostitution and human trafficking” and that “together with our partner agencies, we will continue to pursue individuals such as Mr. Amaya who ruthlessly exploit vulnerable young girls for sex and money.” (United States Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of Virginia, 2012)

While some may believe that development in gangs are only results of parents not paying their children enough attention, studies prove that this is not the case. Children are influenced by what they see and hear, based on the cognitive process. A way that the problem of gangs could be addressed is by teaching the youth early that it is not okay. By letting them know the affects of gangs at a young age there is a better chance that they will morally and ethically not want to be apart of an organization such as a gang because of the harm they bring to their environment and the people around them. Another possibility to address the problem of gang influence is to live in an area that isn’t dominated by gang violence or gang related activity.

This could eliminate any potential chance of gang involvement because there will be no gangs to be apart of. Criminal justice officials and law enforcement have been working diligently on stopping gang crimes throughout the United States by passing certain laws in different areas to bring down any attempts of gang activity. Gang awareness is one way that these officials can address the gang issue. If more people are aware of what’s going on with the gang problem there’s a greater chance that they can come together to create a solution. Having different town meetings or fundraisers in attempt to raise awareness of gang violence is an effective way to handle the gang dilemma and if we can get the youth involved we could possibly be able to thwart all attempts of gang members initiating people that have no reason to be involved in the gang business.

  • United States Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of Virginia. (2012, June 1). Leader of MS-13 Gang Sentenced to 50 Years in Prison for Sex Trafficking Multiple Teens. Virginia.
  • James C. Howell, J. P. (2010, May). History of Street Gangs in the United States. 4
  • S. Kelly, D. A. (2012). he Effects of Exposure to Gang Violence on Adolescent Boys’ Mental Health. Issues In Mental Health Nursing , 33 (2), 80-88.
  • Tom W. Cadwallader, R. B. (2002). Developmental Influences and Gang Awareness among African-American Inner City Youth. In Social Development (pp. 245-265).