AGGRESSION IN GROUPS AND
Are gangs always violent?
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
Conﬂict is a principal driver for sustaining gang life. The extant research on street gangs has
regularly shown a strong, positive relationship between gangs and violence, existing across places
and over time (Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018; Papachristos, 2013; Pyrooz et al., 2016; Valasik et al.,
2017). Starting with Thrasher’s (1927) foundational work in Chicago, the last century’s research
has revealed that street gangs thrive in areas where social discord, perceived or real, between
groups is present (Howell, 2015; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018; Papachristos, 2009; Taniguchi
et al., 2011). Two vital ingredients for the establishment and preservation of street gangs are: the
threat of violence and actual conﬂict. Being a victim of violence, or the fear of being a victim
of violence, facilitates the group bonds, promotes solidarity, and increases cohesion among
members (Decker et al., 2014; Hagan, 1993; Hennigan and Spanovic, 2012; Pyrooz et al., 2013;
Wood, 2014). For example, the threat of being attacked by members of a rival group encourages
at- risk youth to join a street gang in their community, strengthens solidarity among gang
members, and provides an outlet for members to engage in gang violence (Hughes and Short,
2014; Klein and Crawford, 1967; Melde and Esbensen, 2011; Papachristos, 2009; Short and
Strodtbeck, 1965). Additionally, there is a myth- making quality to gang- related violence as
incidents are told, retold and embellished, with each telling increasing a gang’s street reputation/
status and strengthening the group’s identity, while also having the activities of the group be
exaggerated by the press or on social media (Patton et al., 2019; Esbensen et al., 2001; Felson,
2006; Gravel et al., 2018; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018). The process of socializing new members
into a gang is facilitated by experiences with violence that are shared by the group, allowing for
the gang’s mythology to be integrated into these individuals’ identities (Decker, 1996; Henni-
gan and Spanovic, 2012). Over time, as more experiences are shared within the gang, members
embrace and adhere more to the group’s mores, norms, and behaviours encouraging violence as
a means of resolving conﬂict (Anderson, 1999; Decker, 1996; Klein, 1995a; Short and Strodt-
beck, 1965). Studies routinely ﬁnd that when compared with non- gang members, including
other delinquent groups, gang members have a greater likelihood of participating in violent and
or/criminal acts, engage in intergroup violence, carry and possess a ﬁrearm or weapon, and be
at an increased risk of violent victimization (Battin et al., 1998; Decker, 1996; Melde and
Esbensen, 2013; Taylor et al., 2007; Thornberry et al., 2003; Wu and Pyrooz, 2016).
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
This chapter investigates the complexities of group violence, focusing speciﬁcally on the
importance of violence in the subculture of street gangs (e.g. social identity). The chapter begins
by unpacking what gang- related violence involves. The risk/protective factors that contribute
to an individual participating in gang- related violence or being violently victimized are then
discussed. This leads into a discussion about gang members’ exposure to being a victim of viol-
ence, with attention to gender differences. Then, the two unique features, social and spatial
dependence, which delineate gang- related violence from non- gang violence are discussed. The
chapter ends by comparing conventional street gangs to the emerging phenomenon of Alt-
Right gangs (e.g. racist skinheads, Proud Boys) and how their appropriation of violence is
analogous to conventional street gangs (see Reid and Valasik, 2018a; 2020; Valasik and Reid,
What is gang- related violence?
Despite recent declines in overall violence, gang- related violence accounts for a substantial
amount of the overall violence in large metropolitan areas (Papachristos, 2014; Petersen, 2016).
For instance, gang- related homicides account for 30 to 50 per cent of lethal violence in urban
centres (Howell et al., 2011; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018). However, tension still exists about
how to classify criminal acts as being gang- related (see Esbensen et al. 2001; Klein and Maxson
2006; Maxson, 1999; Maxson and Klein, 1990; 1996; Rosenfeld et al., 1999). Gang- related
crimes have traditionally been described as being either motive- or member- based incidents. A
criminal act of violence that directly relates to gang- related activities (e.g. recruitment, retali-
ation, territoriality, etc.) satisﬁes the motive- based deﬁnition (Klein and Maxson, 1989; Maxson,
1999; Maxson et al., 1985; Maxson and Klein, 1990; 1996; 2002; Rosenfeld et al., 1999). Con-
versely, an act of violence where any participant, suspect or victim, is associated with a gang is
considered to be a gang- related crime under the afﬁliated- or member- based deﬁnition (Klein
and Maxson, 1989; Maxson, 1998; Maxson et al., 1985; Maxson and Klein, 1990; 1996; Rosen-
feld et al., 1999). Using a member- based deﬁnition errs on the side of inclusion of criminal
incidents that could be attributed to a motive (e.g. domestic dispute) that is unrelated to an
individual’s status as a gang member, “after all, gang members can and do act of their own
accord” (Papachristos, 2009, p. 86). In contrast, utilizing a motive- based deﬁnition samples “too
heavily on the dependent variable by capturing only those cases in which a group motive was
determined” (Papachristos, 2009, p. 86). Furthermore, if an act of gang violence satisﬁes the
motive- based deﬁnition then it would also meet the requirements of the member- based deﬁni-
tion, representing only a subsample of gang- related violence. Relying on only a subsample of
gang- related violence has the potential to ignore or exclude valuable information (see Pyrooz,
2012). Additionally, previous studies ﬁnd that regardless of employing either a motive- or
member- based deﬁnition to gang violence, the characteristics (e.g. offender, victim, location) in
a gang- related homicide are signiﬁcantly different than a non- gang incident, and comparison
between motive- or member- based deﬁnitions are essentially identical (Maxson and Klein,
1996). Beyond the theoretical importance of how gang violence is deﬁned by academia, there
are also practical implications to how police agencies and policymakers understand and react to
gang- related violence within any given jurisdiction (Rosenfeld et al., 1999).
