A World of Gangs


Book by John M. Hagedorn, foreword by Mike Davis; University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 179 pp.

"IF YOU WANT TO RECRUIT A TERRORIST, go to the Chicago street gang," claimed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, June 11, 2002 on the arrest of former gang member Jose Padilla at O’Hare Airport on charges of conspiracy to explode a "dirty bomb."

The treatment of street gang members as terrorists is one of the themes John M. Hagedorn explores in his book A World of Gangs. However, Hagedorn’s analysis differs from the usual discussion of street gangs that describes them in sociological terms as irredeemable sociopaths. Rather than a fear-based study or a sociologic polemic, Hagedorn examines the globalization of gangs and gang culture as part of the process of neo-liberal globalization.

Hagedorn is an associate professor of criminology and senior research fellow at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the author of the book People and Folk: Gangs, Crime and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City, and the editor of Gangs in the Global City: Alternatives to Traditional Criminology.

When Hagedorn discusses gangs, he is looking at those gangs that have become institutionalized in such cities as Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, and Capetown, South Africa. His initial thesis is that the street gangs of today arose as a result of the failure of social movements to bring change. In order to prove this, Hagedorn analyzes the changes in the twin aspects of the nature of the state under neo-liberal capitalism and the enduring persistence and pervasiveness of racism.

The role of the state has changed in the era of globalization, from providing adequate employment, routine services, education and security to being an enabler of the market. Hagedorn postulates that where there is no control or regulation by legitimate forces in such areas as the inner city, the result is that violent forces will exert control. Previously, gangs had a different character—i.e., they were a sign of progress in shedding old world customs and in developing class struggle, events of hope for a better day. The hope that political action will alleviate misery is dimmed when non-state actors such as multi-national corporations exercise authority and control outcomes that were previously the domain of the state.

The imposition of neo-liberal capitalism and structural adjustments has resulted in the collapse of the state as the dominant actor in society, particularly in relation to urban areas. The effect of the retreat of the state is to give rise to warlords, drug lords, and gangs. The point is made that at one time, states were the masters of the markets—now markets control the state. Hagedorn quotes Arundhati Roy’s analysis: "The thing to understand is that modern democracy is safely premised on an almost religious acceptance of the nation state. But corporate globalization is not. Liquid capital is not. So even though capital needs the coercive power of the nation to put down revolts in the servants’ quarters, this set up ensures that no individual nation can oppose corporate globalization on its own."

The reduced role of the state gives rise to a form of hopelessness in political solutions. In Hagedorn’s view this context distinguishes today’s gangs from those of prior eras and accounts for the institutionalization of gangs and gang life in the urban cores of numerous world cities. In support of this analysis, Hagedorn describes the advance of the Hamburg Athletic Association (HAA), an Irish street gang of the early 20th century. The first mayor Daley, Richard J., belonged to this gang which gave him political support and launched his political career. HAA operated primarily in protecting its turf in the Irish Bridgeport neighborhood. HAA’s (and Daley’s) role in the 1919 anti-Negro riots is a classic example of the role of street gangs in protecting an ethnic or racial group. However, HAA was able to develop political power in Chicago and its remnants remain in control of many of the levers of power in Chicago today, including the Chicago Police Department.

Contrast the HAA with the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL) black street gang on the west side of Chicago. CVL was formed in the Lawndale neighborhood as it transitioned from Jewish to black for protection from white youths. When CVL started to become too violent, its leadership moved it toward a community organization with businesses, park development, parades, ethnic festivals, etc. At the time, CVL received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and Clement Stone, the insurance magnet and icon of the Boys and Girls Clubs. After the insurrection following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., black people began to push for more political power. Additionally, in the late 1960s, Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party began to work with street gangs, urging them to become more political and stop fighting among themselves.

On May 9, 1969, Mayor Daley, fearing growing political power in the black community independent of the Democratic machine, declared a war on gangs. This order essentially criminalized gangs and the leadership of CVL was imprisoned on any charges that could be made to stick. With CVL leadership in prison and cut off from jobs and the community, CVL moved to drug dealing and became institutionalized as a criminal organization.

Hagedorn credits the brutal crushing of the social movements of the 1960s as the active factor in the process of gang institutionalization. The classic view is that youth joined gangs because they were demoralized by the loss of the "old world" culture and religion, which coincided with the rise of the industrial era. However, Hagedorn argues that the optimism of the social movements of the 1960s could not be fulfilled due to the repression of the black, Latino, Native, and youth movements. Society went from a "war on poverty" to a "war on crime." The lesson learned was that no lasting relief from poverty and racism came from either the ballot box or the street, which fit eloquently with the rise of globalization in the same era as the social movements were crushed. In its essence, Hagedorn argues that decisions made by bankers and international corporations now have more impact than those of the state, but are subject to less political control. Those on the bottom of the social structure have become demoralized in a new way.

