“Isn’t it amazing how we can only imagine our monsters capitalistically?” Mike tells Sarah how police, prosecutors and journalists accidentally conspired to invent the perfect suburban menace. Digressions include IKEA, the "Godfather" trilogy and Fleetwood Mac. Mike takes big gulping breaths when he reads out loud.Support the show
Sarah: Are there any penguins that aren't gay?
Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where we learned that American history is really a long list of things that white people have been disproportionately afraid of.
Sarah: It's true, right?
Mike: We're getting to the point where we can't do the premise of the show anymore, because you know too much for you to come in fresh to any of these issues.
Sarah: It's a repeating pattern. I don't know the details, but I know that it's going to have an ABAB structure. It'll be about some event spun out of context by some sort of pundit, sophist-type, and then being politically mobilized by some aspect of American political, et cetera.
Mike: And then we get to the bridge and then the chorus.
Sarah: Yes. And then there will be a chain email.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: We are on Patreon at patreon.com/yearwrongabout. And today we are talking about streets gangs.
Sarah: Why is it street gangs and not gangs?
Mike: Well, I don't know, maybe youth gangs.
Sarah: Youth is a fun nineties word to say, we should call it, ‘youths’. Your wrong about ‘youths’.
Mike: So, do you remember how the last two episodes, I was like, oh, I feel weird about this one, this one's really complicated but, but, but. I fucking don't feel weird about this one. I am livid.
Sarah: I love it when you're livid. This is like my favorite. This is like when Julia Sugarbaker gets fired up on Designing Women and talks about when Suzanne became Miss Georgia. I am ready.
Mike: So I never thought this was going to be an episode actually. I've always just been kind of curious to do like a, where are they now about street gangs? Because I don't know if you remember this from growing up, but in the nineties, every Frontline, every Inside Edition, every local news report had something about gangs in the streets. Like another gang related, killing, gangs were a huge deal.
Sarah: And also, every episode of Maury Povich, daytime talk shows where 12 year old little T wants to be in a gang when he grows up and says, he'd happily kill for his honor.
Mike: And then they'd send him to bootcamp.
Sarah: And this was also part of the crack babies’ rhetoric that there was this generation of damaged quote, inner city children. You know, they're always described using this like very racially coded language that was coming of age, and they were going to take over America and it was going to be this like warriors’ type situation.
Mike: Yes. And I have always wondered why don't we talk about gangs anymore?
Sarah: That's a good point, gangs and acid rain. Those are the two things that have been.
Mike: Yeah. So, I started looking into this and within 10 minutes, I basically came to the conclusion that it never existed. I mean, I don't want to sort of go overboard with the debunking here that inner city violence was a real problem in the nineties. And things like drive by shootings happened and drug distribution happened and there were real problems, but all of the messages that we got about gangs, about the nature of them, the scale of them, where they were, how they function, all of that was bullshit.
Mike: I mean, not to spoil the ending too much, but just two of the numbers that I pulled out are, first of all, only one in ten homicides in the 1990s were related to gang activity in any meaningful way. So 90% of the homicides were not gang related in cities. And according to the Los Angeles district attorney noted social justice warrior, the Los Angeles district attorney, only one in seven gang members were selling drugs more than once a month. The entire idea of gangs as these relentless hierarchical organizations, is just wrong.
Sarah: But we always imagine the enemy is more organized than it is.
Mike: Yeah. And I mean, I also think I've been resisting the urge to text this to you for three weeks now. There were all these telltale signs at the time that gangs were not a real thing and that they were being vastly misrepresented by the cops basically. And so, this quote from Las Vegas, where you used to live. Las Vegas, like most cities has a gang unit, kind of a team of a couple cops that are dedicated to gang enforcement. In 1986, they give a press conference where they say, ‘Area street gangs in addition to drug trafficking are also increasingly involved in burglary, vandalism, animal abuse and Satanism.’
Sarah: Ding, ding, ding.
Mike: Exactly. And as soon as I saw this, I was like, oh, it's happening, Sarah and Mike's interest converging.
Sarah: I think this touches on something really interesting, which is that our credibility for people we think of as evil can be like way off, because if we assume that someone's operating from like evil motives and we apply the logic of “evil” to them, as we understand it, I don't know narratively. Then anything becomes plausible because we don't assume they're playing by human rules.
Mike: Totally. Yeah.
Sarah: They are because they are human beings and everything. You know that point is rarely made in these conversations.
Mike: Right. And also, like just on the panic thing in Las Vegas alone, there's a really great article about the moral panic in Las Vegas specifically. In 1983, there were four articles in the entire year about gangs in the local newspapers, four articles. By 1991, there were 174.
Mike: That's one every two days, basically just in Las Vegas.
Sarah: And it's also an increase of like of sixty fold.
Mike: And this is why I'm so mad about this is because I feel like this is really obvious that this was a huge moral panic and complete bullshit, and yet.
Sarah: And we haven't reckoned with it.
Mike: Yes. There's a couple of really good academic articles that go point by point about how the entire panic over gangs was false. But very few popular accounts of this.
Sarah: This is why your wonky powers are so useful. You can dive into this material and Prometheus share it with the plebeians, such as myself who no longer have database access. Okay. How did this get started? Take us back to the beginning.
Mike: So I have a four-part structure.
Sarah: This is like Great British Bake Off.
Mike: I couldn't stop myself because all the reading about street gangs, it strikes you that it's the perfect moral panic, it's almost textbook. The structure that I'm proposing and what it occurred to me to do with this episode was create a sort of typology of moral panics. What are the components of moral panics?
Sarah: Oh yeah, let's do it.
Mike: And how do gangs personify that.
Sarah: Ah, take my hand Scully.
Mike: So I have sort of like four components of moral panics and we're going to talk them through with gangs, but then these will all kind of remind you of other things.
Sarah: Of the Satanic Panic and so on.
Mike: Exactly. And like rainbow parties and everything else that we've talked about.
Sarah: The two scariest things in the world, Satan and consensual teenage sex.
Mike: So the first rule of moral panics and some of them don't actually fit this and I want to talk about it a bit. But it feels like most moral panics start with a real phenomenon, right? Most of them do not come whole cloth out of nothing. Usually like in stranger danger, there were a couple of stranger danger kidnappings, and these awful murders of children.
Sarah: Or in the Satanic Panic it started with revelations about the prevalence of child abuse and middle-class America and people's heightened anxieties about that.
Mike: Exactly. And so, with gangs, there was a problem with inner city violence in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There's a weekend in LA in 1990 where there's six drive by shootings. And what is really interesting is, you know, a lot of other cities, we think of gangs as something that is concentrated in places like Chicago, New York, and LA, but the panic over gangs was completely national. And so Denver had a big gang crackdown after they had 73 homicides.
Sarah: That is a lot.
Mike: This was in 1993 and a lot of them were concentrated in the summer months. And so, they still call it, in Denver, the summer of violence. A lot of cities, you know, Salt Lake City and Milwaukee and all these other cities had real problems with inequality with violence. But so I want to give you a challenge.
Sarah: Oh boy.
Mike: Do you want to try to define, a gang?
Sarah: Oh gosh, I mean, if I were to try and give an accurate, useful definition of a gang, I would say that it is a social/business group of people who are involved in shared criminal/economic interests. But also have a sense of unity and bonding and shared identity and probably, you know, some kind of relationship with rival gangs.
And, you know, my two sources of information for this are West Side Story and The Warriors. You know, also this idea that white America has that the people or the groups of people that scared of are concerned with them, you know, because we talked in the urban legend spectacular episode about like emails that went around in the nineties about gang initiation rituals, where you like flash high beams at someone or slash their Achilles tendon from underneath their car. Or abduct white women in parking garages and how we want the monster to be concerned with us.
