A new strategy to end gang violence: classifying certain offenses committed in the context of gang violence as acts of terrorism.

AuthorHarnsgate, Colin M.

    The number of Americans killed within the United States every year from gang violence far surpasses the number of Americans killed at home and abroad in terrorist attacks or in combat with terrorist groups. (1) Both federal and state governments have various laws that seek to curb gang activity and provide punishment for crimes that take place in the context of gang violence. (2) Gang violence in America over the past decade has been taking place against the dramatic backdrop of the global war on terror. (3) The events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) triggered an enormous expenditure of resources from the federal government to combat terrorism and prevent its spread abroad and domestically. (4) These terrorist organizations swell their ranks through recruitment of disaffected youth and young adults. (5) Given the amount of gun violence in American cities that results from gang warfare and shares many of the characteristics of what the government considers terrorism in its foreign and domestic capacities, should the federal government consider classifying violent gang offenses as acts of terrorism? (6)

    This Note will explore the question of whether the Federal Government should consider violent gang offenses as acts of domestic terrorism. (7) In Part II, this Note will explore the history of American street gangs, briefly touching on gangs that developed in the early twentieth century and before, and survey the development of domestic terrorism. (8) Part III will explain the current designation of foreign and domestic terrorism under American law by exploring federal and state statutes and case law, addressing how foreign nations and international bodies define domestic terrorism, and assessing the present organizational and demographic status of American street gangs. (9) Part IV will return to the original issue of whether certain gang activity should legally be considered terrorism, will discuss potential barriers to accomplishing this, and whether those barriers can be overcome. (10) Part IV will also look at the previously discussed classifications of terrorist organizations by the international community to determine whether there is any precedent for this sort of action. (11) Part V will conclude that it is necessary, in the interest of crime prevention and insurance of the general welfare, to classify violent gang activity as terrorism and subject gang members who commit violent offenses to federal terrorism laws. (12)


    1. Charting the Development of American Street Gangs

      Some of the earliest gangs in the United States took the form of pirates and bandits in the late eighteenth century. (13) On and along the Mississippi River, a symbol of American trade and commercial progress, criminal activity flourished as settlers began to expand across the continent. (14) Even prior to the American Revolution, rival neighborhood gangs in Puritan Boston would confront each other every year and brawl after the annual Guy Fawkes Day riots. (15) Though such riots took place in other cities, the Boston riots were infamous for being the most violent, fueled by the most intense religious fervor. (16) The Mississippi River gangs and Boston riots were typical of gang activity in colonial America and in the early years of the Republic. (17) Though urban street gangs were in existence in the years after the American Revolution, their organization was minimal and their development did not truly flourish until the early nineteenth century. (18)

      New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles highlight the emergence of street gangs in America. (19) In the Northeast, the "squalor" and "overcrowding" of major cities sparked early American gang activity, partly as a result of the coalescence of different immigrant groups living side by side in poor neighborhoods. (20) During this period, immigrants were housed in filthy public tenements and the social services known to American society today did not exist. (21)

      In the Midwest, Chicago saw the first notable gangs formed in the years just before the Civil War, amongst many of the same immigrant groups and for the same reasons as they did in New York. (22) Though Chicago's early gangs were comprised mainly of white immigrant groups, the influx of black southerners to the city in the early twentieth century changed the dynamic of not only the city's culture, but also its gang distribution. (23) As was often the case during the aftermath of black migration to northern cities, the already established white gangs resisted the black newcomers in their midst. (24)

      Gang emergence in Los Angeles shared many of the same characteristics as Chicago and New York in that it involved fresh contact between vastly different cultures that precipitated gang formation. (25) Unique to Los Angeles and other western cities was the early presence of Mexican barrios. (26) Whereas poverty was a central reason for gang emergence in other areas of the country, the gangs that emerged from the barrios did so under a banner of cultural solidarity. (27) In the 1940s, Mexican-American ethnic identity was further reinforced by the arrest and subsequent trial of Mexican gang members for murder and by riots targeting male Latino youths. (28)