Similarly, law enforcement classiﬁes gang- related violence by deﬁnitions that are analogous
to those just discussed. Under the “Chicago deﬁnition”, an incident is considered to be gang-
related only if the motivation driving the act is beneﬁcial to the gang as a group (e.g. recruit-
ment, retaliation, or territoriality). As such, the “Chicago deﬁnition” is restrictive since an
incident must satisfy the criteria of being dependent upon the group concerns of the gang for
Are gangs always violent?
that incident to be considered a gang- related crime (Decker and Curry, 2002). Conversely,
under the “Los Angeles deﬁnition” an incident is deﬁned as a gang- related offence if either the
victim or suspect is an actively afﬁliated member (see Maxson et al., 1985; Valasik et al., 2016)
of a street gang, or if the context of a criminal act is in line with gang activity (Klein and
Maxson, 2006). The deﬁnition employed by a law enforcement agency will impact the amount
of gang- related crime and violence recorded within a jurisdiction. For example, Maxson and
Klein (1990) ﬁnd that under the “Chicago deﬁnition” there is half as much gang- related viol-
ence compared with classifying incidents based upon the “Los Angeles deﬁnition”. Thus, it is
necessary to consider such a disparity when deciding the manner in which to address gang-
related violence within a municipality (Esbensen et al., 2001).
In the United States, there is a lack of consensus on the deﬁnition of gang violence across law
enforcement agencies. Due to the lack of a uniform deﬁnition, each jurisdiction (of which there
are over 18,000 in the US) may be counting gang violence in a different manner, making com-
parisons or even an accurate count of gang violence impossible (Decker and Pyrooz, 2010;
Rosenfeld et al., 1999). Additionally, the lack of deﬁnitional consensus between academics, law
enforcement, and policymakers on what is considered an act of gang- related violence makes it
difﬁcult to develop and adhere to meaningful public policies (Decker and Pyrooz, 2010;
Esbensen et al., 2001; Klein and Maxson, 2006). For example, how and which resources are
allocated to gang- related violence within a municipality will look very different based upon the
amount estimated. An underestimate of gang- related violence would leave communities vulner-
able to violence, while an overestimate of gang- related violence results in the wasting of valu-
able resources, which is not trivial for jurisdictions with limited ﬁnances. Lastly, deﬁnitional
vagueness also contributes to the publics’ fear of gangs and gang- related violence through media
depictions and how police agencies report gang- related crimes (Blasko et al., 2015; Esbensen et
al. 2001; Lane, 2002; Lane and Meeker, 2003).