Mike: Right. It's interesting what you're saying and that the gangs moral panic, like the nineties period, that we're mostly going to talk about. The origin of that is exactly what you just described. So, the place that the moral panic started, the huge spike in articles about gangs was the central park five in 1989.
Sarah: Oh and of course it inspired that because it concerned a group of wrongly accused children who were not a gang.
Mike: Exactly and so eventually these kids were exonerated, but at the time the story was really horrifying. It was a white female jogger, she's jogging through central park and five boys gang rape her and attempt to murder her, but she ended up surviving. It is this sort of perfect suburban terror narrative, right? Where it is like this nice white lady, who's doing like a nice suburban thing.
Sarah: Right. As someone who grew up reading Ann Rule and thinking about under which circumstances, I would be most mourned because we have to think about white women victims sweeps week, right? It's really best to be abducted or assaulted when you're doing something wholesome. Or you last see him like walking your dog and broad daylight, you know, as opposed to going out at night because that means you were kind of, we're asking for it.
Mike: Well, this is the thing, I mean, it's this perfect, the narrative that sort of travels around the country in 1989 through the tabloids and the media is basically, it's like this pack of feral children that cannot be reasoned with.
Sarah: And they are so evil because they're so young.
Mike: Exactly. And so this is a really key component of the gangs myth that these are made up of people that are really young and cannot be reasoned with. I cannot get over this quote from a Princeton psychologist who tells the LA Times in 1995, “the new breed of predatory street criminal cannot be deterred, they can only be incapacitated.”
Sarah: Okay, oh my God.
Mike: And this was a very common idea at the time, was that deterrent strategies don't work on gangs, like gangs are so predatory. They don't even respond to Pavlov dog saliva, ringing bells, basic animal reward and punishment.
Sarah: It's a great way to bring you Genesis rhetoric and through the back door.
Mike: What is also really fascinating about this is that the central to me, myth of street gangs, is that they hold two opposing ideas at once. I read a million like Phoenix New Times articles and like Philadelphia Enquirer articles, like these random articles from the 1990s describing Philadelphia has a gang problem. They're all exactly the same and one thing they always mentioned is these two opposing ideas. So first of all, we have kids running around in these sorts of animalistic packs of just doing crime for pleasure, doing crime spontaneously. They can't be reasoned with; they can't be deterred. And then you also have the word gang referring to large hierarchical drug distribution.
Sarah: National syndicates.
Mike: Exactly. And so, it's like at the same time, it's small and spontaneous and informal, and it's also large and hierarchical and very formal.
Sarah: Isn't it amazing that we can only imagine our monsters capitalistically?
Mike: I mean, one of the things that I think is really interesting is, you know, this is sort of the new definition of gangs. When you look at the definition that you gave of gangs of an informal group of people, in reality, gangs have been around forever.
Mike: I read this really great ethnography of gangs in Chicago. Gangs are almost always defined as ethnic minorities. There are people that are outside of the sort of legal and political structures of power.
Sarah: Right. And so, you form parallel power structures in order, because you're excluded by mainstream society and ways significant enough that you have to develop your own welfare nets and so on.
Mike: Exactly, this is how we get the mafia, right? The mafia, you could easily call the mafia a gang, or you could call, you know, large drug cartels, mafias, right? All of these terms are kind of interchangeable. And so what happened in Chicago and a lot of other cities is the beginning of the 1900s. There's Italian gangs, there's Irish gangs, a lot of these immigrant communities who at the time are kept out of the workforce, kept out of politics. And what happens is, over the course of the 20th century, the white gangs just become government officials. They get elected to city councils.
Sarah: Yeah, they become aldermen.
Sarah: Everyone becomes an alderman.
Mike: And then what happens is, first of all, there's new immigrant communities, in LA you have a lot of like Armenian gangs and Cambodian gangs, new arrivals of immigrants who aren't yet plugged into the structures of power. And then you also have these sort of left behind African American gangs who never got access to the structures of power, right?
One of the reasons why Crips and Bloods, and a lot of these L.A. African-American gang,s go back so far is because they started out as the Black Panthers. And then once the Black Panthers were completely destroyed by the law enforcement practices, the remnants of the Black Panthers became the Crips.
Sarah: Oh, wow. It's literally the Black Panthers were like, what if we had freedom and education and we gave free breakfast to children and then were destroyed by the cops and the FBI, and then came back as something angrier.
Mike: But also, the Crips, if you look at the early foundation of the Crips, first they were called the Cribs. I don’t know when the ‘P’ got added, they were literally a replacement of the Black Panthers. They had a whole social program. They wanted to help develop the community like it had the same social purpose, but then over time, one guy broke off and started the Bloods.
That was like a sort of Adidas and Puma situation where the two founders didn't like each other and created rival organizations and then individual members of the Crips. Once the crack epidemic started, people figured out that there are profit opportunities. The economic incentives sort of changed.
Sarah: Well also how are you going to finance, anything else right? It's like the only way to be a small businessman is to deal crack. It's well, crack, I guess. I think this is part of it too, that if you're disenfranchised from an economic system, then often the only alternative means of taking care of yourself or your community are criminal.
Mike: Yeah. This is like the murkiness that begins the moral panic. That you've got all these different concepts and all these different definitions. And you've got this rising violence in cities. So, it's like any conception that you have any stereotype that you have about, you know, predatory teens, hierarchical mafia style organizations, political programs from the Black Panthers. All of this stuff gets wrapped up in this concept of gangs.
Sarah: Well, it is like how the serial killer is allowed to be both the feral slathering animal and the brilliant calculating mastermind. We just shove all our fears into one thing, you know, its Santa's bag, there is a fear in there for everyone.
Mike: So that is the first component of a moral panic is starting with a real thing. And the second component of a moral panic is exaggerating the nature and the scale of it, so twisting around what it actually is. One of my favorite things about this is reading old statistical documents about it, because again, the red flags are just everywhere.
Sarah: Like mushrooms on a tree.
Mike: So, you know, the FBI starts saying that this is in 1993, that the Crips and the Bloods are present in 43 major American cities. The LAPD says the number of youth gangs has tripled over the course of 10 years. In 1991, the FBI is saying there is 4,800 gangs across the country, which is a tripling from 1989. So, between 1989 and 1991, the number of gangs tripled.
Sarah: You have to wonder how they're defining gangs and those criteria have changed.
Mike: One of the things that researchers point out later is that almost all of the data about the scale prevalence presence of gangs comes directly from law enforcement.
Sarah: Well, let's ask the cops they're disinterested parties.
Mike: So basically, there's literally a survey of law enforcement agencies that they do every year, and they just ask them like, how many gangs are there where you patrol, how big are they?
Sarah: This is like giving a sex experience survey to teenagers. You know, it's what kind of crazy sex have you done? How many times per week? Because there's always a kid who is like all of it, butt stuff, horses, three times a day.
Mike: Totally. That's basically what the cops are doing. It's like every survey says they're reporting increasing gang prevalence. There is never a survey where they're like no gangs are actually pretty under control, we are doing fine.
Sarah: Things are under control, and we are not fighting a rising tide of sheer darkness, and evil.
Mike: Yes. Cops are also people and cops live in the world. And so, as there's more and more media coverage and more like movies like Boyz N the Hood comes out in 1991. Cops are seeing these movies, cops are seeing Frontline. If you ask anyone in America are gangs getting worse, there is a survey in 1993 where 89% of Americans report gangs as a national crisis. It is like cops go home and they turn on the tv.
Sarah: And there were no podcasts in the early nineties. I cannot stress this enough.
