Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gangs and Governing

When we govern through crime we allow crime (all crime or more typically some particularly frightening sort) to become an invisible thread that binds together larger and larger assemblies of heterogeneous elements. This creates power because it allows resources and social meanings to flow through and organize ever larger systems, attracting more resources and meanings. Ultimately this also creates chaos and suffering as the ever growing system embodies greater and greater levels of heterogeneity and thus a mounting surplus of ungovernability.

Today's New York Times provides an account of sorts of this cycle in action, in a story by Solomon Moore on gang crime and policies that target gangs for more policing and prison. The first part of the cycle is illustrated by the continuing spread of "tough" anti-gang measures that began in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Mobilized around public outrage at some tragic product of an incident said to be "gang related" these laws increase the level of police attention to young people suspected of gang involvement by creating police lists of gang members and emphasizing heavy use of arrest to break up and interrupt gang activities. They also target the same arrested young people for longer prison sentences. In North Carolina, a recent "gang incident" in which a 13 year old "bystander" was killed, has provided the catalyst to enact a similar body of laws there.

The second part of the cycle is evident in the opposition to such gang policies that is growing in Los Angeles, the place where the current wave of gang laws began. As critics in and out of the law enforcement system are recognizing, these laws immediately increase the cultural power of gangs by pulling in marginal youth who are treated as gang members by police and by alienating the typically minority communities in which these tactics are being deployed against cooperation with police.

The speed with which we can turn into the second part of the cycle and more importantly turn out of the cycle before the levels of chaos and suffering get to large depends on the mobilization of effective counter information about gangs. An excellent source of that counter knowledge in recent years has been Justice Strategies, a progressive think tank on crime and justice issues. Justice Strategies, and Judith Greene one of their principals, have worked to get the public to re-examine the gang frame and the policies that have come with it.

We in California should take the lead on disaggregating the bundle of heterogeneity that we call gangs.

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