Street gangs are not stable structures. They have usually emerged out of something else – a playgroup or a clique of friends, a loose subculture, or perhaps even a basketball team. Gangs may go through a life course as members get older, acquire criminal records and experiences, get in touch with political movements or other subcultures, acquire enemies, get access to economic profits, or establish links to other groups. These are factors and processes that may transform gangs and other youth groups into something they were not before. I believe there is too little focus in gang research on these processes of group transformation. We should take a more systematic look at what comes before street gangs, and what may come after, and how one type of gang may transform into other types of gangs. Klein’s typology
of traditional, neo-traditional, compressed, collective, and speciality gangs provides some input to such an analysis, focussing on variables like age composition, numbers, sub-groups, leadership, etc. However, I believe there is a need for a stronger emphasis on the processes of change. American gang researchers also have a tendency to lose interest in a youth group once they have established that it is not quite a gang. However, ‘pre-gang’ and ‘post- gang’ groups should be of particular interest, in order to study how they might transform into or out of a gang type of group.
I have observed and tried to describe some of these processes in my own studies of racist gangs and their opponents in Scandinavia (Bjørgo 1997, Bjørgo & Carlsson, 1999). One finding was that many of these racist or na- tionalist groups emerged out of what was initially non-political and often petty-criminal street gangs or cliques of friends. In one case, some Norwe- gian boys from a middle-class neighbourhood in Oslo were harassed and beaten up by Turkish and Vietnamese youth gangs. They decided to go to- gether with their friends to form their own gang for protection. In effect, this became a white ethnic gang. For support, they got in touch with the Nation- alist milieu in Oslo, and gradually adopted their style and ideology, calling themselves ‘Viking’.
In Copenhagen, another process took place when a group of unemployed young Danish boys from a rather poor neighbourhood, known for their crime, violence and rowdy behaviour, in the early 1980s started to burn crosses (KKK-style) and harass their immigrant neighbours to get attention to their demands for flats of their own and other social goods. They got an enormous coverage in the news media, which called them the ‘Green jack- ets’ (Grønjakkerne), and boosted their image as a racist ‘White Power’ gang. This media response clearly gave them an image to live up to, and served to politicise some of them. The original gang of some 20 male teenagers soon became the core group of a wider subculture of ‘Green Jackets’, consisting of several White Power gangs, which occasionally joined forces to fight im- migrant gangs and anti-racists.47 They could mobilise up to 200 for a par- ticular battle.
Largely as a response to the threat from the Green Jackets, the so-called Warriors emerged during the second half of the 1980s. This was an immi- grant youth gang surrounded by a network of similar gangs. Together with their affiliated groups, the core group of 20–40 could mobilise up to 2000 supporters, according to the police. Initially, they tried to present themselves as some kind of anti-racist guardians, armed with bats, knives, and guns. The Warriors assaulted and beat up alleged racists, both individuals and in large battles. They also offered protection to immigrant-owned kiosks and shops vulnerable to racist attacks. Although many of the gang members even dur- ing this early phase were involved in crime, they tried real hard to present themselves as anti-racist ‘good-guys’. However, as the Green Jackets for various reasons fell apart and disappeared from the streets – largely dis- placed by the Warriors – more serious forms of crime started to dominate the activities of the Warriors. They were increasingly involved in robbery, bur- glary, car theft, and drug distribution. One speciality they adopted from the
47 For a more detailed description of ‘The rise and fall of the Green Jackets’, see Bjørgo 1997, pp. 127–133.
Green Jackets was to assault and rob homosexuals in parks. When they as- saulted more or less arbitrary victims in the streets, they typically claimed that the person had made a xenophobic remark or ‘looked upon them in a racist way’. By the early 1990s, some of the elder original Warrior members withdrew from street activities such as violence and robberies. For this, they used their younger brothers and cousins, who were too young to be prose- cuted for crimes. They no longer used the name ‘Warriors’, although there is a clear continuity to the criminal immigrant gangs of the late 1990s in Co- penhagen, which have now become an extremely hot issue in the political debate in Denmark.
Even police officers, which knew the Warriors well, agree that protection and resistance against racism was the main cause for the emergence of the Warriors, and that this was the main issue during the first years. However, it was also important for the gang to win respect through intimidation. They armed themselves not only for protection but also as a part of their image. Witnesses were harassed into silence. The aura of fear they evoked and the way they were able to dominate the streets of Copenhagen, turned out to be a useful resource once they left anti-racism behind and turned to more serious and profit-oriented crime.
Racism and anti-racism has been a main issue around which gangs in Scandinavia have formed and transformed. However, gangs may transform both from non-political into more politically oriented groups, or they may transform from a group with a political image into a predominantly criminal and profit-oriented gang.
Understanding the processes whereby gangs transform into other forms, and change their purpose, justification, style and mode of action, should be of high relevance to developing policies of prevention and intervention. However, it would be even more useful if we could understand the processes of gang disintegration, and how one may influence and reinforce these proc- esses.