Mike: I mean, one of the things that I can't get over is, you know, you read these old reports and there's so many red flags that this information is bullshit. One of the statistics that goes around is that LA has 49 times more gang crime than New York City.
Sarah: Are they feeling competitive?
Mike: It's used as, look how bad the gangs are in LA, but it's wait, let's think about that for a second. It would make sense if there were like 49 times more surfers in LA then New York, there is like an obvious explanation for that. And you know, if you had something like there is twice the gang crime in Los Angeles than New York, you could say well, the unique history of the place, but 49 times, awooga, something doesn't smell right about that.
Sarah: But white people love feeling like they live in Gotham because that allows you to respond to things with disproportionate force and fear and calling the police all the time.
Mike: Another one that I can't get over is the police in Phoenix report that there's 4,000 gang members in Phoenix, teenage gang members. And so, this researcher, this is all a decade later, this researcher goes through the census data and he's like uh, there were only 12,000 minority youth. So, what you're saying is one quarter of the ethnic minorities, one in four are members of gangs like that doesn't track.
Sarah: Well, isn't also indiscriminately, you know, suggesting that there's just a mathematically impossible number of gang members out there. The same way that, you know, there were a mathematically impossible number of children, allegedly vanishing in the eighties during the stranger danger years. Aren't both of these things away of just justifying the worldview that you want to have, which is that white children are constantly under assault from the big scary world.
And you have to respond with this proportionate force about that and also that if there's so many gang members than like any minority child you see could be a gang member and then you can do whatever you want.
Mike: Well, exactly. I mean, one of the main messages of this that I came across in all of these reports from the 1990s, is the overwhelming message about gangs was it they're about to come to the suburbs.
Sarah: Yes, they're like Ikea. They're always almost here.
Mike: And one of the ones, there's a 1987 Newsweek article. It's like ‘gangs are coming to suburbia’. In like the third paragraph of the story, it says, “Fifteen minutes from the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills, in the gang land slums of South-Central LA. Kids, as young as 15 years old, roam the streets in customized BMWs and Mercedes. Some tote Uzi submachine guns, and Soviet made AK 47 assault rifles.”
Sarah: You know, who lived in Beverly Hills, the Menendez brothers.
Mike: I mean to say that something crazy is going on 15 minutes from Beverly Hills.
Sarah: There's a lot of things that are 15 minutes from Beverly Hills.
Mike: I mean, another one, another myth of this is the growth to new areas. It's not just LA this is from US News and World Report, street gangs once confined to the slums of the country's biggest cities are found increasingly in smaller cities and suburbs as well. Federal researchers discovered that two thirds of the city's reporting street gang problems had populations under 500,000. Among them, Davenport, Iowa, New Haven, Connecticut, and Peoria, Illinois.
Sarah: Not Peoria.
Mike: And it's like the tentacles of gangs stretching across the country is central to the myth of gangs, right? That they're expanding you know, Walmart.
Sarah: It is just another version of the black people are coming. The black people are coming one of by land and two of by sea. I mean, this is like how you dog whistle people's racist sentiments, and to fighting moods without letting them think that they're being racist. It is really playing the hits.
Mike: Oh totally. I mean, it's also kind of a red flag. I mean, what is interesting about this is if you believe the statistics that the FBI is spitting out about expansion, right? That the number of gangs is basically quadrupling over the course of the first couple of years of the 1990s, that would make street gangs some of the best business leaders in America. Starbucks does not go from two cities to forty-five cities in three years.
Sarah: And it's this based on the premise that all the people joining are part of some kind of organized syndicate.
Mike: Well, exactly. And there's all these studies later on that find that the Crips and the Bloods and the Latin Kings and the Gangster Disciples and all of these “national syndicates”, we're not expanding across the country like Halliburton looking for new markets.
What actually happened was the kids across the country simply started saying, yeah, I'm with the Crips. That was about it. There is no evidence in any of these cases later on that get filed of any communication between, the Wichita, Kansas Crips, and the LA headquarters. That's not ever how it worked. Basically, what happened was, first of all, kids started seeing on TV that there's Crips and there's Bloods and their bad-asses, and they're cool on Frontline the same as the rest of us did. And also, if you're living in a community where you're at risk of violence, a good defensive strategy is to say I'm a Crip or I'm a Blood because that makes other people think, hey, I better not beat this kid up because I'm going to get retaliation against me by this large international organization.
And so this is essentially what kids across the country started doing. They just started saying that they're with these groups. I mean, there is even reports that the Crips have expanded into Amsterdam. This is a story that went around in the late nineties. And it is like do you really think people from LA went out there to like scout territory and find drug middlemen, drug distribution is a pretty complicated activity.
And so it's a little weird to think that they just went out and started doing location scouting. It's really obvious when you think about it, that this was not what was actually occurring. The way that we should have been describing all of these, you know, Crips and Bloods in Utah and New Hampshire. It's just like Yankees fans. Anyone can just say that they're a Yankees fan. That doesn't mean that they're in meaningful communication with the Yankees or that they're part of the organization. Anyone can just say it.
Sarah: Right, right. You don't have to be initiated. You don't have to have any number of hours that you're working for the Crips per week. You don't have to be trained.
Mike Right. And so another thing that I feel like we should mention now is that at the time when gangs were tripling, quadrupling everywhere, violent crime was falling. I mean, as we've discussed a million times on this show, crime was falling throughout the 1990s. In Denver, the year of the summer of violence, 74 homicides, they had more homicides the year before and the next year had even fewer homicides. At the same time you have falling crime, falling violence. You have this ramp up in responding to this completely made-up specter of street gang.
The third component of moral panics, and this is where it gets really ugly is a disproportionate response. Once you've framed the problem as outsized and large and the mind flayer, then you have to respond to the threat that you've created.
Sarah: And then all you can do is interrogate a lesbian nursery schoolteacher for 11 hours without counsel.
Mike: The first thing that happens is that police departments around the country start setting up dedicated gang units. So okay, we're going to tackle this problem, we're going to take 10 guys and we're going to separate them out. Oftentimes they would put them in a different building. They would have completely different sets of protocols and procedures and like their job was to eradicate gangs. So, half the law enforcement agencies in the country, half the cities set up dedicated gang units in the 1990s.
Sarah: I don't think eradication is really an ideal goal.
Mike: It's not like it's not great, the language.
Sarah: It is impossible. And so you're setting yourself up to either fail or lie about having failed.
Mike: Yeah. What's really interesting is, you know, to use international development language, there was never a theory of change. There was never like, okay, first we're going to do this and then the gangs will be eradicated. All these gang units did was patrols and raids and then mass arrest operations. In 1988, there is something called Operation Hammer in L.A.
Sarah: That sounds bad.
Mike: It's bad. In the first two days, they arrest 1,453 people.
Sarah: Why does our legal system have to be run by a bunch of maladjusted 12-year-old boys?
Mike: Well, I mean, it is very like teenager logic. It's basically just we're going to be mean to these people. And then they will stop being in gangs, as opposed to we're going to be mean to these people and then they're going to form gangs in solidarity against us, which is basically what happens in L.A. I mean the main driver of this in L.A. in the early 1990s is this number that goes on all the time that the LAPD keeps saying that gang members outnumber the LAPD.
Sarah: It's like the saying that a woman is more likely to be struck by lightning than she is to be married after she turns 40. It's something you say, because it feels true which is fine if the context is Sleepless in Seattle, but not policing Los Angeles.
Mike: One thing that I can't get over is just how comprehensive all of this was. So cops started sending police officers into schools.
Sarah: Oh, right and narc on 15-year-olds, the Lord's work.