Gang members’ risk factors
Another principal theme investigated by gang researchers is understanding why individuals
decide to join a gang. Prior studies have revealed that two main elements drive individuals
towards joining a gang. Circumstances that propel an individual towards gang life are termed
push risk factors. Motivations which attract an individual into becoming a gang member are
referred to as pull risk factors. Such risk factors that generally pull an individual into becom-
ing a gang member include the need to ﬁll a void, gain respect, and entertainment (Gibson
et al., 2012; Klein and Maxson, 2006; Moore, 1991; Sutton, 2017). Male gang members are
customarily seeking excitement and adventure, while female members are searching for a
familial group that is emotionally more satisfying and meaningful than what is provided by
their own kin (Klein and Maxson, 2006; Moore, 1991). It is not uncommon for there to be
domestic discord (e.g. violence or abuse) in gang members’ home life, or to reside in a non-
traditional household (e.g. female- headed household) (Hill et al., 1999; Thornberry et al.,
2003). Push factors that are a recurring theme in the extant literature that press individuals
into gang life are searching for a shared social identity (Decker, 1996; Hennigan and Spanovic,
2012), residing in an economically depressed community (Curry and Spergel, 1988; Hill et
al., 1999; Thornberry et al., 2003) and strong ﬁnancial incentives (Densley, 2013; Padilla,
1992; Stephenson, 2015). Probably the most important push risk factor that propels indi-
viduals into a becoming a gang member is the desire to feel safe and be protected from rival
groups or bullies in the local neighbourhood or from abusive family members (Hill et al.,
1999; Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
The existing gang literature has revealed that individuals associated with a gang are more
likely to engage in criminal activities (Katz et al., 2011; Pyrooz et al. 2016). Additionally, when
compared with non- gang members, gang- related crimes have a great likelihood of being more
serious in nature (Decker et al., 2008). These patterns are quite robust with multiple studies
using various methodological approaches revealing analogous ﬁndings. The majority of gang
research that focuses on violence tends to emphasize gang members’ role as the purveyor of
violence, ignoring the reality that gang members are also victims of violence. While studies
consistently reveal that gang members are more likely to participate in violent criminal acts,
gang members are also at signiﬁcantly greater risk of experiencing violent victimization (Wu and
Pyrooz, 2016). For example, in any given year, gang- related homicides account for 13 per cent
of total homicides in the United States. In large urban areas (i.e. population greater than 200,000)
they account for 20 per cent (Howell and Grifﬁths 2018). Even though gang researchers have
clearly ascertained that non- gang members have lower rates of victimization than gang members,
our knowledge of the social processes that increase gang members’ vulnerability of becoming a
victim of violence remain an understudied domain in gang research. One exception is the work
of Wu and Pyrooz (2016), which reveals that becoming a gang member (i.e. the selection
model) and actively associating with gang members (i.e. facilitation model) are both (i.e.
enhancement model) associated with gang members experiencing victimization at greater
frequencies. While, “gang membership increases the victimization beyond sources of selection”
it is important to keep in mind that gang members participating in acts of delinquency also make
it more likely for that gang member to be a victim (Wu and Pyrooz, 2016, p. 548).
Furthermore, as gang members abide by the norms of the gang, particularly to the acceptance
and use of violence, antagonistic situations where minor disrespect is presented (e.g. insults,
derogatory stares, etc.) may easily escalate into serious violence (Decker, 1996). As violence is
used as the default reaction in response to symbolic threats, maintaining one’s status and reputa-
tion reinforces these acts as “norms of reciprocity” (Papachristos 2009, p. 76). In fact, upon
analysing gang- related homicides in the city of Los Angeles, Klein and Maxson (1989, p. 224)
found that these “norms of reciprocity” were so central to gang life that gang- related violence
was almost three times more likely to be driven by fear of retaliation than any other type of
homicide. As violence between rival street gangs becomes intergenerational, younger members
are promptly supplied with an already established adversary to attack. With group solidarity
being a fundamental characteristic connected to gang- related violence, street gangs follow a
principle of collective responsibility in which any sole member is a representative of the entire
group (see Densley, 2013). Such that, if one gang member is attacked by a rival gang member
it is treated as if the entire gang is being assaulted by the entire rival gang. Thus, gang members
have greater levels of entitativity and tend to view any individual residing within a rival gang’s
territory as being associated with that rival gang, and viewed as a potential target for retaliatory
violence (see Vasquez et al. 2015). It is not surprising then that retaliatory gang- related violence
tends to spill over into the non- gang population. Leovy (2015, p. 206) observes this exact
phenomenon in South Central Los Angeles stating that “a black assailant looking to kill a gang
rival is looking before anything else, for another black male … a presumed combatant, con-
scripted into a dismal existence ‘outside the law’ whether he wanted to be or not.”
Compared with non- gang individuals, gang members increased involvement in criminal and
delinquent behaviours would produce lifestyle differences that could explain a gang member’s
greater risk of being a victim of violence (Gover et al., 2009; Peterson et al., 2004; Taylor et al.,
2007; 2008). Additionally, gang studies ﬁnd that an overlap prevails between both gang mem-
bership and criminal offending and criminal offending and victimization (Pyrooz et al., 2016;
Taylor et al., 2007; 2008). Through the transitive property, this suggests that gang membership
Are gangs always violent?
should be associated in a strong and positive direction with being violently victimized. In addi-
tion to the elements associated with a subculture of violence, there are other important risk
factors that make gang members more vulnerable to being victimized. These include character-
istics at the individual-, family- and school- level (Craig et al., 2002; Hill et al., 1999; Taylor et
al. 2007; 2008). For instance, at the individual- level, risk factors include the level of self- control
or demographic measures (e.g. gender, age, etc.) (see Sutton, 2017). At the family- level, char-
acteristics like the level of attachment an individual has to his parents or the degree of parental
monitoring are impactful (Taylor et al., 2007; 2008; Wu and Pyrooz, 2016). Lastly, at the
school- level, measures could include items such as commitment to school, level of academic
achievement, or school atmosphere (Craig et al., 2002; Sutton, 2017; Taylor et al., 2007).
