When I first moved to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2007, I immediately noticed one difference between Portland and Southern California from whence I had come: the almost complete absence of “gangsta” graffiti. The rare graffiti I did see was almost entirely political – much of it quirky and quaintly humorous.
Over the last year and a half, that has changed. There has been an explosion of graffiti in our city during that time, and most of the new stuff is not political. Instead, it's a tired repeat of the same things I saw in So. Cal. – homeboys and “wanna-be” homeboys marking out their turf in destructive ways, much like cats marking their territory with their own urine. The City of Portland has a webpage with a link to a document titled, “How to Read Graffiti And What To Do,” describing the various types of graffiti now showing up everywhere in the city (http://www.portlandonline.com/index.cfm?mode=search&search_action=SearchResults). According to that document, gang-related graffiti now accounts for 15 percent of all graffiti in Portland, although that percentage is growing. (“Tagger” graffiti comprises almost all of the rest.) The document also states that most of this gang graffiti is now done by Hispanic/Latino/Latina gangs and gang “wanna-be's.” Curiously, the document does not mention the obvious link between gang graffiti and tagger graffiti.
This graffiti can be found on the usual public structures such as signs and freeway barriers, but it is also being applied to private buildings such as company offices and storefronts. Here's the kicker: some taggers are now putting their mark on private residential property, such as front yard fences, houses and vehicles. I'm sure these taggers are not asking the permission of the owners of said property beforehand.
This says something about the mindset and culture of these people, namely, that they can't feel comfortable living in a place unless they have had a chance to make it ugly and dangerous. Graffiti is the first step toward turning a place into a ground of armed battle – battle over things that are really stupid and insignificant, desperate attempts by gangbangers to provide themselves with an identity. That identity is not built around a worthwhile personhood devoted to making one's place a better place or becoming a productive member of one's society, but rather toward doing one's best to tear things apart – toward becoming known as the biggest, baddest nihilist (though most gangbanger wanna-be's can't even spell “nihilist,” let alone tell what it means). Gangstas and wanna-be's don't care if the things they deface are not their own things – in fact, it's more fun to destroy someone else's things, whether those things are publicly (i.e., taxpayer) owned infrastructure or privately owned buildings, houses and neighborhoods, or human lives.
Who is responsible for creating this culture? There are two answers to that question, I suppose. On the one hand, one can say that gangbangers are fully responsible for their actions, having knowingly chosen things that are wrong and evil, and that one day they will have to answer fully for their actions. There is a level on which that is certainly true. This should be a cause of great fear for gang members, if they are thinking with clear heads – namely, that one day, they will stand in ultimate judgment for every piece of defaced property; every stupid, senseless fight; every neighborhood ruined by senseless violence; everyone killed over gang signs, gang colors, ethnicity or other stupid reasons; every wounded or killed innocent bystander; every attacked outsider; everyone who was ever pressured by a gang peer group to do something criminal.
Yet gang members are not thinking with clear heads; if they were, they wouldn't be gang members. Gangs are dysfunctional groups that attract dysfunctional people. They are symptoms of a larger dysfunctional society. In my post, “Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods,” I described the “Solari Index” as a measure of how safe and healthy a neighborhood is for its residents, and I described how certain wealthy interests outside the American minority community were doing things that lowered the Solari index of minority neighborhoods in order to make money. The problems caused by this, and the culture that results, have become the emblems of minority culture in America. But a further problem is now becoming apparent – that the dysfunctional culture of the American 'hood has now burst out of the 'hood to infect the rest of America and the world.
It can be seen in places as far-flung as Sudan (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6915187.stm), and Britain, for instance, where over the last few years there have been incidents of gang-related gun violence and where in 2004, a well-known black personality on British TV criticized gangsta street culture as a “deadly virus” destroying a generation of African-Caribbean boys. According to a Guardian news article, the TV sportscaster, Garth Crooks, said “...there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.” (Source: “Gangsta Culture A Deadly Virus, Says Top TV Presenter,” UK Guardian, 12 September 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/sep/12/schools.society)
As drug use in American minority communities was partly boosted by CIA and Federal involvement during the 1980's and 1990's, I'd like to suggest that gang culture in America is being driven by forces outside that culture, in order to enrich certain powerful growth capitalists. The drivers of that culture include all the usual suspects, namely poverty, exploitation and gross material inequality. But I want to focus on two huge drivers of that culture: the prison-industrial complex and the entertainment (or “content”) industry.
It's fairly easy to trace the role of the prison-industrial complex in the growth of American gangsta culture. As the prison “industry” has lobbied for ever-tougher laws and punishments for ever more trivial offenses, the result has been an explosion of the American prison population. This has meant more jobs for prison administrators, staff, guards, and so forth, as well as more contracts for architectural and engineering firms who design these prisons. But it also means that one out of every 31 Americans is now in jail. One out of every 31 Americans is now being exposed to and shaped by a corrosive institutional culture in which gangs are prominent. One out of every 31 Americans will one day come home to a family that has been disrupted by that one individual's incarceration. Many of those families will have kids on whom the culture of the lockup will rub off.
The corrections “industry” has influenced the American judicial system to prey on minority communities first of all. But the corrections “industry” is a growth industry, like all industries in our global economy. Its success is measured in capturing market share and growing the bottom line as measured each quarter. Therefore, it can't remain static. It grows exponentially, as expressed thus:
Corrections Industry Growth = Aex
Those who want to grow it want really high growth rates, rates that are usually higher than the rate of population growth, so that they can get rich really quick. This can be expressed thus:
Corrections Industry Growth Aex > General Population Growth Bey
This means that this industry is branching out beyond the minority community in its search for people to throw in prison. They're probably already looking for poor non-minority candidates for lock-up. Who knows? Maybe soon they'll be looking for formerly well-off people who can't pay their bills. They'll encounter ever more surprised fish as they move up the food chain. We may get to see what sort of culture emerges when a large percentage of America is thrown in the slammer.
Then there's the entertainment industry. I don't have nearly the time to trace all of the “urban-themed” entertainment now being marketed to impressionable American youth, but I suspect that it's quite a lot – from the rap, gangsta, hip-hop and other “urban” music, radio and music videos to the gang-themed movies. As I write this, Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind – not only because it shows how pervasively American hood culture has infected the rest of the world, but because the producer, Celador (now wholly owned by Sony Pictures) couldn't even make a movie about a non-Anglo country and culture without injecting American trash culture into it. Now Summit Entertainment is releasing yet another “urban” film, Next Day Air, with black people in all the settings customary to such a film – raunchy comedy, drugs, guns, and sex. There are even gang-themed video games for Microsoft's Xbox and Sony Playstation!
The trouble with all of this is that it's being marketed to an ever-younger audience. The self-imposed industry rating systems are a joke, as they are meant much more to protect the movie industry from strong regulation than to actually protect young kids from trash. The content industry says that consumers of its content are assumed to be responsible consumers who can properly process the unwholesome parts of the content they consume. But this is not the case with young kids whose powers of discernment are not only not yet developed, but are actively being short-circuited by ads for harmful movies and other content. The content industry says that its movies, TV and other offerings are not contributing to a general breakdown of society. But anyone who watches young kids acting out the “entertainment” they now see and hear knows that this is a lie.
The continued creation and strengthening of gang culture in the U.S. will be an impediment to the efforts of citizens to create local, resilient communities that can weather the effects of economic collapse, resource constraints and climate change. All of these threats will be difficult enough to handle without having to worry about dysfunctional people trying to tear down whatever anyone tries to build up, all for the sake of “keepin' it real.”
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