Mike: A thing they did in Las Vegas was they would raid crack houses, but they started bringing the media along.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: They would get intelligence at some random suburban house that was a crack house. And then they would call like channel seven or whatever and they'd have them in the back seat to watch the raid go down. So they are deliberately producing images and they're reproducing this narrative that gangs are out of control.
Sarah: They're doing PR.
Sarah: You know, and the eighties are also really like a healthian time in the unholy union between American media and law.
Mike: Oh yeah. I mean, I think this is one of the best examples of this 15-year collaboration where the cops are providing all the statistics, they are providing all the evidence that gangs exist. They are providing the homicides; they're telling the media that these are gang related homicides.
Sarah: They're giving them the quotes.
Mike: Totally. And one of the things that comes up later is that it turns out one of the reasons why L.A. has so many gangs related homicides is because they define any murder of a gang member as a gang related homicide.
Mike: They would classify like a dude whose girlfriend shoots him because he cheated on her. If they suspect that guy of being a gang member, they'll call it a gang related homicide. Or if two dudes get in a fight at a bar and one ends up stabbing the other. They will call it a gang related stabbing.
Sarah: That's like calling my death a podcasting related homicide because I make podcasts.
Mike: But again, the media isn't questioning this at all. The media is just like another gang related homicide in LA tonight.
Sarah: Right, because the media knows that the public wants to buy a hot piping slice of gang related homicide. That is the thing, it's just an unconscious collusion, you know, no one sets out to lie, but the media is like, hey, it'd be great if, I don't know, I mean, hey does it seem like there's like more and more gangs. And you're more and more under assault and things are getting scarier and the cops are like, yeah, it is like that and especially since gangs are on the news so much.
Mike: Another thing that's really striking is that the media never looked into all of the bananas corruption within these gang units. This is like such an obviously bad idea, but they set the gang units apart. They would put them in a different building. They would have different staff; they would have different procedures.
Sarah: Oh, they're like the varsity jocks.
Mike: Yes. And there's a quote from, I believe it's in Salt Lake City where the chief of police tells the media, oh, I have no idea what the gang unit is doing. They do their thing. First of all, it's just bad policing in the gangs are affecting drugs and violence and all these other things that police do. So why would the gang unit be separate from all these other things? When the reason gangs are bad is because they're doing drugs stuff and murder stuff.
So why would you separate the gang people from the homicide and the vice people? It doesn't make any sense. And then because they have literally no accountability in a lot of cases, all these gang units are super corrupt. The famous one is the Rampart scandal in LA.
Sarah: Talk about that, I have no idea what this one is.
Mike: This is unbelievable. So in 1998, a gang unit police officer named Rafael Perez was found to be stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police locker.
Sarah: That's a lot of cocaine.
Mike: Then because they offered him a plea deal, et cetera, et cetera, he agrees to talk. What he reveals is that for years it is called the crash unit, which stands for something which I forget about.
Sarah: Creative and rationalizing allegedly safe help.
Mike: This is from a Department of Justice study that a couple of years later, after all this is over. Perez talked about framing cases against some 100 people and implicated scores of other officers. Perez admitted that he and his partner had shot one Pico union gang member in the head, and then planted drugs and guns near his fallen body. The brain damaged victim released from prison after Perez testimony had been sentenced to 23 years in prison for his quote unquote crime. Perez testified, this is so fucked up, Perez testified that potential witnesses to police misconduct were handed over to the INS for deportation.
Sarah: Uh, okay. Oh my God.
Mike: Officers in the unit were awarded plaques that celebrated incidents in which they had wounded or killed people
Sarah: No, they had to go to a trophy store and order plaques and fill out. They had to go to petty cash to commentate violence. I mean, can you, wow.
Sarah: That's really bad. That seems like a lot of people have been doing this for a long time if they are getting plaques.
Mike: Absolutely. And this is one that makes the news because there's this prosecution, but then there's been now all these investigations, going back through the records, going back through the archives of all of these other gang units. And there is one in Las Vegas that the gang unit members participated in a drive by shooting of other gang members. There's one in Chicago where gang unit officers helped local gangs import cocaine from Miami. It is basically, it's like structurally, there's just no one minding the store.
Sarah: Can I throw you some galaxy brain?
Mike: Do it.
Sarah: What is a gang unit, but a group of probably young men who have an intense bond with each other based on identity and sense of purpose? Where am I going?
Mike: This actually comes up in a lot of the literature, right. That it's like, again, because the definition of gang is so tricky. What is the difference between a gang unit and a gang?
Sarah: Outfits. The answer is always outfits.
Mike: I mean, one has legitimate power, and one has illegitimate power.
Sarah: Right, it's legitimate versus a legitimate power, the great dyad of the Godfather movies. And they're the same because power is power. It always operates the same way. It has the same structures; it destroys people in the same way. It creates opportunities for abuse in the same way, power is power.
Mike: And I mean, to me, it's you know, one of the main flaws in this entire gang unit system is, I mean, not just that they ended up corrupt, but in their non-corrupt actions, what a lot of these reports afterwards point out is that they were not doing any intelligence gathering.
Sarah: They weren't even like trafficking cocaine and writing down stuff that co-traffickers were talking about. There just like doo, da, doo trafficking and trafficking.
Mike: There does not appear to be any attempt to understand how gangs work. One of the things, if it gets debunked later, is that the myth that like gangs have these like baroque initiation rites.
And once you're in, you can't leave. That's not true. The majority of gang members are members of gangs for less than a year. And most people who leave gangs, it's like leaving a band. You're like, you know, I had a kid and I got busy or, you know, my job, switched my hours and so I couldn't rehearse anymore. That is how most people leave gangs.
Sarah: Or if you are Lindsey Buckingham, they're like, honestly, we just can't stand you anymore, please go.
Mike: But, so, I mean, there's nothing, all that exotic about it, right? Like most people that are joining and leaving gangs, these are poorest distinctions, and people often identify as members of five different gangs. The whole idea of a gang is much less formal than the legal system makes it out to be.
Sarah: This is why we are so obsessed with these theoretical, these imaginary hierarchies and this idea that they're so organized and so complicated because we don't want to acknowledge that it's like any other social grouping, you know, it's like a sorority, it's like a soccer team. It's so many things that you join and derive a sense of identity from, and kind of drift in and out of as your perception of yourself changes.
Mike: Yeah. And this is something where now people have gone back and done all these correlations of like, where were their gang units? How big were their gang units, et cetera? And what they find is that the gang units, of course don't track quote unquote gang activity or crime rates. What they track is the availability of federal funding. So, when there is grants going into cities, you see more gang units and larger gang units. Denver had a 43-person gang unit and Denver has problems just like every other city, but 43 people dedicated to gangs alone is wildly excessive.
One of the consequences of the fact that they're not doing any basic intelligence gathering is there is all these former gang members. A lot of them are actually anti-gang a lot of them left gangs because they were afraid of violence. They thought it is not worth it, they thought this is young and stupid. A lot of those people were willing to help the cops understand what gangs actually are, but no one ever contacted them. Nobody cared.
Sarah: Right. They never approached fact finding in the way that someone writing a term paper would.
Mike: Or someone researching a podcast.
Sarah: Or someone researching a podcast.
Mike: I mean, one of the other reasons why these were so ineffective is that they started doing something called civil injunctions where this is nuts. They basically file a restraining order against a gang on behalf of a city. And so this is one of those things that was not widely covered at the time. And when it was covered, it was described as like a good thing. Wow, it's great that they're cracking down on gang members.
Sarah: So weird.