Risk of victimization
Despite aggravating risk factors being present, the fact that gang members are associating with a
gang may make them a more suitable target for victimization (Gover et al., 2009; Peterson et al.,
2004; Taylor et al., 2007). Prior studies have highlighted that contextual characteristics may
increase the likelihood of gang member violent victimization. For example, loitering in places
where there is greater accessibility to alcohol and drugs signiﬁcantly ampliﬁes the propensity of
gang member being victimized (Taylor et al., 2007). Being involved in violent and criminal acts
also increases a gang member’s vulnerability of being a victim of violence as there are a greater
number of situations where exposure to a motivated offender (i.e. a rival gang member) is
exacerbated and the number of capable guardians is diminished (Taylor et al., 2007; 2008; Wu
and Pyrooz, 2015). There is also a greater likelihood that gang members abstain from contacting
law enforcement agencies about being the victim of crime so as to not make their gang status
known or attract attention to illegal activities they are involved in; either of which could increase
their risk of being victimized (Barnes et al., 2012). Additionally, the ongoing cycle of retaliatory
violence between rival gang members only fosters the belief that violence is a regular part of
everyday gang life (Katz et al., 2011; Papachristos, 2009).
Gang members, however, may actually have greater vulnerability to being violently victim-
ized by their fellow gang members than from rivals. For instance, initiations (i.e. being “jumped
in” to the gang) are common occurrences where gang recruits endure violent victimization
from veteran members (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Short and Strodtbeck, 1965; Klein and
Maxson, 2006; Vigil, 2003). Gang members are also at risk of violent victimization if they
decide to leave their group (Decker, 1996; Decker and Van Winkle, 1996; Vigil, 2003). Gang
members may also use violence to strengthen norms in the gang or to enforce the group’s rules
(Decker, 1996; Taylor et al., 2007). Unfortunately, a common reason that motivates many
individuals to join a gang is the desire for protection and to achieve a sense of safety in their local
neighbourhood (Hill et al., 1999; Katz et al., 2011; Klein and Maxson, 2006; Short and
Violent victimization within the gang is not equally distributed across men and women.
Studies have revealed that signiﬁcant differences exist in both the type of victimization and an
individual’s vulnerability to being victimized based on the gender of the gang member (Miller,
1998; Sutton, 2017). Research discerns that prior to becoming a gang member, female recruits
endure excessive amounts of victimization (Bell, 2009; Fleisher and Krienert, 2004; Moore,
1991; Sutton, 2017). For instance, it is common for parents or guardians of female members to
have problems with substance abuse (Peterson and Howell, 2013; Sutton, 2017). Additionally,
female gang members are also more likely to experience abuse in their home, both sexual and
physical, either from older male family members or acquaintances (Fleisher, 1998; Hunt and
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
Joe- Laidler, 2001; Miller, 1998, 2001; Moore and Hagedorn, 2001; Schalet et al., 2003; Sutton,
2017). Besides residing in unstable homes, many female gang members live in communities that
have greater levels of socio- economic deprivation and community isolation, which act as a push
risk factor that encourages them to join a gang (Gibson et al., 2012; Sutton, 2017). While female
recruits seek out gangs to serve as a refuge, protecting them from being victimized by loved ones
or to avoid family pressures, research clearly reveals that such safety is not to be found (Gibson
et al., 2012; Sutton 2017). In fact, female gang members are even more vulnerable to being
victims of violence and, in particular, sexual abuse, assault and rape by male fellow gang members
(Gibson et al., 2012; Sutton, 2017).
The predominantly male- orientation of gangs makes them hypermasculine groups (Chesney-
Lind et al., 1996; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018; Swart, 1991). Not surprisingly, the prevalence of
unequal gender norms within a gang results in a power imbalance between a gang’s female and
male members (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018; Hayward and Honeg-
ger, 2014; Peterson et al., 2004). For instance, in gangs where males are in greater numbers,
female gang members are then relegated to subservient roles and treated as inferiors. Further-
more, within these gangs, female members are thought of as nothing more than objects to be
sexually exploited (Gibson et al., 2012; Sutton, 2017; Ulloa et al., 2012). As such, a female
initiate in a predominantly male gang is more likely to be sexually assaulted or be required to
have sex with numerous male members (Gibson et al., 2012; Gover et al., 2009; Hayward and
Honegger, 2014). Additionally, these female members are also signiﬁcantly more likely to
endure intimate partner violence and sexual assault (Gibson et al., 2012; Gover et al., 2009).
Gang studies have clearly indicated that gender differences exist in not only the types of vic-
timization experienced by male and female members but also their levels of vulnerability to
victimization. While the primary risk factor inﬂuencing the violent victimization of male gang
members is their exposure to neighbourhood violence, female gang members are most likely to
be victimized by their fellow male gang members, including their signiﬁcant others (Minnis et
al., 2008; Nydegger et al., 2017; Sutton, 2017; Ulloa et al., 2012). Given that the risk factors and
forms of victimization are different for females than for males, the implementation of gender-
speciﬁc prevention and intervention programmes is necessary (Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018).
