Decay of internal group relations

In document Early Intervention with Violent and Racist Youth Groups (Page 49-51)

is a main cause when gangs fall apart. These processes of decay may under- mine the group’s cohesiveness and solidarity to such an extent that the gang disintegrates. The decisive turning point is when gang members no longer back up each other if someone is beaten up or gets involved in conflicts with outsiders. The ‘one for all and all for one’ principle is no longer at work. For all practical purposes, the gang is then no longer a gang.

A common factor when a gang decays is that the group has lost its attrac- tion value to its members. This might be the outcome when leaders withdraw or lose their credibility. Another factor is strained and conflict-ridden rela- tions between members, which leads to a deterioration of the sense of broth- erhood. Sources of discontent may vary from disagreement about ideology or use of violence or drugs, to rivalry over leadership, charges of misuse of the group’s economic assets, or accusations of cowardice, disloyalty or of being an informer to the police. Failing group solidarity will not only in- crease the number of members leaving the group – it makes it much more difficult to replenish lost members by attracting new recruits. Over time the group will not have the ‘critical mass’ it needs to function as a gang. Contin- ued group membership is becoming a lonely activity – or even outright bor- ing. Members may disengage through an active and sharp break, or they may gradually lose interest and seek friends and affiliation elsewhere. When the loss of members over time is larger than fresh recruitment, the group’s activ- ity will gradually and inevitably come to an end.

It would be most useful and interesting to know more about the actual ‘turnover rates’ (or ‘disengagement rates’) with regard to violent youth groups and gangs in general. Although extremely difficult to ascertain, such rates could in principle be determined by following a cohort of new recruits, and checking who are still members after specified time periods, such as one month, six months, one year, three years, ten years, etc. Such studies have to some extent been carried out in relation to new religious movements (‘cults’). Defection rates in the range of 60–75 per cent over a two-year pe- riod have been reported with regard to various religious groups.49 Due to the sensitive nature of the matter, very little reliable data or statistics have been available regarding the proportion of those joining e.g. the racist youth mi-

lieu who are still part of the scene after a given period. I know there are some data on defection rates in youth gangs in some American longitudinal studies (e.g. Esbensen and Huizinga 1993).

What seems to be clear, however, is that a considerable turnover of mem- bers seems to be a normal feature of gangs and violent youth groups (as in all organisations!), with the rate varying much from group to group. The likelihood of dissociation is largest in the beginning, and declines with the length of time the person has been part of the group.

One interesting case of a racist gang, which collapsed almost completely, is the Green Jackets of Studsgårdsgade in Copenhagen, a criminal gang of about 20 youths who with their racism and violence drew much attention to themselves during the mid and late 1980s. They became role models to a number of similar local youth gangs in Denmark.50 At the height of their career as the core group of this racist youth subculture around 1987–88, the original Green jacket gangs started to fall apart. By 1988, the group had shrunk to twelve. Only one of them considered himself a racist, the rest even claimed to be against racism. This reduction of the group and its racist core may be explained partly as a result of systematic efforts by youth workers (in close co-ordination with the police) to dissolve the group and help members to find jobs, partly because several leading members were put in jail by the police, and, perhaps most importantly, as a result of normal processes whereby young people establish families and leave behind juvenile delin- quency. Some of the Green Jacket die-hards considered girlfriends and ba- bies to be the greatest threats to the cohesion of the group, undermining the former loyalty among the boys. By the end of the 1980s, the Studsgårdsgade group and the Green Jacket movement as a whole had more or less disinte- grated, and was no longer considered a problem in terms of racism or ex- tremist politics.

Gangs usually consists of a group of hard core members surrounded by circles of ordinary members, and fringe members, hang-around or wannabes who may serve as a recruitment base and as supporting troops in cases of larger confrontations with rival gangs. One important strategy for breaking up the group is to separate the hard core from the more marginal members. A way to accomplish this is by physically removing or isolating the hard core, e.g. through imprisonment or by providing education/jobs far away from the local community. Alternatively, the more marginal members may be di- verted away from the influence of the hard core through alternative activities and possibilities, such as job training or exciting activities.


of the group might result in one gang becoming two, which may continue to co-exist side by side or in conflict. Usually, one gang will continue under it old name while the split-off makes its appearance as a new gang with a somewhat different identity. The split may weaken both groups, and in many cases one or both gangs will disintegrate and vanish. In politically extreme milieus such processes of factionalism and fission seem to be the rule rather

50 The rise and fall of the Green Jackets is described in more detail in Bjørgo 1997, Chapter 4.

than the exception. As a result, these politically extremist groups are weak- ening themselves to such an extent that they rarely are able to muster enough strength to achieve any political influence, in elections or otherwise. Exter- nal pressure in the form of legal or political restrictions may force the group to present itself to the public as more moderate than most members prefer – which will frequently cause splits between moderates and more radical activ- ists (cf. Van Donselaar 1993a, 1993b; Bjørgo 1997, p. 55). Another common cause for factionalism is rivalry between competing leaders with personal ambitions. Many politically extreme fringe groups seem to consist of ‘more chiefs than Indians’.

In document Early Intervention with Violent and Racist Youth Groups (Page 49-51)