What we see on headlines about gang activity are the scary one-liners.
“A gang-related shooting outside a well-known Seattle establishment” or “Gang violence raises homicide rate by x-percent.”
We’ll get a dabble of statistics here, be reassured how the city is doing something there, and maybe the particulars of a certain crime that initially sparked the story: what time, what offense, and how much time that individual is now serving. But what receives less coverage are the causes of gangs, the social origins, and more often, the perspective of gang members themselves.
“There is definitely a rise in APIA gang activity,” says Ron Howell, a case manager at Safe Futures, a gang prevention center in West Seattle. “The majority of my cases are from broken households, and the gang is like an intermediate family. Some of them are hard-headed, but deep down, you get the sense that they just wish they had mentors.”
But the causes go well beyond the broken families in our impoverished Seattle neighborhoods.
Similar to the gangs of Central America, many APIA gangs are composed of the children from the refugees that fled the Communist wars of Southeast Asia. For my next interviewee, it was the Khmer Rouge that brought his family to the United States. With the prospects of possible genocide and coming with few resources to an unknown destination, the choice between life and death was clear, but the task of survival, is still not an easy one.
“Growing up in the neighborhood, even before I became active, I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt, seen my friends get shot,” recounted a former Oriential Fantasy Boy (OFB), a predominately Cambodian gang originating from the White Center neighborhood in Burien. “We used to count the bullet holes in the house after a drive-by. I thought it was normal.”
A redefinition of life’s “normalcy” is typical for people like him, as most displaced families are relocated into social ghettos that are filled with other communities of color struggling over similar circumstances. When you concentrate many distinct groups into an already resource-deprived area, conflict arises.
“When I was going to school, I was getting bullied. I got picked on by other races,” continued the White Center native. “When they realize I’m with a gang, they leave me alone. It made me feel normal.”
Howell says that “there is definitely a race war escalating in the area,” yet despite the racial conflict confirmed by our sources, both Howell and the former OFB told me that in terms of organization, patterns and character traits, most gangs, regardless of color, are roughly the same.
It is because behind all gang formations, there is always some larger social or economic driving point. For the Irish gangs of the 1840s, their mass migration was largely due to the potato famine, a result of religious and social persecution in Ireland. For the fragmented remnants of the Black Panthers, otherwise known as the CRIPS (Community Revolution In Progress), deindustrialization of the 1970s sent many unemployed black communities west to search for jobs in a nationally decrepit job market. What follows is the same story of APIA gangs: a struggle for livelihood in a foreign and largely xenophobic society. We should instead look at the forces creating the social environment that motivate those sociopathic actions.
Across all racial lines, gangs at their core are social organizations of the poor, a composition of confused kids that direct their aggression against individuals, rather than the larger forces that put them there. It is merely the human instinct of survival at work, and symbolic of the desire to mean something in this world.
It is never as simple as just a bunch of punk kids that were born bad.