Alcohol, Gangs, And Violence: A Pre-Prevention Exploration

Principal Investigator: Geoffrey Hunt
Co-Principal Investigator: Karen Joe-Laidler
Supported by a Grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (R01 AA10819)

In the past, concern with gang-related violence tended to concentrate on the role of illicit drugs while overlooking the significant role of alcohol in gang life. This exploratory study was a necessary first step toward broadening our understanding of the role of alcohol in gang-related violence and criminal activities. Building on six years of previous research, we began by identifying and mapping the locations of known gangs in San Francisco, and situating them within specific San Francisco districts. Most of these areas are located in underclass neighborhoods characterized by low income housing and housing projects. These areas tend to have a higher incidence of poverty than other San Francisco neighborhoods and have proved to be areas which have a higher incidence of street gang activity, violence and crime, including street drug sales.

We conducted one on one interviews with almost 400 male gang members to examine the associations of alcohol consumption, gang life, and gang-related violent behavior. Almost three-quarters (274) of the respondents were born in the United States. Forty-six percent (177) of the respondents were African American, while just over one-quarter (103) were Latino and twenty-one percent (79) were Asian and Pacific Islanders. The participants ranged in age from 13 to 50 with a median age of 18 years. Despite their age, only one-fourth of the young men had completed high school, and only one-fifth of the sample was employed. The majority of the young men were single (81%), and had no children (76%).

A little more than half of the participants had been gang involved between one and five years. Another quarter of them had been involved from six to ten years. Only 5 per cent had been involved for less than a year. The majority of young men had their first drink of alcohol in their very early teen years, typically at the age of 12 for beer, the age of 13 for wine and the age of 14 for hard liquor. By the time respondents matured into their late teens and young adulthood, they were drinking regularly, often heavily and for some, at a daily level. Approximately one-third of the respondents were binge drinkers, having drank five or more drinks in a short period of time at least once in the last month. One-fourth were heavy drinkers, having drank five or more drinks in a short period of time on five or more days in the last month. Close to twenty percent of the respondents indicated that they were daily drinkers. African Americans consumed liquor and beer at a higher level compared to the other ethnic groups.

We found that drinking is an integral feature of gang life. Violence between opposing gangs is a frequent and common activity associated with drinking. Thirty- five percent of the respondents claimed that they had been involved in violent incidents between rival gangs in the last month, and of these, more than two thirds said that drinking was involved. The reasons for such conflict are varied, including: revenge, disrespect, territory and turf, rivalries, and testing others.

Within the gang, drinking works as a type of social glue to maintain the cohesion and solidarity of the gang, and also affirms masculinity and male togetherness. At a more symbolic level, drinking is associated with two important ritual events in gang life. For many gangs, new members are expected to go through an initiation often referred to as “jumping in.” This induction process is important because it is designed to symbolically test the newcomer’s toughness and his ability to defend himself and withstand physical violence. Funerals are the second ritual events in gang life where alcohol and violence are associated. Here gangs in mourning use alcohol to represent their connectedness to their dead comrades.

While drinking can work to maintain and confirm group solidarity, it can also operate in a divisive manner, although drunken conflicts within the gang rarely lead to long lasting rifts. In such cases, alcohol works to create a “time-out” period, or ritualized context for fighting and violent confrontations, whether physical or verbal in which in-built tensions can be released or disputes settled within a contained arena. Once resolved through alcohol-related violence, the group can regain its cohesion and unity.

Papers from the Alcohol, Gangs, And Violence Project

  • Hunt, G., Joe, K., and Waldorf, D. (1996). “Drinking, kicking back and gang banging: Alcohol, violence and street gangs.” Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 24 (2): 123-132
  • Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2004). “Alcohol and violence in the lives of gang members.” In F.A. Esbensen, S.G. Tibbetts, and L. Gaines (Eds.) American Youth Gangs at the Millennium, pp. 229-238. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Hunt, G., MacKenzie, K., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2005). “Alcohol and masculinity: The case of ethnic youth gangs.” In: T. M. Wilson (Ed.), Drinking Cultures: Alcohol and Identity, pp. 225-254. Oxford, UK: Berg.
  • MacKenzie, K., Hunt, G., and Joe-Laidler, K. (2005). “Youth gangs and drugs: The case of marijuana.” Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 4 (3/4): 99-134.