In his article “As Soon as I Get Out Ima Cop Dem Jordans”: The Afterlife of the Corporate Gang”, Laurence Ralph adeptly and clearly connects the rich history of gang activity in Chicago with how youth consume, understand, and wear gym shoes.
My first thought when I began reading this article was something along the lines of “when will I come to the tenuous connection between rap music, basketball shoes, and crime?”. I could not have been further from the truth! In this incredibly well written article, Ralph works to connect gang activity, history, and hierarchy with wider social and economic forces over the past 50 years.
For example, in the 1960’s Ralph argues that gangs were politically minded, often performing community services like picking up trash. In his interviews with retired gang leaders, he finds a sense of nostalgia for how these groups used to be organized, compared to the apparent “renegades” that are described by the retirees as materialistic and working against everything for which he used to stand.
Media portrayals and official police accounts of gangs seem to align themselves with a distorted definition of gangs by any measure. On one hand, gangs and other criminal organizations are seen as hierarchical, holding identification and often specific geographic locales, and even perfecting an internal communication style, speaking in a dialect that stands to distance these young men and women even further from mainstream society.
These memes work well for both media and the police. For the media, stories of gang conflict is easy sensationalized, allowing for simple stories to be communicated. Rather than telling the complex story of gang involvement and the social pressures that often precede such affiliation, summary definitions of “gang” allow much information to be passed to the viewer quickly.
For the police, different benefits come from the same process. By allowing ‘gang’ to stand for all the above stated information, intervention protocols are justifiably implemented. Stated differently, a gang already is – it is not a potential, not a possibly, it is a reality. Police are thus encouraged and thanked for their involvement as they address this issue. Prevention and community based efforts to combat youth crime and instability in adolescent populations cannot be as important as addressing the now.
The above examples of media and police definitions of youth gangs stand in stark contrast to the complex and fluid definitions highlighted by Ralph. By contrasting the political and community aspirations of the older generation of former gang members in Chicago with their perception of youth gangs in the present day, the very definition of gang gets muddled.
The message I was left with after reading “As Soon as I Get Out Ima Cop Dem Jordans”: The Afterlife of the Corporate Gang” was that definitions and categories of people are not only malleable from group to group and interest to interest, but also over time. Ralph astutely concludes that a nuanced understanding of youth culture and youth crime needs to be informed by its history. For example, Ralph connects the 1980’s crack epidemic in Chicago with the changing of hierarchical youth friend-groups to ‘renegade’ congregations of youth, struggling to address their immediate needs through their peer group.
While I’m unsure how these findings apply in the Canadian context, I do see some disconnection between the way gangs are defined on the news and in police stations with the little loyalty that these individuals hold to their status as a gang member.
Still other questions remain – are Ralph’s conclusions generalizable to modern youth in general? Where a sense of shared purpose seemed to be common in the past, is it true that now stands profiles, individual statuses and tweets? Is generation ‘me’ getting reflected back at us at high power through those stories most likely to hit the news? Is it the same phenomenon that causes Jerry to update his status that he has been wronged by Becky as it is for Lisa to rob Carmen? While on completely different plane, it seems to me there is a conversation worth having here. Perhaps the result of which can move our prevention and intervention efforts in a more focused direction.