Additionally, as the proportion of female members in gangs continues to increase, balancing out
a more equitable gender ratio, the types of victimization that female members will endure is
likely to shift (see Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018). As such, further research is necessary to reveal
how changing patterns in gang membership are impacting patterns of violent victimization.
The social and spatial patterns of gang violence
A core theme examined by gang researchers, and more broadly the ﬁeld of criminology, is how
space inﬂuences the geographic distribution of violence in an area. Since, the time of Thrasher’s
(1927) inﬂuential work nearly a century ago, gang researchers have remained interested in
understanding the relationship between gangs and space (see Valasik and Tita, 2018). Even
though space is a crucial component to examine gang- related violence (e.g. territoriality, retali-
ation, etc.), it was not until Geographic Information Software (GIS) emerged in the early 1990s
that practitioners, researchers and policymakers could expediently create maps and analyse the
spatial relationship between the distribution of crime/violence and the characteristics of a neigh-
bourhood, including the territories of street gangs (Anselin et al., 2000; Block, 2000). Coinci-
dently, at the same time that GIS software was advancing, many urban centres throughout the
United States were experiencing an epidemic of lethal violence. In 1991, the annual number of
homicides peaked to 24,700 in the United States. Additionally, street gangs at this time began
Are gangs always violent?
to diffuse both within “chronic” gang cities and to “emergent” gang cities across the United
States (Howell et al., 2011; Howell and Grifﬁths, 2018; Spergel and Curry, 1993). As GIS
improved, it allowed for researchers to analyse the role that street gangs play on the diffusion of
violence, homicide in particular (Cohen and Tita, 1999; Rosenfeld et al., 1999; Morenoff and
Sampson, 1997; Tita and Cohen, 2004). Utilizing spatial analytical techniques to examine gang-
related violence is particularly germane given the fact that gangs have an orientation towards
space (i.e. a claimed territory) and the retaliatory nature of gang violence (see Papachristos et al.,
2013; Tita and Radil, 2011; Valasik and Tita, 2018).
The vast majority of research that exists on gang- related homicide examines the phenom-
enon at the micro- level, emphasizing the differences between gang- related and nongang- related
incidents (e.g. Curry and Spergel, 1988; Klein and Maxson, 1989; Maxson, 1998; Maxson et al.,
1985; Maxson and Klein, 1990; 1996; Rosenfeld et al., 1999). These studies greatly improved
the ﬁeld of criminology’s knowledge base about the characteristics (i.e. victim, suspect and inci-
dent setting) that distinguish gang homicides from non- gang homicides. Furthermore, the ﬁnd-
ings from this avenue of research have aided policymakers with a more generalized understanding
about the dynamics of a gang- related homicide. Gang- related homicides are localized phenom-
enon that are concentrated in speciﬁc communities, leading researchers to focus their efforts on
the macro- level characteristics that are associated with these acts of lethal violence. For instance,
studies have investigated the relationship between gang- related homicide and the city- (Pyrooz,
2012) and neighbourhood- level (Curry and Spergel, 1988; Rosenfeld et al., 1999; Valasik et al.,
2017) correlates (e.g. unemployment, poverty, youth population, etc.). For decades, the ﬁelds
of criminology and sociology have stressed that to better understand the patterns of gang- related
violence it is important that the spatial concentration of individual, group and community char-
acteristics be accounted for in research (Valasik and Tita, 2018). In their argument, Curry and
Spergel (1988) suggest that neighbourhoods with greater levels of residential mobility and lower
levels of social control had an increased likelihood of sustaining a gang- related homicide, whereas
economically depressed areas endured a greater risk of gang- related crime and delinquency
(Curry and Spergel, 1988). The ﬁndings from Curry and Spergel’s (1988) study emphasize just
how distinctive gang- related homicides are from other types of violence, along with challenging
traditional theories related to poverty and social disorganization (see Bursik and Grasmick, 1993;
Short and Strodtbeck, 1965). For instance, Valasik et al. (2017) reveal that gang- related homi-
cides actually remain afﬁxed to economically depressed neighbourhoods, not just for a few
years, but are actually geographically concentrated in these communities for decades. Con-
versely, non- gang homicides seem to be less embedded in a neighbourhood’s social problems,
while also being without the social (i.e. rivalries) and spatial (i.e. turf ) structure to generate any
signiﬁcant geographic patterning (Valasik et al., 2017).
