What is a Gang?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A gang is a group of people which shares an identity and a common purpose. The term has come to be associated specifically with street gangs, which organize for the purpose of carrying out illegal activity which may vary from inciting conflict with other gangs to dealing drugs. Because of this, people tend to be careful about how they use the word “gang,” to ensure that people know what sort of group is under discussion. For example, historically groups of people who worked together in construction were known as “gangs,” and this usage has become less common to avoid confusion.

Graffiti tags are often meant to display possession of certain neighborhoods by a gang.
Graffiti tags are often meant to display possession of certain neighborhoods by a gang.

Defining a gang can be difficult, as the term has a fluid and often changing meaning. As a general rule, most definitions include the idea that a gang is organized in some way, often with clear leaders and a hierarchy, and that the members gather to socialize and carry out various activities on a regular basis. The shared identity of gang members can be based on ethnicity, culture, class, religion, or another common thread which allows people to find something of interest in each other.

Police may spend extra time patrolling areas known to have gangs.
Police may spend extra time patrolling areas known to have gangs.

In the sense of gangs which commit violence, the idea of the gang is ancient, and many cultures have ample historical examples of gangs. In the 20th century, gang violence became an important issue for many people, especially in urban areas, where large gangs comprised of minorities and impoverished individuals degrade the quality of life for many residents. These street gangs, as they are known, are infamous for committing violent acts and for being involved in activities of questionable legality.

Gangs frequently get into fights with rivals.
Gangs frequently get into fights with rivals.

On a lesser level, schoolyard gangs have what some people consider to be gang members in training, people who gravitate towards the gang lifestyle at an early age. People who want to see a reduction in gang violence and gang culture often try to keep an eye on the development of schoolyard gangs, and provide alternatives to young men and women who may feel bored, restless, or frustrated in the school environment to prevent them from joining street gangs as they mature.

Members of street gangs may choose to identify themselves with nicknames, tattoos, specific slang, distinctive graffiti tags, or specific styles of dress. However, not all gangs identify themselves with obvious symbols, especially highly organized gangs which deal in drugs, weapons, and other illegal materials, and many members of minority groups have complained of being targeted as “gang members” by law enforcement for wearing the wrong clothes or speaking in the wrong way.

Leaving a violent gang can be very difficult, especially for members who are deeply involved, rather than at the fringes of the gang. In communities where gang violence is a major problem, service organizations often offer assistance to people who wish to leave gangs; such assistance can range from vocational training to tattoo removal.

Gangs are commonly linked with unlawful acts.
Gangs are commonly linked with unlawful acts.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Gangs are nothing but trouble. Not only are you forced to stay (as Viranty said), but you're thrown into a life of crime, bound to be caught and arrested sooner or later. It's nothing more than a path of destruction, with little to no way out. Sometimes, the members of the group will even attempt to initiate you to higher "rankings" by having you complete certain tasks. Some of the tasks may seem small at first, but they quickly grow more and more risky.

As an example, for the first set of tasks, they might have you push kids on the playground. However, as time goes on, they might have you steal things from a grocery store, and for the ultimate "test", shoot someone. The bottom line is to never join a gang. I have a (college) friend who used to be a gang member in Chicago, and he's told me some pretty crazy stories. It's a wonder he was able to get out alive.


Obviously, gangs aren't to be trifled with, but in my opinion, the most dangerous thing(s) about gangs is joining one. There are definitely some severe consequences. Sometimes, when we watch TV, we might shrug off what's shown to us, and simply draw a line between fiction and reality. However, even when gangs are in the media (such as movies), they're very accurately portrayed, and are true to life. On another note, when you join one, you can never leave unless you're allowed to. If you try to quit otherwise, you will be threatened, beaten, and/or killed. It's as simple as that.


@anon275983: A story from CNN in 2011 said the FBI estimate is that there are about 1.4 million gang members in the U.S. With a population of 300 million people, this is less than 5 percent of the population.


How many people are in gangs in the U.S.A? And what is that in percentage of the American people?


@ValleyFiah- The reason they don't arrest the big guys is if you arrest them now you don't have all the evidence, to get them locked up forever. Which will result into a witch-hunt on the persons who helped get them locked away, and even if the boss is in jail, he can still give orders to them outside.


@ Chicada- What happened to your nephews is a shame. Laws like that one are what is wrong with this country. Under the constitution, everyone is supposed to be treated equally. I believe that this means laws should be clear and concise, leaving little room for personal bias. There should not be laws on the books that allow people to be made examples of.

I am an opponent of some of the unfair laws on the books, and the California Criminal gang law ranks up there with the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine, the three strikes law in its present form, and many other laws that punish disadvantaged and select populations more than others. Instead of rounding up trouble making kids under poorly designed laws, states should be trying to squash top mafia and gang leaders across the nation. They are much more detrimental to society than petty vandals.


@ Chicada- Your nephew is a victim of one of the most ambiguous laws in the California Penal Code. The actual section of the law that defines a gang is the following:

"A criminal street gang is defined as any organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which (1) has continuity of purpose, (2) seeks a group identity, and (3) has members who individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal activity. (Reference section 186.22(f) of the California Penal Code).”

This law enables prosecutors to lump any mischievous activity performed by a group to be a criminal gang activity, making it qualify as a strike-able offense. Good luck to your nephews.


What is the legal definition of a juvenile gang? My sister lives in California, and her fourteen-year-old son was arrested for spray-painting a wall in a park. He was hanging out with his older brother and two of their school friends. They all ended up charged with gang-related felonies. I am not exactly sure what the charges were, but the prosecutor is trying to send them to jail.

They are good kids, just skateboarders, but they are still in school and passing all of their classes. They have never been in trouble before, and now they may be facing jail time. This seems a little harsh for a couple kids just being punks. I personally believe a little probation, some community service, and making them clean up their mess would suffice. Making taxpayers pay the $50k plus a year to lock up four young teens is ludicrous. If anyone has any insight into this matter, I would appreciate it.

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