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Understanding Gangs and

Why Youth Join Them


The word "gang" conjures up many different images and feelings. The definition of "gang" that the National Foundation for Abused and Neglected Children (NFANC®), based in Chicago, Illinois, will be using is "three or more persons with common interests, bonds, and activities characterized by criminal or delinquent conduct." However, the definition alone cannot raise awareness or dispel myths and fears. We need information such as why our youth join gangs, signs to look for, and suggestions on how to curtail gang involvement. Gang presence directly affects the quality of life in our community through such things as truancy, criminal behavior, and alcohol and other drug use and abuse. We need to look at the structure of a gang, its potential attractiveness for young people, and what parents and community members can possibly do. NFANC®'s challenge is to first understand gangs and their members before we can hope to prevent gang involvement in our community.

What is a gang?

It is pride, loyalty, friends, and trust. It's about structure, rules, and consequences, and being somebody, having success, and feeling safe and wanted. Surprised? It is surprising, but to really make a gang work, they need to pattern themselves after the ideal family. This is the easiest way to entice teenagers and children toward an element that would otherwise appear criminal and out of line with what we as parents have taught them. To truly understand a gang, we need to look at three different areas: the structure of a gang, who joins gangs and why, and gang identifiers.

Gang Structure

The structure of a gang is similar to the developmental stages of life. Although there may be overlap between the stages, each stage tends to be marked by certain distinguishing characteristics. A youth's gang involvement is a process that happens over time. Usually there is an initiation or rite of passage into the gang and when the member is promoted to a higher rank.


At the introductory phase, the young person latches on to peers or older youth who impress them in a variety of ways. It can be dress, self-confidence, or the number of close friends they have available to them. Unfortunately, gang-involved youth utilize the need for praise, friendship, and attention as a means to entice further involvement. Most youth at this phase are just beginning to show interest. A slight change of clothing, graffiti on notebooks, and some rule bending at home or school may begin to surface. 

As a youth progresses further into gang activity, there is a higher level of risk-taking. They often attend gang functions, tattoo themselves, and dress the part. Parents may find a wardrobe which can contain two or three color-limited clothing, five- or six-pointed star jewelry, and unusual symbols drawn on jackets or jeans that your child is unwilling to explain. In addition, they may begin to avoid family activities, break rules at home or school, and spend time with friends that parents never meet.

Hard Core

This is what is called being "true." It means actually joining the gang as a lifetime member. Hard-core gang members care very little for anything outside of the gang. They fail in all other structures: family, school, and community. Hard cores often find themselves in trouble with the police for a variety of reasons, including aggressive behavior, stealing, alcohol and/or other drugs, vandalism, and violence. Much of this criminal behavior is done in groups. Where a youth would seldom do this alone, the support of a group is encouraging.


These members are the ones who rise through the ranks and become responsible for the overall management of the gang. Because they have leadership qualities, they direct the activities of the marginal and hard-core members and oversee the recruitment of new members. They are the most streetwise and the most knowledgeable in legal matters. These members are at the top of the gang hierarchy. It is their role to make sure that the gang's extensive written "constitution" is upheld by its members. As you can see, the structure of a gang is both elaborate and seductive. As the youth advances and becomes an important part of the day-to-day functions of the gang, it becomes harder to leave. We begin to realize that for some youth who might lack support at home, the loyalty and unity that a gang offers can become quite powerful.


Studies of large urban samples show that gang members are responsible for a large proportion of violent offenses. Rochester gang members (30% of the sample) self-reported committing 65% of all adolescent violent offenses (Thomberry, in press). In Seattle, gang members (15% of the sample) self-reported committing 85% of adolescent robberies (Battin et al., in press). In Denver, gang members (14% of the sample) self-reported committing 89% of all serious violent adolescent offenses (Huizinga, 1997).

Hand Signs

Each gang has their own hand signs that they use to show their allegiance to their gang and to identify their enemies. "Throwing signs" are hand signals made by forming letters or numbers with the hands and fingers depicting the gang symbol or initials. Confrontations frequently begin with gang signs issued as a challenge and flashed between rival gangs.

Clothing Style

Gang members dress for strategic reasons. Their clothing color, hats, and jewelry all play a part in their identity. Baseball caps and jackets with logos of popular professional sports teams have become a common item worn by gang members. They take pride in their gang and openly display their membership in this manner.

Gangs have taken on different types of dress and identification, such as the Oakland Raiders' logo because of the team's reputation for toughness. This identity creates a reputation which is used to intimidate other rival gangs. Other gangs have chosen athletic teams based on their colors or the symbols associated with the team insignia.

Gang Identifiers

Visually, there are signs that will identify gang members and their presence in a neighborhood. These are represented by:

Graffiti: The purpose of graffiti is to glorify the gang. It is one of the most observable signs that a gang has marked its territory. It is used to advertise the gang's status or power and serves as a warning and a challenge to rival gangs. There is no greater humiliation for a street gang than to have its symbols degraded by a rival gang. This occurs when a sign or symbol is upside down or defaced. Such insult often leads to violence among gangs.

Tattoos: Tattoos may be viewed as an extension of graffiti, used to identify the wearer as a member of a particular gang. Like graffiti, tattoos will usually include the initials, name, or symbols of a gang. There is no rule as to the size, number, or complexity of a gang member's tattoos. While some may be inscribed professionally, most are home made. Tattoos are found anywhere on the body.