Link

Gang Violence and Civilian Protection: Observations on Their Relation (Part I)

29 Sep

*This post is the first in a two part series that will examine how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  This post will focus on the actual functioning of gangs and militaries that perpetrate violence against civilians, while the second will focus on conflict resolution strategies.

                                                                                                                                                            

“Little Terry got a gun, he got from the store,
He bought it with the money he got from his chores,
He robbed candy shop told her lay down on the floor,
Put the cookies in his bag took the pennies out the drawer.

Little Kalil got a gun he got from the rebels,
To kill the infidels and American devils,
A bomb on his waist,
A mask on his face,
Prays five times a day,
And listens to Heavy Metal.

Little Alex got a gun he took from his dad,
That he snuck into school in his black book bag,
His black nail polish, black boots and black hair,
He’s gonna blow away the bully that just pushed his ass…” 

These are the first few lines from Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon“.  In the song, he makes an explicit link between the culture of youth violence in the United States and violence in foreign countries.  This connection merits further examination.  I spent this summer working in a small city on the east coast where I was exposed to gang violence (I will refrain from naming the city to protect the privacy of the people and organizations I mention).  This city, which I will call Joplin, has a population between thirty and fifty thousands, but all in an urban setting.  It is very economically depressed and majority African-American.  My experiences working with issues of civilian protection prodded me to constantly make connection between the two seemingly very different scenarios.  Though there are certainly very concrete differences from, for example, rebel groups in eastern Congo and gangs on Joplin’s east side, I think it is important to note the similarities while acknowledging the differences.  I will focus on the issues that allow on the structural factors that allow gangs and militant groups to exist and then move to examine the impact of these groups on non-combatants.

In Joplin, gangs are a product of a terrible educational system, a non-existent job market, and a simple lack of activities for youth.  Joplin is not the only the victim of a federal government that feels no need to help low-income communities  but also a terribly inefficient and corrupt local government that wastes most of the funding it does receive.  From my experience, Joplin youth, in general, don’t believe that there is a productive future ahead of them.  Dealing drugs and joining gangs is one way of the few ways to make money.  These structural factors are shared by militant groups.  The military or rebel groups can offer a path for advancement for low-status individuals, and are often made up of disaffected populations.  Similarly, rebel groups, think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often compete with both the government and rival rebels to control material resources.

Gangs in Joplin, like many rebel groups, do not exist entirely separately from the communities in which they operate.  Individuals move in and out of gangs, and social circles are not divided solely by conditional gang membership.  Several programs in Joplin facilitate mentoring from current/potential gang members and former gangsters.  Franck van Acker notes this same phenomenon in the link above.  In LRA-affected Uganda, individuals routinely experienced the conflict as a civilian, a rebel, and a soldier over the course of their lifetime.

The victims of militant groups and gangs are both disproportionately civilians.  Many more civilians die in armed conflicts than militants, and while I don’t know the statistics for Joplin (and they’d be practically useless anyway, because the line between gangster and civilian is so blurry), civilians are routinely caught in gang crossfire.  Civilians are affected in both cases, but the targets of violence differs significantly.  Militant groups have political objectives, though some of their actions can seem purely designed to inflict terror and suffering on civilians.  Gangs do not share this characteristic.  Therefore, gang violence is committed for personal and business reasons against other community members, while militant violence is committed either against opposing armed forces or civilian populations that are either in support, or imagined to be in support of those forces.

While gang violence is explicitly aimed at individuals for apolitical reasons, government response to gang violence adds a political element.  In “Little Weapon”, Lupe raps, “Government want me dead so I wear my gun.  This is not an unrealistic portrait of gangs in Joplin.  Young black men are suspicious of the police, who are more likely to be white than the rest of Joplin’s population, and have a record of harassment.  Joining a gang is a way to find protection from the police.  Rebel groups comprised of  marginalized and persecuted populations serve this same purpose.  While gangs are an avenue for social and economic advancement, they are also a way for disempowered individuals to protect themselves from an oppressive government.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Advertisements

One Response to “Gang Violence and Civilian Protection: Observations on Their Relation (Part I)”

  1. Maribeth May 14, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    Unlbeievable how well-written and informative this was.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: