Do Gangs Get Too Much of the Blame for Street Violence?

By Matthew Harwood

Is too large a percentage of street violence wrongly attributed to gangs?

That interesting question is posed by Time magazine, after a bloody feud in Baltimore left a barbecue cookout riddled with bullets and ended in a shoot-out between two cars at the end of July. When the gunfire eventually subsided for the night, two people lie dead and 16 others were injured.

The Baltimore Sun reported police said the bloody encounters stemmed from drug-related gang activity— 18 more examples of why the nation's gang-related violence crime rates spiked in 2008, even as the national violent crime rate dropped.

But the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office has yet to call it a gang shooting.

Here's why.

While each clique dealt drugs, that's incidental. What provoked the violence stemmed from one clique's kidnapping of two younger brothers of one of the rival clique's members last summer. Police believe five body bags have resulted from the year-long feud.

That the bloodshed didn't result from turf wars tied to the economics of drug dealing, says Time, could be even more disconcerting.

But simply labeling such crimes as "gang-related" does not explain what is happening on the streets. Criminal-justice experts are beginning to believe that a majority of the violence does not result from directives from any formal gang hierarchy, but rather that it is the result of beefs between smaller neighborhood groups that can be started by anything from a kidnapping, as in the Baltimore case, to a simple look of disrespect on a rival's face. A fistfight among young men can escalate into drive-by shootings that elicit identical retribution, finally leading to the slaying of people who may or may not have been involved, including innocent bystanders. Says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: "People think they are organized and [part of] making money on the streets, but for the most part, all of that is wrong. What you usually find are groups that fit none of the above descriptions." He adds, "What you find out doesn't fit people's preconceptions, and it's still very real."

So rather than killing for money or territory, Kennedy says most street violence is over "honor and vendettas" when people feel disrespected. This comes at the same time as traditional gang structures are breaking down, leaving a lot of angry young men without leadership.

This translates, one gang mediator in Chicago says, into "shooters all over the place."

♦ Photo of graffiti by bixentro/Flickr


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