How New York Gang Culture Is Changing

Violence in the NYC criminal landscape is increasingly dominated by small, neighborhood-based factions, though "super-gangs" like the Bloods and Crips linger.

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Aug 18 2015, 6:15pm

Some gang graffiti on Troutman Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo via Flickr user Hrag Vartanian

The gang landscape in modern urban America can be tough to wrap your head around. Most of us have heard something about the Bloods and Crips, but those gangs have plenty of factions and rivals.

In New York City, cops attribute much of the lingering gun violence to a relatively small group of men wrapped up in localized gang activity, as the New York Times reported last month. As violence began to move into tourist-frequented areas earlier this year, officials responded with grassroots initiatives led by former gang members. Meanwhile, as VICE recently reported, the NYPD has arguably gone off the deep end in its efforts to rein in gang activity, targeting dance teams for special treatment.

To get a sense of just how real the gang threat is, VICE reached out to renowned New York State gang expert Ron "Cook" Barrett—he has served as a gang prevention specialist in Albany—and Kevin Deutsch, the award-winning Newsday crime reporter and author of The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York's Bloods and Crips.

Here's what they had to say.

VICE: What are some of the biggest gangs in New York today, and why are they the most prominent?
Ron "Cook" Barrett: The biggest gangs in NY are obviously influenced by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and filter to the streets. Traditionally, since 1993, the Bloods have been the power within Rikers Island and many state correctional facilities. Sets like the Mac Ballers, G Shine, Brims, and Gorilla Brims have been active and constantly fight for control of facilities. They outnumber many rivals. There are Crip sets, Latin Kings, Trinitarios, Gangster Disciples, MS-13, and others active.

Every nationality is represented within the gang culture... and with the African-American population in New York State prisons being the largest, the gangs will reflect that. In California, for example, because of the Mexican population, the Mexican Mafia (Sureños, Nuestra Familia) are the power groups. With the Hispanic population growing in New York State, these groups are starting to become more visible in our state. The largest ethnic group in the area will dictate what type of gangs you see.

The staying power of many local Bloods sets—despite scores of gang sweeps and crackdowns over the years—has been remarkable.

The biggest trend in New York State has been the influence of hybrid gangs—these groups are known and represent in their cities only... They represent local housing projects, parks, city blocks, and streets.... Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and obviously the boroughs of New York all have a heavy presence of local territorial hybrid gangs with nontraditional names like Wave Gang, 4 Block, YGz....Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Washington Heights, you name it... they all are seeing a rise in hybrid gangs that are not connected to the traditional "super-gangs" (Bloods, Crips, Kings, etc.).

Kevin Deutsch: During my reporting In New York City and its suburbs, I've found that the Bloods and Crips are likely the largest gangs in the region, with each boasting dozens of sets across the five boroughs and Long Island. The Bloods appear to have more members, due to especially high membership rates in and around low-income housing projects in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, as well as on Rikers Island. The Bloods boast higher membership numbers largely because of their decades-old presence in impoverished pockets of the city—areas that have withstood several waves of gentrification. The staying power of many local Bloods sets—despite scores of gang sweeps and crackdowns over the years—has been remarkable. Collectively, however, the number of young men belonging to independent neighborhood cliques and crews still outnumber Bloods and Crips. They are so abundant, and densely spread across the region, that it's difficult to say which of them is the largest in terms of membership.

How do the gangs affect the neighborhoods, schools and other institutions where they're active?
Barrett: Gangs provide protection, belonging, and respect. They have replaced the traditional family. They obviously rule on intimidation and fear. Kids today believe in power by numbers and have two choices: join the power group or form a group to go against the power group. As far as the neighborhoods, usually gang-related graffiti increase and property values decrease. Poverty plays a major role in the formation of gangs and neighborhoods reflect the poverty... neglected homes, shuttered buildings, etc. Schools become more violent, metal detectors become the norm, increased security and after school issues (fights, etc) ripple back to the community.

