Organized gangs made their initial appearance in the United States in conjunction with the influx of European immigrants in the 1800s. Looking for a better life in the land of prosperity that America was becoming, these immigrants believed they were headed toward a new Eden, a land of milk and honey in which the idea that anyone could become successful regardless of class was already becoming more myth than reality. Already poor when making the decision to leave their homelands, most of these immigrants used what money they had to pay their passage and upon arriving found themselves in instant competition with each other for a limited number of jobs. Barriers in the form of language and cultural differences mandated that these immigrants often had to turn to each other for protection as well as for basic lifestyle needs such as health care, further insulating them from the mainstream. The lack of job opportunities combined with the necessity to depend upon cultural cohesion led to the formation of gangs embarking on criminal means to meet daily needs, and this pattern has been repeated throughout American history.
The earliest organized gangs formed in the large cities of America such as New York, Boston and Chicago, and they tended to form around ethnic lines. However, even within these ethnic divisions further divisions would arise so that one Irish gang might be placed in opposition against another Irish gang just as much as they might find themselves in opposition against an Italian gang. The industrial revolution can be said to be directly responsible for the rise of gang influence as the migration of mass population toward urban centers resulted in too many people vying for too few jobs and living space within too confined a space. With family and friends unable to secure basic living essentials, unemployed immigrants turned to criminal activities simply to supply basic necessities. Theft and burglary became the standard operating procedure, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, the long, sordid intertwining of gangs and drugs began.
During the Civil War and its aftermath, many wounded soldiers found themselves becoming addicted to morphine to relieve their pain. In some ways that most people don’t like to admit, gangs are a reflection of the American free enterprise system, albeit a reflection of its darkest aspects. Recognizing an opportunity to make easy money, gang members seized the moment and set the course for all future gang funding by stealing morphine and selling it to these soldiers. Gang activity involved all kinds of crimes, of course, but it was the ability to provide illicit goods such as drugs and prostitutes that gave rise to gang influence on all aspects of American society.
It was during the era of Prohibition that these relatively disorganized gangs evolved into the organized crime units that are still around today. Prohibition is the name given the period in American history when selling alcohol (but not drinking it, as is commonly thought) was constitutionally outlawed. Not only was it a bad idea from a political standpoint, it was even worse from a criminal standpoint. It was Prohibition that served to provide gangs with the route toward rising to heights of influence into the very fabric of American society from they have never been vacuumed.
The primary ethnic gang groups to benefit from this period were the Italian gangs and the Jewish gangs. These two rose to such prominence that they really cannot be referred to as gangs after this point. Most of the gangs that have taken over for the former ethnic gang leaders of the 19th century are made up of African-America, Hispanic, Caucasian and, increasingly, Asian backgrounds.
The center of gang activity in America has progressively moved westward. The opening salvo was located in New York through the 1800s, before expanding to Chicago during Prohibition. Today’s gangs can be found everywhere, but almost all culture associated with any gang anywhere today traces back to Los Angeles. The growth of gangs in Los Angeles began shortly after World War II when the black, Asian and Mexican population exploded as a result of mass migration. Gang violence in Los Angeles grew specially in relation to the growth in racial divisiveness, taking off especially in the 50s before literally exploding in the 1960s with the riots in Watts