Group territory

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Gangs in schools and suburbs, By Daniel J Monti, Blackwell #163;35.1 55786 614 7. Victoria Neumark on a study of youth gangs in US suburbs.

The most intriguing character in Daniel J Monti's study of an American town's youth is introduced near the beginning. Under the sobriquet "Tyrone Jones" we meet a soulful-eyed drug-dealer who in a few years has amassed half a million dollars in order to go south and study biochemistry at a good university. His motivation for taking up with the Disciples, a drug-peddling and violent gang from Los Angeles, was his parents' inability to pay his college fees. Did someone say "the American Dream?" Like all sociologists, Professor Monti is relentless in tracing connections but the most significant seem to elude him. Over a summer, Monti interviewed 400 students from "Fairview" an elementary, junior high and high school - roughly from age eight to 18. Although most of the students were black they were not extremely poor nor did they come from disorganised families and "hoods" (neighbourhoods) like the gangs in Los Angeles. Yet they drew inspiration as well as wholesale stock from those Angeleno gangs, with whom they had a variety of semi-colonial relations. What did these young people get out of being in gangs?

Monti makes the somewhat obvious observation that the gangs filled a gap in the lives of young people searching for identity, a gap which traditional youth and social organisations did not fill, and the less obvious correlative that the gang activity which occupied the teenage void was in fact constrained by the strength of the social bonds which did remain in those young people's lives. Life wasn't such a crock that they had to go round shooting people - actually all bar one were very scared of shooting and being shot - but life was sufficiently dull and unrewarding that they could get quite a lot of cash and some kicks out of dealing drugs, wearing "colours" (to show membership of gangs) and, above all, getting into fights.

Fights over territory have, as Monti points out, been standard rituals for adolescent males for the past few centuries at least. The interpolation of organised drug-running with attendant firearms into this volatile soup of hormones has turned "boys being boys" into gangbangers, feared and marginalised by adult society. But as Monti points out, these are still just the children of all of us.

What connections has Monti missed in his rather ponderous drawing out of his young informants? It's the usual story: girls and boys just wanna have fun but professors want to write books. So the links between "straight" consumption and illicit drug-trading, between wealth and power on the streets and climbing the ladder in corporations, between the machismo of gangs and the "blood brotherhood" of police forces, and between young people's need to experience danger and conflict and adults' need to avoid it are all skated over in favour of some platitudinous sermonising about firm adult role models and boundaries. Gangs flourish in schools with weak management, although paradoxically, the experience of being in such schools has meant gangs, rather like people on Tokyo trains, have had to learn to get along. Equally, students prefer schools where gangs are actively discouraged. How about schools where there are scholarships to universities, I wonder?

Monti rightly points out that gangbangers and concerned citizens live in the same society but ignores the overwhelming political dimension to his narrative: if citizens are so concerned, how come there are still 26,000 murders in the US each year and you can buy a handgun at the corner store? Welfare scroungers and the "underclass" are hated as never before. Teen sacrifice underpins the American Dream.

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