How do you start a gang?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 13 2005 6:20 PM

How Do You Start a Gang?

Get some friends together and claim your turf.

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Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed early Tuesday morning, half a day after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied him clemency. Although Williams claimed not to have committed the four murders he was convicted of, he has been frank about his role as the co-founder of the Crips gang. How do you found a gang?

Start with a couple of friends, and then expand. In 1969, a Los Angeles teenager named Raymond Washington gathered together a few buddies and started up a gang called the Baby Avenues. (They took their name from an older gang called the Avenues.) Within a few years, Washington's group—by then known as the Crips—joined forces with Tookie Williams, who had established his own set of hoodlums across town.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Gang leaders can build their organizations in several ways. First, they can claim turf, and intimidate any kids who live in the neighborhood—if you want protection from the gang, you have to join. Second, they can offer protection to people who are being persecuted elsewhere; victims of domestic abuse, for example, might be more likely to join up. Third, they can lure in susceptible kids on the basis of their reputation. Gang experts say that impressive physical stature can also help in recruiting: Tookie Williams, for example, had a large, muscular build.

Once a gang has some members and some turf, it can grow by starting offshoots. People in other neighborhoods, cities, or states can start their own branches of a successful gang (with which they may have little or no contact). Each of these subgroups—called "sets," or, among the Latin gangs, "clikas"—takes two names. The first refers to their specific locale, the second to the original gang, or "nation"—the 79th Street Crips, for example. Smaller gangs may have no broader affiliation, or their affiliations might change so often as to be meaningless.

A gang can also grow by merging with other groups. As the Crips spread throughout the Los Angeles area in the early 1970s, their competitors—including the LA Brims and the Piru Street Boys—banded together to create the Bloods.

Gang offshoots can also turn up in prisons (along with brand-new prison gangs). In 1993, several different groups of Bloods on the East Coast merged at New York's Rikers Island jail to form the United Blood Nation. (Members went on to form eight new Blood sets to recruit from New York City streets.) The Latin Kings followed a similar path: The gang originated on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s or 1940s, but the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation was created in Connecticut and New York jails decades later.

Bonus Explainer: How did the Baby Avenues become the Crips? One story goes like this: The Baby Avenues first came to be known as the Avenue Cribs, which then got shortened to "Cribs." Members wore earrings in their left ears and carried canes. In 1971, a group of elderly women they attacked described the gang members to police as a group of "young cripples." With that, the Cribs became the Crips.

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Explainer thanks Wes Daily of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association.