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 (both male and female) having to make a decision about whether or not to join. There isn’t just one reason for why people join gangs but many. And the more reasons one person has to deal with, the harder it will be for them (him or her) 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.
When gangs are all around you, it is normal or expected to join.
You might not think so but ultimately, your choice is based on 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.
When you live in a neighborhood like this where, in addition to gangs, there is a lot of poverty and you might think you have no idea for how to get ahead and live a happy life, 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 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 getting a drug problem or get 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 but there are other outlets such as sports, getting good grades, writing, learning to play an instrument, getting a part time job and any other after school activity. 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 - you could go to jail, living in constant fear for your life or actually die.
But my friends and family members are in the gang, what else would I do?
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 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. Check out the Peer pressure fact sheet to see how you might deal with this pressure.
The environments 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 fact sheet for more information about how to deal with your anger. Many think they find what they 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? Or even the risk of losing your life? Think it through. Sometimes finding a trusted adult, like a teacher, to talk to you to help deal with the pressure or offer suggestions for how resist joining is helpful.
Having no hope for the future
Sometimes we have a tendency to focus on the positive or fun aspects of joining a gang - hanging out with friends; prestige - and we don’t focus or understand the negative side. And when you do notice the negative side, you might feel like you have no hope for the future. So you might ask, 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? But sometimes finding hope comes in the simplest ways and in every 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 or 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. Think about it. Figure out why you want to join a gang and get help first. Talk to someone. The decision to adopt a gang lifestyle is one that has the potential for negative and devastating things happening - where people die, get hurt or go to jail—more than another other lifestyle decision you could make.
Some information in this fact sheets comes from Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith & Tobin’s Gangs and Delinquency in Development Perspective (Cambridge Press, 2003).
For more information about joining gangs and programs to help you avoid joining, check out the following resources: