[Editorial Note: The following overview of the suburban gang trend was first printed in the Dallas Morning News on January 14, 1996 and then syndicated on the Knight-Ridder syndicate. Some points of consideration: 1) The use of the word “terrorism” was selected carefully as it was the opinion of the author that new gang variants would eventually engage in random acts of terrorism. 2) The Straight Edge youth subculture itself is not a gang and actually embraces non-violent themes, sexual abstinence and resistance to drugs and alcohol. Nor do most Straight Edge youths embrace neo-Nazi/skinhead ideologies. The Salt Lake Gang noted in the article below simply took on the Straight Edge facade as do other gang variants take on other facades as noted in Chapter 11 of SUBURBAN GANGS–THE AFFLUENT REBELS. 3. The number of youths in gangs still hovers around just under a million according to Federal studies.]
For the first time in US history, kids from affluent homes are forming their own deadly gangs in suburbs and upscale communities in growing numbers. This same terrifying trend is presenting itself straight across Europe from England to Switzerland to Hungary.
In the late 1980s I watched gangs unnervingly form in my own Dallas suburb as well as countless other prosperous communities across the US. Many assumed that urban gangs were expanding, but the facts were that most affluent youths were forming their own gangs without inner-city gang influence. As a father, this prompted frank discussions with our own three kids. My response as an independent investigative journalist was to find out who these new gangs were and how to stop them from forming.
In 1992, we experienced our first drive-by shooting at our local high school where 93% of the students go on to college. That same year, national surveys revealed that almost 20% of non-urban youths considered gangs in their neighborhoods a significant threat to their welfare. Just a couple of months ago after one of my son’s football games, two suburban kids associated with gangs drew guns, pointing them at each others head-not in a dark, blighted neighborhood, but in front of a local pizza parlor.
Today, it’s common for 50-250 gang members to reside in the average middle- or upper-middle-class community in both large metroplexes and small towns. For example, in three of the surrounding Dallas suburbs, the stats are: Plano 150; Richardson 100; Farmers Branch 150.Gang related homicides have occurred in such diverse affluent communities as Appleton, WI; Arlington , TX, and Harrisburg, PA. According to juvenile officers, the affluent gang growth curve is moving upwards with no end in sight. So who are these kids?
Virtually every youth I interviewed in eleven countries over the last eight years came from a home with one of the following: divorce, separation, physical or sexual abuse, or one of the parents is severely dysfunctional-with an emphasis on severe. Mom and Dad just having a little rough spot doesn’t qualify. Ruptured/broken homes often act as a magnifying glass on their rebellion, colliding with their anguish, loneliness, frustration, fear, etc. That these moneyed youths go to the best schools and live in sleepy communities resistant to other kinds of crime doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.
Their profile doesn’t excuse their crimes, but what they do is statistically predictable. In the mid-1980s I predicted that gangs would appear in affluent communities because the number of kids in deteriorating homes from upscale neighborhoods was skyrocketing. By the late 1980s, the numbers of these youths reached a critical mass, and they found each other. Bang. Now you have gangs. Not simply kids with a nervy subculture edge, but those who commit crimes.
Numerous affluent gang types and variants have appeared. Some, like the Down for Life gang in Minneapolis, specialize in burglary and engage in shoot-outs. Some attach themselves to extremist ideologies like skinhead gangs. In my book on suburban gangs I predicted that leftist/anarchist gangs would surface, similar to those in Europe. Now they’re here. What’s a leftist gang? They’re like the flip-side of a skinhead gang. In Salt Lake City kids from up to $1,000,000 homes joined the Straight-Edged gang, broke into furniture stores, shredded leather couches-protesting the use of animal hides, and took to the streets with clubs and chains doing combat with other gangs. Because affluent youth gangs are an international trend, they are now inspiring each other across the Atlantic through conduits like the music subculture and the Internet.
In a 1993 lecture to Swiss police, I explained that gangs were likely to appear in Switzerland because of their rising divorce rate and the appearance of specific types of raw-edged graffiti. I returned in 1995 and gangs were a perceivable trend. That’s right, in Switzerland which doesn’t have run-down urban communities. So what can be done?
As a lay volunteer working through a local Dallas church, we initiated a strategy that resulted in what is believed to be an unprecedented success story. Over a period of six years we worked with over 400 acutely at-risk youths from a neighborhood loaded with gangs. During those six years, not one youth joined a gang, even though one-third of the kids had actually seen shootings and stabbings. What did we do? We neutralized the Missing Protector Factor (MPF) in each of their lives.
Simply stated the MPF is when a youth is faced with a crisis and he/she doesn’t have an adult to call upon for help. The MPF was first identified by Dr. Maria Kopp, a noted Hungarian sociologist, and when layered on top of a shattered home is the one skeleton key factor that dramatically increases a youth’s vulnerability to gang recruitment. To neutralize the MPF, we gave at-risk youths who weren’t in gangs our personal phone numbers and committed to be there for them, night or day, if they called.
The only qualifications of a protector are: 1. Ability to relate to a youth 2. Live close to a youth and see him/her at least once a month 3. Maintain regular weekly phone contact. Protectors don’t have to have the ability to solve all of a youth’s problems. Parents can’t do that. Protectors just need to be there and try to help. No other prevention strategy has this track record in the US or Europe. Affluent gangs will be with us long into the next century. The choice is preemptive action now, or engaging a new uncontrolled form of terrorism in the future-the very near future.