Deutsch: A gang's effect on a neighborhood can vary widely, but residents generally say their impact is overwhelmingly negative. Members and associates of local gangs benefit from drug-dealing proceeds and other illicit rackets in these communities, while those not affiliated with the gang generally see less economic opportunity due to that gang's presence in their neighborhood. Open air drug markets—the cornerstone of New York's urban underworld economy—drive away law-abiding small business owners and entrepreneurs searching for new properties. They also hurt sales at existing neighborhood businesses, putting a tremendous strain on local economies. The more successful a gang's drug operation, the more the legitimate, legal economy around them tends to suffer. Schools in the community also suffer, because the gangs look to them as centers of recruitment. In my reporting, I've found that the larger presence a gang has in a given community, the lower the graduation rate will be at local schools.

What kind of involvement do these gangs have in the drug trade, and how do they run their operations?
Barrett: Because of the social issues described above: broken homes, poverty, etc., drug sales have become the leading source of income for gangs. Heroin has replaced crack cocaine as the drug of choice, high-grade marijuana now sells for $20 a gram, MDMA (Molly), crack... all are prevalent and bring in good money. [Drugs are packaged at] weed houses, trap houses.... Soldiers hit the blocks, money filters up the food chain, same game as before.

When a territorial infraction occurs, the offending crew is often targeted for retaliation in drive-by shootings or walk-up assassinations.

Obviously guns have become the equalizer and the homicides and shootings in urban communities reflect this. Community guns (placed in areas such as under stoops, mailboxes, etc) are used and passed around. A high percentage of the shootings in urban communities are connected to drug gangs fighting over territory and turf wars. Prison gangs such as Sureños (Mexican Mafia) still control the flow of drugs on the streets and tax dealers for selling in their hoods. Their street soldiers will filter the proceeds back to the prisons... California is huge with this.

Deutsch: New York City gangs generally control outdoor drug markets and associated locations (stash houses, shooting galleries, crack dens, etc.) in communities with high heroin and cocaine addiction rates. A Bloods set I tracked in Queens, for example, controls drug markets in several housing projects in the Rockaways by using runners, lookouts, and touts on designated corners or near specific buildings where they keep larger stashes of drugs. They run their operations like a legitimate business, giving discounts to their best customers, using promotions like two-for-one vials or baggies to increase daily sales and attract new customers, and utilizing word-of-mouth advertising about their products' potency. They use force—and the threat of force—to keep rival gangs and start-up crews out of their territory.

When a territorial infraction occurs, the offending crew is often targeted for retaliation in drive-by shootings or walk-up assassinations. In my reporting, I found that this particular Bloods set and others used rape as a weapon to control civilian populations in territories they control, not unlike occupying armies. An enemy gangster's girlfriend or sister might be sexually assaulted; or a would-be snitch's niece raped, in order to send a message to those working against the gang, or considering doing so.

Finally, who's calling the shots here? How are these organizations making decisions?
Deutsch: Most of the Bloods and Crips leaders I interviewed in the city exerted a significant amount of control over their respective sets. The gangs resemble paramilitary organizations in terms of their hierarchical structures. While some sets are less rigid than others when it comes to chain of command, younger members generally take orders from mid-level soldiers, who answer directly to the gang's highest-ranking members/leaders. This kind of command structure tends to inoculate set leaders from legal exposure at the street level, ensuring that younger members carry out shootings, assaults, on-the-ground drug deals, and other gang-related actions at their behest. Of course, the leaders were once low-ranking gangsters themselves, putting in work at the behest of their superiors. The younger members of today's gangs tend to view their set leaders with respect, even awe, and aspire to exert the same kind of power over their fellow gangsters one day.

Barrett: Traditional, powerful super gangs like MS13 and Sureños still have that mindset and have that military set-up... soldiers, lieutenants, generals. But with the rise of the hybrid gangs, that's losing its momentum. These kids operate off of emotion, and if someone in their group gets shot... it's eye for an eye. They used to have to get permission to retaliate and answer to someone, [but] not today... It's the wild, wild west. These young kids have no fear and older heads see that... they don't care about someone's status, the guns have empowered a 13-year-old to pull out on a 25-year-old.

Also, federal RICO charges are now being instituted with street gangs in the hood, and that dynamic is affecting their actions. Loyalty is just a tattoo! The more loose-knit version of gangs is now here. Some gangs still have shot callers, big homies, OGs that oversee and maintain day-to-day operations. [That's] more so in the prison system, where accountability is more frequent. Most hybrid groups have no formal hierarchy and sometimes it's just the craziest individual who wields the most respect.

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