by John M. Hagedorn
University of Minnesota Press, 2008
With A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture, author John Hagedorn heeds Antonio Gramsci’s call for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” “Gangs aren’t going away soon … no matter what we do,” Hagedorn says gloomily, but with Gramscian optimism he continues, “this means we better figure out how to reduce the violence and encourage gangs and others in ghettoes, barrios, favelas, and townships to join movements for social change.”
Hagedorn has almost single-handedly founded the field of “critical gang studies.” Gang research in the 1980s and ’90s, much of it blind to the political economy of neoliberalism, often framed gangs as just another ghetto pathology of the African-American underclass. Hagedorn argues that such analyses are both misguided and Eurocentric. First, contemporary gangs and gangsta culture must be understood within the context of urbanization and neoliberal globalization. Second, gangs are a global phenomenon, and not particular to the U.S. inner city.
Drawing upon the work of radical urbanist Mike Davis, Hagedorn notes that close to one billion people live in slums worldwide, twelve million of them in the U.S. These slum-dwellers occupy the “Fourth World” (a concept Hagedorn borrows from sociologist Manuel Castells): zones of social exclusion that have emerged in cities across developed and developing countries with the onset of globalization. Characterized by joblessness, institutionalized racism and a de-legitimized, weakened state, the unregulated and ruthless capitalism of the drug economy thrives in the Fourth World, as poor youth develop survival strategies in the absence of alternatives. These are the conditions in which gangs grow and flourish, argues Hagedorn. Angry youth in the Fourth World organize for security, identity and employment, in gangs and like organizations, and are socialized by the streets or prisons, instead of the conventional institutions of family, school, or church.
While Hagedorn sees the necessary conditions for eliminating gangs as a broad, social and economic transformation, something must be done in the meantime. Illustrating the potential of gangs to transform themselves into community organizations and social movements, Hagedorn notes that too often elites have met such attempted transformations with a combination of cynicism and repression. In one important historical example, Chicago’s conservative Vice Lords’ transition from street gang to political and community organization was crushed by Mayor Richard J. Daley (himself a former gang member), who mandated a zero-tolerance policy that often led to a “shoot first, ask questions later” style of policing in the Black ghettos. In another example, in the wake of the Rodney King riots, Los Angeles’ Bloods and Cripps called a truce, and put forward a proposal for rebuilding their communities, demanding government investment and economic redistribution. The proposal went ignored, and the gangs eventually returned to their inner-city warfare.
With gang violence intensifying in a number of Canadian cities, Hagedorn’s book is a necessary read for all those looking for progressive alternatives to the dominant law-and-order approach to gangs and gang life.
This article appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canadian Students).