Why do people join gangs?
Many communities in the United States have gangs in them, and some of these gangs have been around for a long time and over many generations. It isn’t surprising that many people in these communities find themselves having to make a decision about whether or not to join. There isn’t just one reason for why people join gangs and the more reasons one person has to deal with, the harder it will be for them to resist joining a gang.
It is important to know that having all these issues in your life DOES NOT mean you are absolutely going to join a gang. In fact, many people who deal with some incredibly hard issues in their life do not join a gang. Knowing what to expect, what the other possibilities are, and deciding how to handle yourself are part of making this decision.
Pressure to Join a Gang
When gangs are all around you, it may seem normal or expected to join. You might not think so, but ultimately, your choice is based on a variety of factors and all are very hard to deal with. Sometimes a person’s environment and the people in it can make it seem normal or natural to join a gang. For example, if you live in an area full of gangs, or there are many gang members living near you or going to school with you, you might think it’s normal to join a gang because it seems to you that everyone else is joining. This normalizes gang activity to those that live in those neighborhoods.
If you live in a neighborhood where there is a lot of poverty and gang activity, you might think there’s no way to get ahead and live a happy life. Perhaps for that reason alone you might consider joining a gang to survive the chaos of the neighborhood, the economic distress, or simply to protect yourself. It might seem strange to those not in these situations, but protection from a certain group of individuals could cause a person to get into a gang because they think the gang can protect them.
You might also think that the gangster life is glamorous. People admire the power that a gang member seems to possess in that particular community and wish to attain the same stature. Gang life might also seem glamorous because of the drugs, money, violence, and respect acquired through fear and intimidation. This attracts many people to pursue a life in gangs, but there is nothing glamorous about gang life and you aren’t really protected either—you are constantly in fear of confrontations with rival gangs or the police. Being in a gang increases your chances of getting arrested, seriously injured or killed. Having drugs around may also increase the chances of you developing a drug problem or getting busted for drug possession or selling.
It is really hard to avoid these temptations, especially when everything around you seems to point to the gang life. Some alternatives to joining a gang might be:
- Joining a sports team or group. Find friends and connections through mutual interests. The people you put yourself around will influence your decisions, so try to surround yourself with people that are going to support you and push you to always be better. It can also feel good to be a part of something bigger than yourself, like through volunteering, joining a play, or starting a band.
- Focusing on school. If you’re getting good grades, this could help you get scholarships and grants to put towards a technical school or college after high school. This can help you fast-track your career.
- Journal. Try spending some time writing down your thoughts and feelings about your situation. What are all your options and what is the best one? Weight out the pros and cons. This might help you find alternatives and solutions to joining a gang.
- Tap into your creative side. Learning to play an instrument, dancing, painting and other forms of art can help you express yourself or distract you from what you’re feeling in a healthy way.
- Get a part time job. This can help you feel like you’re moving towards your goals in a positive way.
Many communities have community based organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and even some of the local colleges and universities have programs for young people in the community. Talk to your school counselor or favorite teacher too. They might have ideas for you.
The gang life isn’t glamorous and can’t offer you real protection when you think of what could happen to you—going to jail, living in constant fear for your life, or actually dying.
When most people around me are in gangs, why shouldn’t I join, too?
Sometimes the people closest to you can be a huge influence on making a decision to join a gang. Having parents or other family members involved in gangs only intensifies the likelihood of joining a gang. If it’s not having family members that cause someone to join gangs, a friend or friends in a gang may be a really strong motivator to join a gang. If your friends are gang members or associated with a gang, they can be an influence to join. Peer pressure and peer acceptance are some of the main reasons why people get involved in gangs. These things are hard to deal with especially when you feel like you don’t want to be left out of what your friends or family members are doing.
An environment with gangs, violence, and poverty can make a person grow up too fast. Sometimes if you don’t have family support or role models to look up to, you go looking for it elsewhere. Not feeling loved or supported can lead to anger and anger can lead to acting out. Check out the Anger and Violence article for more information about how to deal with your anger.
Many think they’ll find what they are looking for in a gang. Unfortunately, chances are that if you have family and friends in a gang, these same family members or friends have been arrested, put in jail, shot, or even killed. Do you want that kind of life? Do you want to run the risk of being killed? Seriously think it through. Our Risk-Taking article may help you in your decision making process. Sometimes finding a trusted adult to talk to, like a teacher or guidance counselor, can help you deal with the pressure or offer suggestions for how to resist joining a gang.
Having No Hope for the Future
Sometimes we have a tendency to focus on the positive or fun aspects of joining a gang, like hanging out with friends and gaining prestige. It’s important not to forget the negative impact it could have on your life, though. You might think without joining a gang, there’s not real hope for your future. Maybe asking yourself, “Why care about the negative things that can happen to me?”
The bigger issue underneath this attitude is one that is much harder to tackle. When there is no hope for the future, a person feels that it is easier to go on a destructive path without care or worry of who gets caught up along the way. The truth is that joining a gang is a decision that only a person with no hope for the future can make. If you had hope for a future—a good college education; a good job or career; a family—you wouldn’t choose a life of fear of being hurt or jailed. Would you?
Sometimes finding hope comes in the simplest ways, regardless of your neighborhood or environment:
- Getting an A on an exam or even a C in a really hard subject
- Making the football team
- Getting a part time job
- Going to a restaurant outside of your neighborhood
Just like there are many factors (sometimes working all together) that lead to people joining gangs. There is not one way, but many ways to keep from joining. Question your options. Talk to someone. The decision to adopt a gang lifestyle is one that has the potential for negative and devastating things to happen—where people die, get hurt, or go to jail. More potential for worse off circumstances than another other lifestyle decision you could make.
Information for this article was provided by:
Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith & Tobin’s “Gangs and Delinquency in Development Perspective” (Cambridge Press, 2003).