Mike: This is the LA district attorney requested a restraining order spanning 26 square blocks south of Beverly Hills with 24 specific prohibitions, including: congregating in groups of two or more and remaining in public streets for more than five minutes at any time of day or night. They're also banning quote unquote gang colors, which is like a lot of the colors. This is not an easy injunction to comply with. Their also posing curfews. So there's these entire six square mile areas in a lot of large cities where kids can't be out on the street after 10:00 PM unless, they have a letter from an employer. Basically, let me see your papers.
Sarah: That's weird.
Mike: That's weird and bad. I read this fascinating report from the California Sheriff's Association. It was just like their annual report. This is what we did. This is a gang that I'm going to mispronounce, so I'm not going to try, but it's a street gang and this is them bragging about it. The injunction prohibits members of the gang from committing acts such as associating with other members wearing Dallas Cowboys attire and staying out past 10:00 PM.
Sarah: I mean, especially if you have a crackdown on, you know, freedom of assembly, that is bad.
Mike: It is bad. And then also a huge component of this is that they are basically saying, you know, if you're a member of this gang, then you shouldn't be at past 10:00PM, blah, blah, blah. But it's well, what's a member mean, who's defining who is a member.
Sarah: And if the police are defining it based on their expertise of almost zero, it's not as if you can prove the police wrong very easily once they've made a decision about you.
Mike: There is a story of a kid in Phoenix, who in an 18-month period is accused of being in three different gangs, none of which get along with each other.
Sarah: It's like being accused of being a Satanist in this because again, it's like the feared thing is kind of imaginary, so you can project it on to almost anyone.
Mike: This is unbelievable, in LA count, these gang injunctions eventually cover 47% of black men between 21 and 24.
Sarah: Oh, that's terrible. That's terrible.
Mike: And this comes up in traffic stops, right? This comes up at any point in your life when you're dealing with the criminal justice system. It's like oh, you're on the gang injunction database, but it's not clear why you're on there and there's no process to appeal it. A lot of it is just, you were at a place where a bunch of people got arrested or like you are a quote unquote known associate of a gang member.
Sarah: Or maybe there is someone in your family, in your friend group who's actually part of a gang, and you're just guilty by association as so many people are when the police decide on these criteria.
Mike: Completely. And one of the things that's so fascinating about all of these articles that are published in random newspapers around the country throughout the early nineties, is they all follow the same format. They will talk about like gangs are bad and they are super predators, blah, blah, blah. And then in the third or fourth paragraph, they will always have this important caveat and it's always the same caveat.
They'll say well, you know, media depictions of gangs are oftentimes African American or Latino gangs, but white people are in gangs too. They’re in Motorcycle gangs and they're in Skinhead gangs. And then they'll go on and they'll just describe the Black and Latino gang members for the rest of the article.
Sarah: Gun toting nine-year-old, et cetera, et cetera.
Mike: And what is really interesting about this is like this caveat is sort of like your get out of jail free card. I'm going to talk for an hour about black gangs, but I mean, of two sentences being like white people are also in gangs.
Sarah: And white people aren't spotless either, but only the Hell's Angels and the Neo-Nazis. So like any white person reading this on their breakfast nook will feel fine about themselves. Anyway, let's get back to stoking your racial fear.
Mike: Exactly and there is never a civil injunction against Skinheads. There are never civil injunctions against Motorcycle gangs. This is not something that gets applied to white people ever.
Sarah: And it's not something that random white people are accused of. And also white people have a very specific idea of what Motorcycle gangs and Skinheads look like, because we're talking about easily definable groups because we're not interested and allowing fears to mushroom pass definable categories in this case, for obvious reasons.
Mike: One of the things that totally got overlooked at the time. But I think because I covered the housing crisis so much, this is an aspect that totally infuriates me about all this is that. In all of these neighborhoods where cops are doing raids, they're doing mass arrests, they're doing civil injunctions. Of course, the logic is always like we're doing it to save these communities, right. There is weed and seed logic. We get out the bad ones and we help the good ones.
Sarah: Once again, it is for the children.
Mike: Yes. And what is fascinating to me about it is that there's never any community process. If you want to build a homeless shelter or just like an apartment building in LA, there is like, not exaggerating like three-year long process with more than a dozen public hearings, town hall meetings. It is like climbing Mount Everest. And yet, we have cops sending out gang units, imposing fucking curfews in these neighborhoods. And there is never a town hall meeting.
Sarah: Well, neighborhood character is more important than Constitutional and Civil rights Michael, we all know that.
Mike: This to me is like really the original sin of all of this moral panic is that like we know better than the people living in these communities. Obviously, older people are like middle class people living in low-income neighborhoods. They don't care about gangs. They are not worried about guns. They're not worried about their kids being struck down by violence. No, no, they don't care.
Anyway, we care. We are going to devise all of these methods for stopping gangs over the heads of the people who are actually being affected by this. There is a survey of cops in South Central, where two thirds of them say, I don't see any point in going to the community about this. I don't know why we would have to ask them.
Sarah: What the fuck!! It is just like, why bother? Why ask why? Wow.
Mike: And I think this is something that there are vast ecosystems of civil society organizations in low-income communities. Many of whom are already dedicated to preventing people from joining gangs and preventing violence. This is something that these communities are intensely concerned about. There is so much happening in these communities that they could have just fucking asked.
Sarah: Yeah. They are acting as if they're researching some alien enemy that they can't contact or communicate with.
Mike: So that is like the first layer of response is on the ground law enforcement. The second layer of response is laws. States around the country start passing insane laws to try to crack down on gangs. Everybody has forgotten this now, but the 1993 crime bill includes $100 million for metal detectors in schools. It also includes $3 billion for juvenile boot camps.
Sarah: Oh my God. $3 billion dollars, that is incredible.
Mike: That is so much money.
Sarah: Is that part of juvenile justice? Is that like where you sent if you're convicted of something or what?
Mike: It is scared straight stuff. It is like the least effective form of rehabilitation.
Sarah: Children don't flourish if they're traumatized by adults, that doesn't work. That's so weird.
Mike: They also start criminalizing stuff that is already illegal. So one thing that's really interesting is stealing someone's car is illegal, right? And pointing a gun in someone's face is illegal, but more than 20 states and the federal government passed laws against carjacking, this is a made-up term carjacking and another one is drive by shootings.
Which again, shooting people as illegal. We are pretty against it as a society. And yet drive by shootings as a specific thing are written into the criminal code. And of course, what all of these new laws include is, A) longer minimum sentences, and B) charging juveniles as adults. This is a huge component of this because these kids are like predatory young monsters, and they are like village of the damned style kids, and they can't be reasoned with. All we can do is put them in jail for life.
And so some of these laws make it mandatory to charge juveniles as adults. So even if you get like a cool prosecutor, who is you know what, you're 12, I'm not going to throw the book at you. They don't have that power anymore.
Sarah: I have never understood this because the argument is always because of the seriousness of the crime with which you are charged, we must carry you as an adult. And it's okay, to be fair, this is not my area, but I always felt that a cornerstone of criminal law was that you're innocent until proven guilty. And you can only be proven guilty by having a trial. So, if you're charged with a crime as if you're adult, because of the seriousness of the crime, it doesn't work. Literally it doesn't connect logically. These things are so anathema to each other, that it makes you realize that you know, innocent until proven guilty is like more of a thing that people say than anything else at this point.
Mike: And so much of this is about sort of making gangs exotic, right? Oklahoma makes it illegal to recruit someone to a gang. And the governor of Nevada tries to pass a law, making it illegal to brag about being in a gang. None of them have great definition of what a gang actually is. And so, I mean, one of the things these laws keep coming up against is that no state is able to define the term gang without using the term gang in the definition.
