My earliest years living in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, Brooklyn colored many of the beliefs that I still hold until this day. The basic tenets of street and family life seemed to shift and blend with each passing narcotics flood and repression tactic. The creeds and manifestos inhaled by ghetto children like vapor are absorbed through osmosis. The first rule: no one man is above the crew. So it goes in any family or tribe. Urban warrior swagger and dark penetrating glares from beneath hooded jackets and fitted baseball caps were the armor of choice. Barricaded in the corners of America’s great metropolises we created culture from lack. We birthed expression from frustration, and made a nation from nothing. It is these things that have earned us the envy and enmity of the world.
There are innumerable code words that politicians and media pundits have attached to African and Native youth in order to create patsies for almost every white fear and societal woe. Despite incidents such as the one that occurred at Columbine High School, terms such as “youth violence” always translated as “non-white youth violence.” We are also told that we should empathize with the young white perpetrators of these acts because they were “misunderstood”. Suburban violence is painted with the broad stroked brush of tragedy, while urban violence is shaded with primal descriptives such as “wilding” and “rampaging”.
There are those who say that you are wholly responsible for your environment. These mouthpieces are usually in a position of affluence that makes shouting reactionary platitudes safer than concrete social analysis. The violence that takes place in the streets between crews is no doubt displaced. But what can never be overlooked is the African and Native’s attempt to reconstruct the familial in order to fortify what American colonialism and oppression has all but destroyed. The past 35 years has seen the American governments dismantling of the Italian Mafia through the RICO Act and COINTELPRO maneuvers. And although organized crime has claimed countless victims, historically the Italian Mafia served as the unofficial governing body of its community; meting out reward or punishment according to street codes or cultural standards of the time. In east coast cities, workers of all races can recall the days of Mafia controlled unions. My own mother is fond of saying, “at least the mob payed you on time.” My mother is not a social scientist by any means, but I would say that her assessment was pretty sharp in this case.
Destroying the majority of the mob’s infrastructure was a preliminary step in eliminating the competition. And more importantly, to further erode community sovereignty. The Harlem’s, China Town’s and Little Italy’s of America must be destroyed because self-determination is no longer allowed. There is to be no confusion about who you and your family should turn to in times of need. All thoughts of self-reliance and street level organizing-whether legal or otherwise, are to be crushed. As a result of this design, the community as we knew it has been largely dismantled.
The American government and intelligence community has always served as the supreme Godfather to organized crime. This being the case, there has always been a careful control of the tide of narcotics and disillusionment in African and Native communities. The drug surge can be most clearly observed whenever there’s a great demand for social and political transformation. Critics have often said that we infiltrated our own neighborhoods with ships and planeloads of cellophane-wrapped cocaine and heroin. In truth, even at their most organized heights in the 1980’s and early 90’s, the Caribbean and Colombian street tribes were just foot soldiers in a “Drug War” against America’s African and poor. This campaign has been the most protracted chemical war in the history of humanity.
In drawing these conclusions, we must also understand that the petty crimes that occur in our neighborhoods are the end result of unresolved contradictions of settler colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism. What we are now witnessing with NAFTA, The World Bank and IMF is the final consolidation of power and capital. In this final lockdown there can be no resistance by the masses on any level. What the street tribes represent is the last loosely organized armed resistance to final phase capitalism.
“Gangs” as they are termed, have always posed the greatest threat of becoming a true vanguard of the people. A group with no real ties to bourgeois thought or trappings. A set with no interest in wage slavery or institutional validation. And an army with no allegiance to anyone but themselves and their beliefs. Given the right ideology and conditions, these gangs could become a true wrench in the machine.
Finally, the gentrification and “population redistribution” that we are witnessing in our neighborhoods is happening all over the world. Indeed, what is local will become global and vice versa. Those who are committing thefts and acts of violence against this new, more affluent population usually belong to some kind of street tribe. We should never allow these incidents to be written off by the media as mere criminal acts. Our job is to use our own political and street level study to illustrate what is taking place. Because what is taking place is as plain as the lines on a Grandmother’s face. The sons and daughters of Africans and Natives are still to this very day resisting the colonial settler and slave master.
Harlem, NY 2006
“Fear of a Bandana Republic” was published in The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members & Their Affiliates. Copyright © 2008 Louis Reyes Rivera and Bruce George