Yet, trends in gang- related crime and violence observed at the city- level (e.g. Pyrooz, 2012)
may obscure patterns that may deviate at the neighbourhood- level (Densley, 2013; Klein,
1995b). Gang scholars have suggested using a more meaningful ecological areal unit, smaller
than the neighbourhood (i.e. census tract), when analysing gang- related activities due to the
fact that street gangs are not active in every part of their claimed turf and regularly limit their
activities and loitering to sub- neighbourhood locales, termed “set spaces” (Tita et al., 2005,
p. 273) (see also Klein, 1995a; Taniguchi et al., 2011; Valasik, 2018). Furthermore, Valasik and
Tita (2018) warn that it is important to control for gang presence in an area, not only to be able
to understand where gang- related violence clusters in space, but also to begin to unpack why
it transpires and diffuses across space. Many criminological studies cite the existence of street
gangs in a neighbourhood to explain clustering of gang- related violence in certain communities,
but they fail to explicitly measure the presence of street gangs (see exceptions Brantingham
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
et al., 2012; Grannis, 2009; Huebner et al., 2016; Katz and Schnebly, 2011; Valasik, 2018).
Gang research employing Risk Terrain Modeling (RTM) has revealed that the places most
vulnerable to gang- related homicides have a concentration of gang set space locations (i.e.
hangouts) and local gang members’ residences (Valasik, 2018). Both types of places are well
known spaces which gang members regularly inhabit. Places most at risk of experiencing gang-
related assault have residential concentrations of local gang members but are also in proximity
to Metro rail stops (e.g. train/subway stops) and places where gang members have been
observed loitering by police (Valasik, 2018). These spaces act as “activity hubs” where rival
gang members are more likely to come into contact with each other and where a dispute can
escalate into an altercation.
Clearly, as highlighted here, the existing gang literature shows that an important predictor of
gang- related violence is geography. For example, ﬁndings from Papachristos et al. (2013) indi-
cate that rival street gangs that have claimed turfs that share a common boundary are more vul-
nerable to experiencing intergang conﬂicts and violence. Yet, social distance is also an important
contributing factor (Papachristos et al., 2013; Radil et al., 2010; Tita and Greenbaum, 2009),
such that rival street gangs, without spatially adjacent turfs, also have a greater likelihood of
enduring subsequent acts of gang- related violence (Papachristos et al., 2013). Thus, “the lives of
gang members are woven into the larger social fabric of the neighbourhoods, social networks,
families, and friends” (Papachristos et al. 2015, p. 627). Gang members are entangled within
their local communities both socially and spatially. Furthermore, gang- related violence does not
remain contained solely within a street gang’s spatial boundaries of their claimed turf, but is
enmeshed in gang members’ social connections. Both spatial and social proximity are important
to understand the patterns and dynamics of gang- related violence (Brantingham et al., 2012;
Papachristos, 2009; Papachristos et al., 2013; 2015). The interactive inﬂuence of reciprocity and
spatial adjacency actually ampliﬁes intergang conﬂict and violence with combining social
exchanges and geographic proximity (Papachristos et al., 2013). Therefore, it is important to
incorporate both the spatial and social features of street gangs and their membership fully to
understand the patterns and trends associated with gang- related violence. More and more gang
researchers are incorporating the relationships between social spaces and physical places to better
predict where gang- related violence is most likely to occur (see Valasik, 2018).
Gangs compared to Alt- Right groups
Over the course of the last few years a wave of identity politics and culture wars have emerged
in the United States, and throughout much of Europe. Scholars and policymakers have grown
concerned that these social movements are radicalizing youth not only domestically, but also
internationally (Dandurand, 2014; Decker and Pyrooz, 2011, 2015; Pyrooz et al., 2018; Valasik
and Phillips, 2017). Of particular concern has been an upsurge in the public presence of the far-
right. The recent manifestation of the “Alt- Right”, a moniker originally coined by Richard
Spencer in 2008, is of particular concern (see Hawley, 2017; 2019; Lyons, 2018; Main, 2018;
Neiwert, 2017, Waring, 2018; 2019; Wendling, 2018; Winter, 2019). The Alt- Right portray
themselves as a leaderless, loosely organized group of young, white identitists in a “fun move-
ment, one using Internet jargon familiar to tech- savvy millennials” that tries to alter the political
landscape (Hawley, 2017, p. 20). While originally emerging from the digital realms of the inter-
net and social media, the Alt- Right has since then manifested in the real world. Through “free
speech” rallies and demonstrations – like those documented in Charlottesville, VA, Berkeley,
CA and Portland, OR, crowds of young white males gather together with other white national-
ists/white supremacists to protest against some perceived slight. The results of these protests
Are gangs always violent?