Sarah: Which is like that video where like that guy had people try to describe the characters and the first Star Wars prequel without describing their clothing. And it was impossible.
Mike: Yeah. So in Florida, Florida's definition of a criminal street gang member is a person who engages in a pattern of criminal street gang activity.
Sarah: Okay. Well, I like how in L. Frank Baum the Wizard of Oz, they say Dorothy is the size of a munchkin and a munchkin is the size of Dorothy. Hey, Dorothy was in a gang.
Mike: Well, that is the thing, we're all in gangs, tell me what a gang is. One of the worst ones is California, which really pioneers trying to charge gangs with criminal conspiracies. And so, in their abysmal law that passes in 1988, they define a gang as, I'm going to read this really slowly so we can really dwell on each one of these components.
Sarah: Oh Lord.
Mike: They define gang as, “Any ongoing organization or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal that has one of its primary activities, the commission of criminal acts and whose members individually or collectively engage in criminal gang activity.”
Sarah: Gang activity.
Mike: It can be big or small. It can be formal or informal. And all it has to do is one of its primary activities has to be prime.
Sarah: I see what you are getting or something you might be getting at here, which is that now, if three people conspire to commit some kind of crime together, you can call them a gang and then potentially apply a bunch of harsher charges to them. If you were not charging them for gang related criminal activity.
Mike: Exactly. This gives you a way of charging people with felonies that used to be misdemeanors. So all kinds of things like graffiti, stealing cars, shoplifting, being loud in public, all kinds of stuff that used to be just like kids will be kids, becomes evil.
Sarah: So as a prosecutor, you throw the gangs barrel, and it just explodes in a shower of coins.
Mike: Yeah, and also you know, it's so obvious from this definition, but what lawyers point out, because of course these get constitutional challenges as they should, according to this definition, first of all, every fraternity in America is a gang.
Mike: Because as one of its primary activities, well like underage drinking is a crime.
Sarah: And also, sexual assault, which happens rather frequently in that setting.
Mike: Exactly. And so, then the debate becomes well, what is the primary activity of a fraternity.
Sarah: Well, that's a word that you can't really define legally. This is one of the things I love about American law. We're like, why don't we define a citizens' rights using a word that has kind of a confusing and various contradictory meaning embedded within it that are also going to change a lot over time. That will be fun. This should all be like a literature class.
Mike: I mean, another one that the lawyers point out is Greenpeace.
Sarah: Huh? Huh? Yeah, that is true because they're going around sabotaging tankers.
Mike: Exactly. Like one of their primary activities is crime
Sarah: And then three sex workers who lived together as roommates are a gang.
Mike: Exactly. And also, I mean, if you can't define the thing that you're trying to eradicate, that's not a great sign.
Sarah: Also if your law applies to Juggalos, that's not a great sign.
Mike: So what starts to happen as soon as these laws get passed is that you have 30, 50, 80 people getting charged with a small cluster of crimes. So, California passes a law in 2001, that allows gang members to be prosecuted for crimes that they benefit from.
Mike: So they don't even necessarily have to have known about the crime in advance or afterwards, any crime that benefits the organization, anybody can be charged with it basically.
Sarah: Well, that is just silly.
Mike: One of the most fascinating articles I came across was an analysis of every single charge under the RICO statute.
Sarah: RICO is organized crime.
Mike: Yeah, RICO is the law that they wrote basically to take down the mafia. These are the conspiracy charges, so they find 115 street gangs and 3000 people were charged between 2001 and 2011. And so, in a shock to no one whatsoever, it's 75% African American and Latinos who were charged with RICO and the authors go into this in great detail of even under the RICO act, there's no clear understanding of what exactly is a gang.
So, they use the example of, on March 9th, 2011, police officers arrested five white adults at a North Carolina resident for running a meth lab. The five offenders were charged with various felonies, but not labeled a gang or charge under RICO. In March 2010, officers arrested 12 white men who were involved in an interstate theft and drug ring for months, the men stole vehicles and prescription drugs from Florida and later sold them in Alabama.
The men were charged with multiple felonies for fraud and narcotics offenses, but they were not labeled as a gang or charge under RICO. So it's like people commit crimes in groups. That is not all that exotic of a concept. But it's only when we add this extra fear, this extra, super predator tone on top of it that we start calling it a gang.
He then tells these two really, really heartbreaking stories of people who are basically being charged with felonies. For the equivalent of like low level drug dealing, low level of graffiti, one of them is a quote unquote gang known as the Pitch-Dark Family, where the prosecutors are saying, it's a gang. And you can tell because there's all these like documents showing that they're together and they've given themselves this name and they have initiation procedures. It turns out it's the name of a rap group that these three dudes are in. And so the reason that there's like names of them all over the place is that that's how you advertise your band.
Sarah: Yeah. And because people who commit crimes together don't necessarily spend a huge amount of time inventing secret handshakes, but teenagers and bands do that kind of thing.
Mike: One of the things they mentioned in this article is the defense called attention to the fact that he government's own witnesses admitted that each defendant who sold drugs, kept his own profits and did not contribute any of those profits to the PDF as an organization. There was no evidence of existing organizational rules or a defined structure. Moreover the gang was not listed in the California gang database and police officers did not refer to the criminal gang as Pitch-Dark Family within any recorded documentation after arresting the defendant. So it's basically something that the prosecutors came up with to get longer sentences.
Sarah: Prosecutors got a prosecute.
Mike: Yes. And there is also the really heartbreaking one is these girls, who about a quarter of the gang members in the country estimated are female gangs.
Sarah: Really, I would never ever have guessed that.
Mike: But then of course, what does gang mean? Where is this information coming from?
Sarah: Is it because girls like to give cute names to their friend groups more often? Is that the reason?
Mike: Well listen to this, this one sucks. Basically, it's a girl gang who is known as the Wolf Pack. Everybody knows him as a Wolf Pack, everybody calls him the Wolf Pack, they get busted with selling small amounts of cocaine, some criminal mischief type of stuff. And you know, of course the prosecutor's painting them as these like remorseless, terrible, you know, criminal organization, whatever. Their mom comes and testifies and says, I'm the one that gave them that name because they all grew up together and they would play out on the street, and I would make them food after school.
And I would say, wow, you're hungry as a Wolf Pack, I better make more food. And so this became a joke that she would have with the other neighborhood moms like, oh, the Wolf Pack is going to be home soon, I better make some sandwiches. And the other moms started calling them this.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And so, this perfectly normal, perfectly nice name for a group of girls then becomes a reason to prosecute them even harder and the defense doesn't work. They get prosecuted under RICO.
Sarah: It's amazing.
Mike: And so again, we are making this completely normal behavior exotic. Like how many teenage groups call themselves by some cheesy ass name like this.
Sarah: Okay. My best friends and I in high school had a group name. There were three of us, you know what we were called the plant posse because we liked to sit quietly in nature and play a mandolin, and listen to Devendra Banhart, and so on. Gang, we were a gang, we did some criminal mischief. Oh my God, I was in a gang. You are always the last to find out.
Mike: One of the things that is really striking about the definitions of gangs that are in all the legal documents that all these laws that passed in the 1990s is that hierarchies are nowhere in there. The things that are supposed to make gangs uniquely dangerous, right, that everyone is kind of contributing money back up the chain. Everyone is contributing to this like corporate structure and like spreading into the suburbs. That is not in any of the legal definitions. The legal definitions are all to catch the Wolf Packs of the world. It is all low-level stuff.