Coupled with the crushing of social movements, Hagedorn argues the persistence of racism has served to strengthen and institutionalize gangs and gang culture. He focuses on the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and Europe as creating the "other," which not only includes blacks but also people throughout the world of non-European ancestry. The treatment of black people, particularly youth, in the U.S. as the "other" generates the development of ghetto culture and lifestyles embodied in rap music, particularly gangsta rap and the need for defensible space within the urban landscape.

Neo-liberal capitalism in the new information age covets central cities for the urban professional class, which in the U.S., unlike Europe, is occupied by blacks and Latinos, and gangs. In U.S. cities, defensible space for urban gangs include housing projects and related urban space. Gentrification, ethnic cleansing by another name, occurs as whites move into gang-controlled territory creating inevitable conflict. Of course, middle class whites have the power of the state in the form of zoning laws, eminent domain, and other forms of "urban renewal." In the U.S., in order to be able to invoke the power of the police, gentrification became part of the war on drugs with the inevitable massive incarceration of black and Latino youth. Worldwide, in such cities as Capetown, Singapore, and São Paulo, Hagedorn points out, the pattern is the same: push the poor, dark, ethnic to the periphery of the city through police violence and reclaim the central space in the form of walled compounds of wealth. The war over urban space takes an initial form of pacification followed by forms of guerilla warfare. Those remaining in the central city develop cultures of resistance. Hagedorn explores these resistance identities and culture by examining rap and gangsta culture and the effect of its cooptation by corporate hip hop.

Hagedorn specifically focuses on this process in Chicago by looking at a two-prong attack—the destruction of public housing and the expansion of the gentry into center city neighborhoods close to the central business district with good public transportation. High-rise public housing in Chicago was constructed after World War II to house the black migration from the South. Since white ethnic neighborhoods refused to integrate, the solution was high rise projects in existing black neighborhoods. These high-rise projects, one part of them an eight mile stretch of dozens of building on the Southside, became gang space with resultant turf wars over drug sales. The current Mayor Daley saw these high rises as an obstacle to the global city he was trying to build, so the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) developed a plan to destroy 38,000 high-rise units and replace them with 21,000 "mixed income" units. Of course, the CHA never did track those displaced from the destroyed public housing and very few have returned to their neighborhoods to claim a spot in the mixed income developments. Hagedorn points out that a UN report called those driven from the public housing "internally displaced persons," like those Iraqis swept from their neighborhoods in the civil war of 2004-2007. The drive to bring the Olympics to Chicago in 2016 was part of this process, allowing the displacement of, primarily, blacks living in various coveted neighborhoods near Lake Michigan.

Gentrification increased police pressure on an already pressured population through the use of surveillance cameras and gang roundup laws. When those subtle methods did not work, increased police brutality and torture was employed. The ongoing Chicago police torture scandal is a testament to the dehumanization of the "other." Over a period of 20 years, police on Chicago’s Southside tortured confessions from black men using methods such as electric shock, beatings, mock executions, and burning by tying the suspect to radiators. To date, no police officer has been held accountable, although this torture was a significant factor in Illinois’ moratorium on the death penalty and the pardoning or commutation of sentences of dozens of men. It is notable that the present Mayor Daley was Cook County state’s attorney during this period, prosecuting the men who were tortured into confessing. The rotation between prison and the street, with 9.2 percent of black males either in prison, on probation, or parole, has also been accelerated by this process.

One weakness in this book is its failure to examine the role of the left during the ongoing assault on black and Latino youth. At one point, Chicago enacted a so-called "Gang Loitering Ordinance" that essentially criminalized young people being on the street with other youth. During the three years of its enforcement, the police issued over 89,000 dispersal orders and arrested over 42,000 people for violating the ordinance. While ultimately held unconstitutional by both the Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts, during the majority of its existence no progressive or leftist group denounced its racism and deprivation of civil rights. An analysis by Hagedorn of this silence and reluctance to act could have exposed the discomfort of many white leftists with black and Latino youth, gangs and gangsta culture—perhaps pointing out why a sustained multi-racial movement has never developed in Chicago.

However, this is a minor weakness and certainly not the thrust of the book. Hagedorn has deepened our understanding on why gangs have become institutionalized. Hagedorn’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants an understanding of gangs and gangsta culture from the perspective of political economy.


Jeffrey Frank is a lawyer in Chicago working with the National Lawyers Guild and author of articles on civil rights.