have regularly resulted in hate- related crimes, violence, and even murder (ProPublica, 2018;
VICE news, 2017). Even with this growing visibility and overt use of violence by Alt- Right
groups, there has been a tendency by scholars and local law enforcement to treat this phenom-
enon as just anomalous individuals or some form of radical youth subculture (see Curry et al.,
2014; Etter, 1999; Hamm, 1993; Reitman, 2018). Yet a substantial subset of the Alt- Right are
members of delinquent, street- oriented youth groups which include various racist skinheads
(e.g. 211 Bootboys, B49, etc.), Proud Boys, Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.) and Atomwaffen
Division (Aljezeera, 2018; Bromwich, 2018; DeCook, 2018; Lopez, 2017; Reid and Valasik,
2018b; 2020; Roose and Winston, 2018; Thompson et al., 2017; 2018; Valasik and Reid,
2018a; Wood, 2017). It is these types of Alt- Right groups that Reid and Valasik (2020) term as
“Alt- Right gangs” (see also Valasik and Reid, 2018b). A modiﬁcation of the traditional Euro-
gang deﬁnition, which “has become widely adopted and appears regularly in publications” is
one of the most prevalent modern deﬁnitions used to evaluate membership in a street gang
(Maxson and Esbensen, 2016, p. 7). As such, an Alt- Right gang is deﬁned by Reid and Valasik
A durable, public- oriented group (both digitally and physically) whose adoption of
signs and symbols of the white power movement and involvement in illegal activity is
part of its group identity.
Under this deﬁnition, the contention that white power youth groups, including street gangs
(e.g. Public Enemy Number One [PEN1], Nazi Low Riders) and other troublesome youth
groups (e.g. racist skinheads), would not qualify as an Alt- Right gang is removed (see also Klein,
1996; 2001; 2009; Klein and Maxson, 2006; Pyrooz et al., 2018; Reid and Valasik, 2018a; 2020;
Simi, 2006; Simi et al., 2008; Valasik and Reid, 2018b; 2019).
The criminological ﬁeld’s current knowledge base about the risk factors that inﬂuence Alt-
Right gang membership is currently limited, similar to the challenges faced by early gang
research. This includes not having consistent deﬁnitions, secluded populations, limits with ofﬁ-
cial data, and an overreliance on initial studies (e.g. Hamm, 1993; Klein, 1995a), which have
obstructed progress on examining these Alt- Right youth and limited the ability to establish
effective interventions to counter these groups. While there is an overall lack in the generaliz-
able push and pull factors driving Alt- Right gang membership, many of the themes that have
emerged are based upon qualitative studies (ADL, 1995; Baron, 1997; Klein, 2009; Shashkin,
2008; Simi, Smith and Reeser, 2008).
For push risk factors, youth involved in racist skinheads typically ranges from adolescence
into early adulthood (i.e., 12–25 years of age) (see ADL, 1995; Baron, 1997; Klein, 2009;
Shashkin, 2008; Simi et al., 2008). These crime- prone years (see Farrington et al., 2009; Hirschi
and Gottfredson, 1983) are also consistent with when youth are observed joining a conventional
street gang (Curry, 2000; Hughes, 2013; Klein and Maxson, 2006; Pyrooz, 2014; Pyrooz and
Sweeten, 2015). Also, analogous to conventional street gangs, males are at greater risk of becom-
ing a member of an Alt- Right gang (ADL, 1995; Ezekiel, 2002; Pollard, 2016). The caveat
being that limited studies exist examining female membership in Alt- Right gangs and the white
power movement more broadly, with the exception of Blee’s (2002; 2017) research. It is not
uncommon for Alt- Right gang members to reside in households with single- parents, irregular
parental employment, and domestic discord (e.g. abuse, neglect, violence) (ADL, 1995; Baron,
Matthew Valasik and Shannon E. Reid
1997; Ezekiel, 2002; Kinsella, 1996; Miller- Idriss, 2018; Pilkington et al., 2010; Siedler, 2011;
Valasik and Reid, 2018a). Another pattern analogous with conventional street gangs is the
greater likelihood that Alt- Right gang members are unemployed, to have dropped out of high
school, to abuse alcohol and drugs, and have substantial amounts of time that is unsupervised
(Baron, 1997; Shashkin, 2008; Simi and Windisch, 2018; Wooden and Blazak, 2001).
In regards to pull risk factors, the motivations for a youth to join an Alt- Right gang are also
comparable to the documented patterns observed in the broader literature on conventional
street gangs (Reid and Valasik, 2018a; 2020; Valasik and Reid, 2018a, 2018b). Additionally,
joining an Alt- Right gang provides a “sense of strength, group belonging, and superiority”
(ADL, 1995, p. 5). The fact is that many youths that join an Alt- Right gang do so to escape
feeling marginalized and being fearful of potential violent victimization. Becoming a member of
an Alt- Right gang, just as with conventional street gangs, serves as a strategy to gain safety,
defence and protection from local bullies or other street gangs (Baron, 1997; Ezekiel, 2002;
Picciolini, 2018; Simi et al., 2008). Lastly, it is not uncommon for Alt- Right gangs to engage in
a variety of proﬁt- oriented crimes, including burglary, counterfeiting, drug sales, identity theft
and robbery, which provides a ﬁnancial motivation to join (Simi et al., 2008).