It is like you have signs and symbols that indicate your membership. None of it is about your trafficking drugs across state lines. It's like the myth that we are sold about gangs is that we have to eradicate them because they're so hierarchical and they're so sophisticated. But behind the scenes, all this is used for is just to go after low level, you know, 15-year-old kids that are like spray painting graffiti and like stealing cars and doing other not great, but also not particularly nefarious teenage shit.
Sarah: But also, if a white kid did it, they would still go to college.
Mike: Completely. Yes.
Sarah: So why were we so compelled to incarcerate 15-year-olds in the nineties? Why did that make us feel better?
Mike: I don't know. What do you, I mean, you probably know more about just than I do from your satanic panic stuff? The thing with demonizing children, I just think is so weird. The FBI's definition specifically, excludes gangs that include adults. They really laser focused on kids 12 to 18, which to me is totally baffling. Because again, if we're supposed to be worried about these like big, corporatized gangs, those are not being run by 18-year-olds. Drug lords are not 18.
Sarah: Good point. First of all, there's the level of implausibility of having, you know, all of these hierarchical, national, international, highly organized, highly controlled gangs across the nation, you know. Because there are criminal syndicates that work that way so that's not crazily farfetched, but then they're like, oh no, but they're all children. Really, you're telling me that a bunch of 18-year-olds are running some kind of like kids from ET, Colombian cartels type of a job. Like what is happening?
Mike: Why do you think that the kids thing was so scary?
Sarah: Well, I mean, if I, how about this and that about the rhetoric about super predators and crack babies, you know, these are all ways to essentially arrest and incarcerate non-white children as soon as we possibly can. White panic and white anxiety are forces that are easy to kind of whip into volatility. Now that we are talking about like an organized effort to do something, I think that, you know, another easy sell is convincing, scared white Americans, that their anxieties about people of color are true.
And so these are all easy political gambits and the belief that crime is rising and there's all these horrible murders all over the place. It is also something that sells newspapers and commercials and makes everyone involved a lot of money. So, you know, I don't think that there had to be an architect here, but I think that a generation of essentially nonwhite children became the fodder for various systems that profited powerful people in various ways.
Mike: And also, not to play too many of our greatest hits.
Sarah: Why not? Let's just lean into it, this is a medley.
Mike: But it's sort of the thing that we've come back to a couple of times and what do you not need evidence to believe? If somebody said there's teenage kids in Peoria, Illinois who are both super predators and sophisticated business leaders expanding across the country, we would have been like, ah, I need to see some documentation on that.
But if it's like kids in low-income communities, black kids, kids that are different from me, kids that live in a different place. It's just easy to believe because it's they're already exotic and you don't really think it through. You don't do the step-by-step analysis that you would do if it was somebody who looked like you.
And so this is why the fourth reason why this is a moral panic is that we never corrected the record. There is never a YouTube apology video where it's hey guys, it's Frontline. Just want to say everything we said about gangs being predatory and sophisticated was not true and we just want to correct everything.
Sarah: You're not doing enough fake crying. Feel like I really let you guys down.
Mike: I mean, what is amazing is what turns out to have ended the moral panic over gangs was 911.
Sarah: 911 ended a lot of moral panics, I'm beginning to suspect because suddenly we had a real problem or a more real one, I guess, at least.
Mike: We only have room for one threat to the suburbs.
Sarah: Yeah, that's true.
Mike: And after 911, the threat to the suburbs became terrorism, right? It became John Walker Lund.
Sarah: Yeah. Became a nerd who went to Pakistan.
Mike: Exactly. Behind the scenes, you know, all these laws are still on the books, prosecutions of gang members continue apace. Nothing actually changed. It just fell out of the media completely because we whipped up fears over something new. And so, you know, in this, in suing decade and a half since 911, all of these fascinating studies have come out about the actual nature of gangs. And so, you know, one of the main things that I cannot get over is that when you look at the correlations of what are gangs, when do gangs arise, et cetera, gangs are a response to crime, not a cause of crime.
So again, going back to the old ethnic communities in the 1900s, when the police refused to enforce the law, in Italian American neighborhoods or in Chinatowns what do you get? You get Italian American mafia, and you get Chinese mafia. These groups exist to provide security for people in enclaves where the police are not helping them.
Sarah: That is what the FBI could never understand. They were just the police for wise guys. Yeah.
Mike: And so, one of the studies this, that finds this correlation, it says gangs form in areas where there's a high rate of preexisting violence as a form of protection substituting for the lack of government enforcement of rights. They also say that one of the reasons all these gang units were so ineffective is that by taking out the gangs, by taking out the form of protection for people, they are then creating a vacuum and a market opportunity for someone else and for rivalries to form.
So, one of the things that this study says is, just as overthrowing a government might result in more violence due to the lack of rights enforcement in their resulting anarchy, government policy aimed at dissolving youth gangs will not be successful in reducing violent crime and may in fact increase it.
Sarah: Yeah. We are bad at realizing that too, in terms of national governments.
Mike: Yes, and you know, there is this ethnographer in Chicago who spent four years studying a public housing project, where there was a gang rivalry going on for the last two years of his tenure there. And I mean, first of all, the term gang in this case is really silly because it's a drug cartel, right? There is a drug distribution organization.
Sarah: That is important too because I think gang is like a blanket that you can pull over a very broad group of people and then define them all according to the most extreme, possible version of that definition.
Mike: Exactly. And so, what he finds is this is obvious, but it's so much of this stuff is driven by the retreat of economic institutions from the inner city in the eighties and nineties. And so, he says, you know, the context for why gangs exist is, this is long, but bear with me. He says, ‘The key components were the out migration of industries and the ensuing loss of employment for blacks in blue collar jobs, the subsequent segmentation of the labor market into high wage sector, out of reach for most displaced blacks and a low wage service sector, where blacks competed with women and minorities for menial and part-time work. The flight of economically and politically powerful constituencies to suburban and non-ghetto central city areas and the evisceration of public institutions due to cutbacks in federal and state funding.’ What he finds is that in this public housing complex, only 4% of the people are engaged in formal work.
Mike: Almost everybody else is getting by with whatever economic opportunities they can find. And so for some people that includes selling small amounts of drugs, but that also includes all kinds of other stuff. It includes like they're doing car repair, they're doing domestic work, they're building crafts. They are kind of starting their own businesses. These are the things that people do when there are not formal economic opportunities and the poll of a drug cartel, the poll of employment is pretty great in context like that.
And so another thing that he finds that is super important for understanding this is that as he mentioned, there is a sort of one drug cartel running this public housing block. There is another one that is running a public housing block, a couple blocks away, and eventually there forms a gang rivalry, but what is important about the gang rivalry is gang leaders much more often talk their members out of killing people, then talk them into killing people.
Sarah: Which is also represented in The Warriors.
Mike: What you have is the way that this gang war starts between these two cartels is too low-level members of one of the cartels get super drunk and they decided oh yeah, fuck these other cartels they're bad, but, but, but these tensions have kind of been simmering and it's like Montague/Capulet kind of way. And so, in their drunken state, they decided to go do a drive by shooting of some of the rival gang members. They are not really thinking it through, and they accidentally hit two little girls that are playing on a playground out front.
And so it's awful and what it also causes is then a cycle of revenge. Then the rival cartel then kills them because you killed two little girls in our housing project and then somebody from the first cartel has to go kill somebody from the second cartel. It then becomes this much more escalatory thing, but again it is not this like sophisticated, you know, gangs going out and committing gang land assassinations, goodfellas style.
It's just a dumb thing that somebody did entrepreneurially, not hierarchically. And this is also, you know, I mentioned at the beginning that the vast majority of quote unquote gang related homicides are not gang related. That there is all these other studies of this, that there's a really good study of Chinese gangs in Vancouver, where they look at all the murders.
