Rethinking Justice: “Everyone is Not in a Gang”


Commentary Ruth Hoffman Lach

My introduction to police brutality occurred when I was teaching at Westbury High School in the early 90’s and my students told me about their experiences. I never again assumed anything about a uniformed officer. I was introduced to gangs at the same time. Although several of my students were gang members, I never felt threatened by any of them. In over 20 years of working with adolescents, there have been fewer than five times when I have met a gang member who didn’t treat me with respect and courtesy. The vast majority of gang members were raised by hard-working parents who loved them and taught them right from wrong; they are not sociopaths. More than one of them has told me that their career goal (if they survive to adulthood) is to join the military or become a police officer.

They see the military and police force for what they really are: gangs that are legalized and respected. They all know that the fastest way to get a swarm of cops to arrive with lights and sirens is to call in an officer down, because police have each other’s backs. (The differences between the military, police, and gangs is not the topic of this article, and I am in no way suggesting that the military or police are no better than a drug cartel. However, membership in the either provides safety and belonging through very public displays, and that similarity is not overlooked by adolescents.)

In 2010, while traveling for a psychology conference, a former Marine and I shared a hotel bar table with the best view of the basketball game. At one point, he said that the thing about being a Marine was that if he were ever in a fight in “any bar anywhere in this country,” all he would have to do is yell “BOO-YAH!” and five guys would have his back. It was a perfect illustration of the reason that adolescents join gangs: the need to feel safe, and the need to belong. These are fundamental human needs, along with food, shelter, sleep, health, family. I was struck then by the absurdity of trying to eliminate gangs. Try calling for the elimination of the Marines and see what happens, I thought.

On April 8 of this year, before the lynching of George Floyd, I read about the truce declared between rival gangs in Cape Town, South Africa, in response to the hunger caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. ( rld-africa-52205158/how-coronavirus-inspired-a-gangland-trucein-south-africa) I was delighted, but not surprised. I have long thought about addressing gang violence by giving gangs responsibility for supporting their neighborhoods. As we consider ways to address excessive policing, we can learn from our South African siblings.

Anyone who has studied human or animal behavior can tell you that the best way to eliminate an undesired behavior is to figure out what purpose it is serving, introduce an alternative behavior that serves the same purpose, and then reinforce or reward the desired behavior while ignoring the undesired one.

Any attempt to change behavior by relying exclusively on punishment only results in the development of additional behaviors aimed at avoiding punishment, rather than eliminating the undesired behavior. (Exhibit A: speed limits and radar detectors) If we want to reduce gang violence, we need to figure out what purpose it serves, and find a replacement behavior that will serve that purpose. Making that determination is beyond the scope of this essay, but I suggest that in addition to providing safety Commentary Ruth Hoffman Lach and belonging, the other need that gang membership meets is providing a feeling of accomplishment. If we can channel that energy into something constructive, we can create positive partnerships between gangs and HPD, reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls, reduce crime, and save the city money.

Gangs already have their established territories. Rather than fighting them on that, let’s make them responsible for taking care of their territories. Every gang member I have ever known has been able to recall at least one time that they did not have a place to play, were not allowed to play, or did not feel safe playing in their neighborhood. They have all expressed concern for their younger siblings, cousins, and neighbors, saying they don’t want the younger ones to have to go through what they did, or to have to turn to gangs the way they have, but they also feel powerless to do anything about it. Let’s give them that chance.

The reward structure would be determined through consultation with the gangs – because a reward is only a reward if it is valued by the recipient. If we ask the youth, I’m sure they will tell us what reward they would consider motivational.

The good news is that we already have several of organizations in place: Shape Community Center, Meals on Wheels, Rebuilding Together Houston, Legacy Clinic, and Plant It Forward are just a few. Partnerships with such programs would provide training and mentorship for youth to learn marketable skills, which would benefit everyone. More importantly, it would foster relationships between groups, agencies, and communities. Relationships are where transformation happens, and transformation is the goal.

While this idea may sound farfetched, even crazy, I have to ask, how is the current system working? How well are we providing for the needs of our youth and communities, now? What is the worst thing that could happen? When I look at our young people – all of them, what I see is amazing promise and potential. The difference between the ones who become model citizens and the ones who don’t is determined by which ones have their basic needs met and which ones don’t. It’s that simple. We have a choice. We can continue beating our heads against the wall, hoping for a different outcome from the same system, or we can tear down the walls, get outside the boxes, and create a new, better way. I know that ideas like this raise a million questions in the minds of community leaders and administrators.

I know that jumping off into something new and unknown often seems reckless, unwise, and doomed to failure; but we have come to this place precisely because we have been adhering to old paradigms, the way it’s always been done, what worked when we were kids. It’s not working. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it never did –not for children of color, bi-racial children, bi-lingual children, children from single parent families, children with disabilities, LGBTQ children, poor children…… most children. We can do better. We have to. We owe it to them. 

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