      It was during the 1940s that black migration to Los Angeles reached its peak, adding another historically marginalized group to a city with already very visible racial tensions. (29) Though black gangs originally formed in the 1950s and early 1960s to protect their communities from "[w]hite intimidation and violence," the suburbanization of white residents left already established black gangs with no common threat and led to violent conflict among them. (30) When Los Angeles came out on the other side of the turbulent and racially charged 1960s, the social justice causes and rousing leaders that had instilled self-respect and social awareness in L.A.'s black youth were gone. (31)

      A specific focus on certain notable gangs through American history sheds light on what these gangs were and their specific type of criminal organization. (32) One of the first gangs of notoriety to be established in New York City was the Forty Thieves Gang. (33) This gang resembled a modern street gang in that it was very territorial and protective, but it was also an advanced criminal organization that resembled the twentieth century Mafia. (34) Not only did the gang seek to maximize profit through standard criminal activity, but it also became involved in politics. (35) Two New York gangs in the 1840s and 1850s became known not only for their petty criminal enterprise, but also for their willingness to fight each other in brutal street brawls: the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. (36) In July of 1857, these two gangs were involved in a notorious fight that turned into a riot and became known as the "Dead Rabbits Riot," involving one thousand people and leaving twelve dead. (37)

      Emerging in the last decades of the nineteenth century was one of the most notorious gangs in New York's history--the Five Points Gang. (38) This gang, at its apex, had as many as 1,200 members and its former ranks included gangsters Paul Kelly and Al Capone. (39) Mainly an Italian gang, the Five Points Gang was known for its decade long feud with the Eastman Gang, a Jewish gang that Monk Eastman led. (40)

      Chicago's earliest notable gangs were known as the "Dukies" and the "Shielders," Irish gangs that engaged in petty thievery, but had nowhere near the political influence that New York gangs of the same period possessed. (41) Chicago's earliest black gangs arose as they did in many other cities: as a self-defensive reaction to white gangs. (42) The Vice Lords, a black Chicago gang in the 1960s, is a revealing example of an organization that grew out of Chicago public housing and throughout the 1960s attempted to straddle the line between gang and political movement, often encompassing elements of both. (43) Starting off as a gang chiefly concerned with turf protection and drug distribution, the Vice Lords became enveloped in the political struggles of the 1960s and the nature of the organization changed from a street gang into a socially conscious group, focusing on community empowerment and improvement. (44) Despite the organization's move towards community development rather than desecration, the Vice Lords remained largely a street gang through the 1980s and played a significant role in Chicago gang-related crimes in the late period of that decade. (45)

      As the chaos of the 1960s ensued around the country, two gangs in Los Angeles emerged that would come to epitomize black-on-black gang warfare: the Bloods and the Crips. (46) Though humble in its beginnings and objectives, the Crips grew over the course of the 1970s and not only incorporated other gangs in Los Angeles, but also spread to other California cities. (47) The Bloods emerged as a direct reaction to the fast-growing Crips and quickly became a visible and powerful rival (48) Born on the streets of Compton, the Bloods encompassed many non-Crip Compton gangs as well as others in the L.A. area that feuded with the well-established Crips. (49) With the Bloods and the Crips at the forefront of L.A. crime, gang-related homicides in the city between 1979 and 1994 numbered 7,288. (50) This number was high enough for the American Medical Association to label gang violence a "major public health problem." (51)

      The rise of the American street gang transcends ethnicity and geography. (52) Though gangs throughout American history often traced their identity along ethnic lines, uniquely American circumstances, such as racial segregation coupled with mass-immigration, affected their evolution and consequential structure. (53) As will be discussed in Part III of this Note, decades old street gangs continue to terrorize communities across America and their influence is beyond what the gangs of old could have imagined. (54)

    2. Domestic Terrorism through the...

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