And 43% of the murders were started when a guy from a rival gang looked at me the wrong way, because it's basically, it’s not organized, it is totally spontaneous. I'm affiliated with this group, and you're affiliated with this other group. It's like high school kids being like, oh, I go to this high school, and you go to this other high school, and you suck and then it just escalates into violence.
Sarah: Yes. I still feel enmity toward Jesuit who had a way better soccer team than us.
Mike: It is basically the same structure as that, I mean, there is all kinds of psychological and anthropological literature on this, where you find this across cultures and in all kinds of different countries where.
Under a context of constant threat, when groups form those groups become very important in the group identity becomes very important. And oftentimes in a way that I think is difficult for people who can sort of rely on law enforcement to understand, any threat to the status of that group is experienced as an individual threat.
Sarah: Yeah. How do you feel if people are hostile toward the gays? You know, I mean, that is how we feel about our identities generally, I think. Especially if we have any sense of a marginalized identity, like you have to respond, you know, you have to protect yourself if you're used to needing to do that.
Mike: Right. And it is not defensible, it's not good.
Sarah: Human behavior isn't good or bad, it is just, you know, it is.
Mike: Yeah. But if your entire strategy for dealing with that, is we need to eradicate gangs. It is what you're really talking about is you're eradicating a form of interacting with other people, right?
This stuff goes really deep, and you can't get rid of a feeling of commonality between three or four people that are under the same circumstances. You can't stop teenagers from calling themselves something.
Sarah: We need to get rid of the sense of danger that they respond to by forming these bonds, that the lead to group violence.
Sarah: Make the world a safer place. I'm sorry that the answer is always that it's very annoying, you know, what are you going to do.
Mike: I mean, one of the things there's a surgeon general's report about this in the late nineties, and it is extremely telling me that it only lists three effective gang strategies and one of them is expanding the foster care system. There are all these other institutions that are contributing to this problem and to this escalating cycle of violence. And if your response to the cycle of violence is to deal with the gangs rather than the violence, you are not going to get anywhere.
Sarah: You’re going to get up your numbers for arrest and incarceration, but you're not going to solve the problem you're claiming to attempt to solve, no.
Mike: Exactly. And so, it reminds me a little bit of when we talked about the obesity epidemic, where it is you know, people shouldn't be fat because they'll all get strokes. And then you're like, well, a lot of fat people really aren't at risk for strokes. And a lot of skinny people are at risk for stroke. Why don't we deal with the strokes? We know how to prevent strokes and why don't we just get rid of this like middleman concept of obesity and just deal with the thing we want to deal with and know how to deal with it.
Sarah: Yeah. But no one likes that argument because what we really want to do is confirm our anxieties as dominant culture, right? Nobody likes the person who points out that the fake reason doesn't work. When your mom is we can't have Aunt Tricia stay with us because we don't have a foldout couch in the basement and you're like, but we do have a foldout couch in the basement. It is no, the reason we can invite her is because she has had an affair with the Volvo dealer and we don't, we're uncomfortable about it.
Mike: I mean, and you can see the same logic in the way that we construct the drug problem of gangs. The ways in which gangs contribute to drug trafficking, where again, all of this research starts coming out in the 2000s about how gangs are actually dealing drugs. And so the vast majority of quote unquote drug gangs. These cartels really, it's one or two, maybe five people at the top and hundreds of super low level people that are not dealing drugs, particularly often.
Sarah: Like an MLM.
Mike: It's exactly like an MLM. It's totally multi-level marketing. The literature compares it to franchises, if you run a McDonald's franchise, you're not chatting all that much with other McDonald's franchisees, right? You're doing some vertical communication, like up the chain to whoever's giving you the hamburgers or whatever, but they're not really giving you orders day-to-day about oh, you were late yesterday, Bob, you got here at 9:20 AM.
They don't really do that. It's much more just buy a hundred dollars’ worth of drugs from somebody and sell it for hundred-fifty, like one piece at a time. So, in this later study, they find that 50% of quote, unquote gang members also have formal work. A lot of them have jobs, but they are just like selling drugs is something they do on the side for a little bit of extra cash.
It's not their primary occupation. One thing that's really interesting to study, this is the same study, says, ‘The consensus appears to be that drug trafficking is usually a secondary interest compared to identity construction, protecting neighborhood territory and recreation.’ This in St. Louis says, ‘The drug sales are quote poorly organized episodic, non-monopolistic, and not a rationale for the gang's existence.’
So, when we talk about, you know, the primary purpose of Greenpeace, isn't the crime it's political advocacy. Well, you could make an argument that the primary purpose of a lot of this lower level, you know, five kids together, Wolf Pack type gangs. The primary purpose is not drug trafficking. The primary purpose is feeling like your part of something. And so, by the court's own definition, they shouldn't be charging all of these gangs as criminal organizations, when it's incidental to the gang, it's not central to the gang.
Sarah: If you have a group of friends and you get together and do crafts on Friday nights, you know, you're not friends so that you can do crafts, it's a function of the friendship.
Mike: Even with the multi-level marketing metaphor. There's also very little evidence that people are sending profits up the chain.
Sarah: That would make much more sense. You like lay out a certain amount of money up front, and then you have your own little chunk to go off and parcel out however you want to. That's how business tends to work.
Mike: Right? I think probably the thing I should probably end with is, I mean, you knew this was coming, but when you compare rates of juvenile delinquency across races, you see that like white kids are just as juvenile delinquent as black kids. There is no, you know, when it comes to graffiti, stealing cars, being out, just doing dumb teenager stuff, there isn't a lot of racial difference. You know, of course this entire problem has been constructed in contravention of all available evidence.
Sarah: Great. So what is anything true? Is there anything that people were saying in the nineties that was not a complete exaggeration or made up?
Mike: Saved by the Bell, that was.
Sarah: Yeah, they probably did have a very special episode about gangs.
Mike: I mean, so much of this to me goes back to the way that common behavior gets turned into something dark and devious when somebody else does it. Right. That like what we were really talking about with these gangs was representing your high school or having a group of people that you hang out with. And you are proud of and connected to, which is just a feature of humanity. That is something that people do everywhere. And so we found a way to tell that story as something deviant and wrong and gross, but it was much more important at the time to try to sort of do the opposite thing.
We have a problem with making exotic behavior normal. That is the direction that I think we struggle with, especially as media of being like, here is a thing that maybe you're not super familiar with, but it is actually more or less the same as what you do.
Sarah: And it's not that hard to see it, you have to, if you're like not trying to spin it as this far off scary thing, then it's pretty easy to see that. Can you say again, what are the four stages of moral panic so that we can recognize when we are experiencing one?
Mike: They were, start with a real thing, mis-characterized the nature and scope of the problem, respond disproportionately and never return to debunk it later. What do you think? What did I miss?
Sarah: Well, I guess one thing I would add, and I don't think this is part of all moral panics, but I do think it was part of the Satanic Panic. That if something where you identify the problems within dominant culture and then project them onto an outsider group that you can then vow to eradicate. We suddenly, as a culture, kind of figured out about child sexual abuse, and then we didn't want to look in the place where it made the most sense to look for it.
And so we were like it's daycare workers and lesbians and occultists and people who are poor, people who can't afford lawyers, people who can be kind of quickly routed by the system. These became the people who we took this disproportionate response to who this panic was aimed at. I think in gangs, it would be interesting to wonder if there was something about, you know, the way that dominant culture was run, the way that white America was run. Maybe even the way that the police were operating, that we projected as always, I end this episode more afraid of the police and the media than I was when I began it.
Mike: Mission accomplished.
Sarah: And therefore, afraid of myself because I am the media. So as always, I fear our gang.