Normalization of criminality and violence
Analogous to conventional street gangs, Alt- Right gangs also participate in symbolic and
instrumental acts of violence (Moore, 1994). That being said, much of the extant literature
on patterns of violence and criminality of Alt- Right gangs focuses on the group ideology,
and hate- based criminal acts (Curry et al., 2014; Etter, 1999; Klein, 1995a). Yet, Alt- Right
gangs regularly engage in crimes and violence that are unassociated with their political ideo-
logy (Baron, 1997; Berlet and Vysotsky, 2006; Blee, 2002; Borgeson and Valeri, 2005;
Pollard, 2016; Sarabia and Shriver, 2004; Simi and Futrell, 2015; Simi et al., 2008). While
public displays of violence are believed to reafﬁrm one’s identity to the group and bolster the
symbolic solidarity of the group (ADL, 1995; Baron, 1997; Moore, 1994), much of the viol-
ence that Alt- Gangs pursue is retributive in nature for either real or perceived slights by
out- groups (Baron, 1997; Simi et al., 2008). Furthermore, most disputes are often interper-
sonal in nature and frequently involve other white street youth (Baron, 1997; Ridgeway,
1990; Simi, 2006; Simi et al., 2008). Alt- Right gangs, like conventional street gangs, have
high levels of entitativity, or the perception that rival group’s members are a uniﬁed and
cohesive group, considering any member of the offending group (e.g. Jewish individuals,
immigrants, non- whites, etc.) as responsible and blameworthy. As such, any violent behaviour
(e.g. hate- based crimes) directed broadly at these out- groups lacks discretion and spreads
into the broader non- white population (Mills et al., 2017; Perry and Scrivens, 2016). Simi
and colleagues (2008) stress that despite much of the focus on bias- motivated violence (e.g.
Curry et al., 2014; Etter, 1999; Klein, 1995a) these acts are quite infrequent compared with
other criminal acts. Most Alt- Right gang violence is analogous to patterns observed among
conventional gang rivalries (Baron, 1997; Simi et al., 2008; Valasik and Reid, 2018a). In fact,
Alt- Right gangs engage in much of the same type of “cafeteria- style offending”, versatile
criminal and/or anti- social behaviour that lacks any specialized pattern, as conventional
street gangs, which includes proﬁt- oriented crimes, identify theft, and various property
crimes (ADL, 1995; Baron, 1997; Freilich et al., 2009; Perry and Scrivens, 2016; Pilkington
et al., 2010; Simi, 2006; Simi et al., 2008). Lastly, it is important to note that no evidence has
indicated that Alt- Right gangs are amassing the proﬁts from their criminal endeavours to
support larger political initiatives (Simi, 2006).
Are gangs always violent?
Violence is a complex phenomenon that is integral to gang members’ group identity, use of
space, group subculture, social interactions other groups, and relationship to victimization.
Conventional street gangs regularly employ violence for both symbolic purposes (e.g. increasing
their group’s status) and instrumental purposes (e.g. generating revenue). The increased expo-
sure to violence and the accepted use of it as a means to fulﬁl a gang’s goals greatly facilitates its
normalization among group members. Violence and conﬂict play a critical role in the creation
and maintenance of gangs. Yet, this process is not solely unique to conventional street gangs. As
highlighted by Reid and Valasik (2018a; 2018b; 2020), Alt- Right gangs have substantial overlap
with conventional street gangs when it comes to the factors that push and pull individuals into
joining the group, along with how violence is used and accepted by the group. For instance,
Proud Boys provides a clear illustration of just how similar Alt- Right gangs are to conventional
street gangs, when it comes to the use of violence. Analogous to conventional street gangs,
Proud Boys have a violent, yet bizarre initiation process to “jump in” new members (see Hawley
2019; Reid and Valasik, 2020; Vigil 1988; 1996). Proud Boys are also encouraged to use viol-
ence to settle disputes and when confronting rival groups and adversaries, which has resulted in
numerous street brawls and criminal acts of violence (Coaston, 2018; DeCook, 2018; First Vigil
2019). Both Alt- Right and conventional gangs, have a high degree of entitativity, and tend to
view any individual that opposes their point of view as being associated with a rival group, and
liable to violent victimization (see Vasquez et al., 2015). Additionally, both conventional gangs
and Alt- Right gangs are more likely to be the victims of violence, besides being “jumped in”
but also through having greater exposure to violence, as seen through numerous public demon-
strations and rallies over the last few years (e.g. Charlottesville, New York City, Berkeley,
Portland, etc.). As Alt- Right gangs become more and more prominent and confrontational in
society it becomes imperative that systematic research is employed investigate these groups to
better ascertain possible intervention strategies that policymakers and law enforcement can
employ to avoid public violence. Understanding and intervening in group- based violence is
critical to our ability to reduce violence and victimization within gangs.
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