CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 28 . . .March 25, 2011
Gangs. (A Groundwork Guide).
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2011.
144 pp., pbk, & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-978-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-979-5 (hc.).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
Politicians. Police. Teachers. The media. Social workers. The elderly. Solid citizens everywhere. Everyone these days is alarmed about youth gangs. Next to terrorists, gangs are the number two "other" - a manifestation of pure evil The media is filled with stories about youth in gangs - drug-dealing, terrorizing neighborhoods, gunning down each other as well as a growing number of bystanders. In the Paris banlieues (suburbs) they set cars alight, in downtown Toronto they open up with handguns on the subway cars or in crowded downtown streets, in Birmingham and Warsaw they rampage after football matches, and in many parts of the world they turn entire urban areas into no-go zones for the police.
The cover of Gangs depicts a handgun tucked into the back waistband of a pair of jeans. Above the gun is an expanse of skin, bare but for a tattoo. The owner of those jeans is a gang member. If you live in a major urban centre in Canada, you have probably seen gang members (or at the very least, "gang wannabes".) Note their choice of clothing: some wear baggy pants and some sport worn denims, baseball caps (often turned backward or askew) or do-rags may cover their heads, they swagger in oversize hoodies or black leather jackets, and some sport "bling", ostentatious, jewellery, typically a pendant suspended on a heavy-weight neck chain. And then, there are the tattoos or piercings. If you live in a quiet, middle-class suburb, your encounters with gang types may happen only if you venture into the urban downtown or the poverty-stricken parts of your city. But, if the downtown is your "hood", then you may be living in or around gang turf.
The latest in the "Groundwork Guide" series, Gangs is authored by Richard Swift, a former editor of New Internationalist magazine. His work as a journalist has given him the opportunity to witness first-hand, the economic and social conditions which have led to the explosion of gang activity, worldwide, in the last few decades. Certainly, gangs are not a new phenomenon; medieval Europe was plagued with gangs of "unruly young men . . . associated with religious abbeys who recruited them. . . Known as the Abbeys of Misrule, they battled against each other for the honor of their particular abbey and intimidated troublesome villagers." It seems that, like the poor, thugs have always been with us; in fact, the word "thug" comes from "thuggees", the name of youth gangs in thirteenth-century India who strangled and robbed strangers. Nor are gang "colours" new. According to Swift, fourteenth and fifteenth century England was plagued by gangs, sporting distinguishing colours, who fought each other, as well as anyone who got in their way at the local pub.
However, many of today's gangs have a stronger organizational structure than those of past centuries, and some have become deeply embedded within and supported by their home communities. In fact, some gangs in Brazil actually provide a type of "local government - policing, providing services, acting as a bank and sponsoring cultural activities like concerts and dances." Swift traces the history of gang existence, explores how gangs are defined, and identifies the "push" and "pull" factors which lead youth to become members of gangs. Indisputably, though, poverty is the sine qua non of the gang problem. Poverty creates a variety of social problems, and while Swift does not excuse violent behaviour, he sees those behaviours as "a symptom of a social system where the young poor are no longer willing to shrug helplessly and accept a life where the dice are loaded against them."
Gang life provides a way of making a living (certainly, a dangerous one, but in a world where few legitimate opportunities seem to exist . .), a sense of belonging to a community (frequently missing within both the immediate family unit and the run-down "projects' which are typical of poverty-stricken neighbourhoods), as well as an identifiable culture (now being co-opted by the mainstream music industry), and crucially, a sense of empowerment. And, nothing empowers a gang member like a gun, "the main identifier of gang life." Even in countries with strict gun laws, legal firearms fall into the hands of gang members.
So, what can be done? Swift dismisses the possibility that gangs can be eliminated totally by solutions which have already been tried: punitive measures such as incarceration, coupled with tough sentencing, or, conversely, invoking "non-criminal sanctions," such as curfews and surveillance equipment. Instead, he suggests that decriminalization of drugs would be the single most effective tactic. Deflating the artificially high price of street drugs would make involvement in the drug economy far less attractive, provide tax revenue which can be channelled into social programs for at-risk youth, and free up the criminal justice system. Programs to offer alternatives to gang life need to be developed, and the police need to find productive, non hard-line strategies for dealing with gangs. Getting guns off the street will do a great deal to diminish the gang problem. But the most difficult solution he offers is an ethical one: "We need to re-think the ethos of acquisitiveness and the cult of the selfish self that has become the center of consumer capitalism and find a different ethical standard to measure what is important for human beings." That, is the real challenge.
Like other books in the Groundwood series, Gangs packs a huge amount of information into its 144 pages. Interspersed amongst the text are interesting mini-articles on topics such as "Gang Girls", Tattoos", and "Gang Games" (electronic games like Grand Theft Auto). Concluding the book is a page of "Gang Vocabulary", a "Gangs Timeline" (starting in the days of Republican Rome), a thorough listing of reference "Notes" for each chapter, and an Index. My only quibble is that, although the reading audience age is "14 and up", Swift's vocabulary and style might challenge readers at the lower end of the age range. Nevertheless, Gangs is an accessible, readable, and fascinating book.
Senior high sociology courses will find this a useful supplemental resource, as will teachers and students of senior high school World Issues courses, because gangs are a world issue. Libraries in senior high schools should consider purchasing more than one copy because some "gang wannabe" might just make a "long-term loan" of the item.
Joanne Peters, a recently retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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