The Gangs of America

In the late 1980’s America seemed suddenly to become conscious of “gangs.” Down in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, South Central and Compton were ground zero. But LA was not alone. The daily experience of the solid citizens in all major metropolitan areas changed. Young people began to dress in outlandish ways, flying flags of allegiance to blue or red — the Crips or the Bloods. Few may now remember how it felt at the time, but those new names held powerful sway over the lives of much of the nation.

A residue remains. The urge to associate with a color is still powerful. In the 1980s, young adults did it through the hue of their do-rag, the curbs on which they stood, and the hieroglyphs they sprayed on blank walls. Traveling the streets, one got the sense that, if only one could read all the signs, each person with a bandana was hiding behind a tissue of badges that ranged from finger signs, to clothing, to hairstyle, to posture. Everything was a sign to be read, because in the gang world, allegiance was a life-or-death issue. Being neutral was not an option — you flew red or blue colors if you wanted to stay safe. And then, you stuck with your kind, those of the same allegiance. Not in a gang? You kept your head down.

Political America after 2000, the nation of Red and Blue, fights now like the Bloods and Crips are fabled to have. There is an argument raging even now about how polarized ordinary people really are. Just as not all young people were in gangs in the 1980s, “red” and “blue” may widely miss the mark for most people. Maybe it’s just the pundits and so-called opinion leaders who are “polarized.” Regardless, things in public as well as private life have gotten ugly, with anger becoming the norm and people closing themselves off from others who aren’t like them.

There remains an undeniable and inescapable urge to declare allegiance and proclaim affiliation. You see it everywhere — people dressed in uniform. It’s as if people’s actions no longer count for much — what matters is whether the badge of allegiance is worn.

Take something as simple as the flag lapel pin. Shortly after 9/11, this was a modest way of showing patriotism. But as the unanimity of our collective response wore off, the flag lapel pin became a way of proclaiming one’s associations. Indeed, for this purpose, the flag alone was inadequate. Because, for some, it meant “my country right or wrong.” For others, it meant, “I may dissent, but I love this land.” No one wanted to be confused with the wrong side. So there are new flag-based gewgaws that proclaim our affiliations — the flag is now joined by the words “Peace is Patriotic” or “These colors don’t run.”

There are other badges, that aren’t so political but that, when added together, proclaim our affiliations just as loudly. Going through my day, I decode the badges of those I meet. Every ornament means something. Yellow ribbon magnets, rainbow stickers, WWJD bracelets, homeless shelter walk-a-thon T-shirts — they all seem to say Crip or Blood, Blue or Red.

Clever sociologists tell me that people have always taken status cues from others’ dress. There’s nothing special about these signs and wearing them doesn’t make you a gang member. But, things seem to matter just a little bit more than that. As if the team you’re on circumscribes your world and dictates those to whom you may speak. As if you’d better sport these badges or suffer the consequences.

During the gang heyday, it wasn’t strength that was admired in a young street warrior. It was being “crazy,” willing to do anything. Zealotry was the coin of the realm. Watching the Internet discussions after the presidential debates, you get the sense that it’s zealotry, again, that counts most to Team Red and Team Blue. But, whoever wins the battle in November will have a tough time winning the war to govern. Zealotry will make it near impossible to lead roughly half the nation, unless we somehow find a way to call a truce.

The other night a political placard — the most overt of the Red and Blue gang-signs — was ripped down from my yard and strewn in the bushes. Replacing it, I recalled how I used to paint over the wall outside my garden apartment in Los Angeles every week or so: someone would have scrawled a tag on it.

If I keep my head down and stick with my kind, maybe it’ll be OK. But, just maybe, it’ll get worse.

Let us find the courage to lay down our colors.

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