Street gangs have often been understood as a way for adolescents to find a sense of belonging and social support, however, say Liza Berdychevsky, Monika Stodolska and Kim Shinew, professors of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois, street gangs often fill another important need for kids – for excitement.
Interviewing former members of the Latin Kings/Latin Queens, Satan’s Disciples, the Vice Lords and other street gangs operating in Chicago and downstate Illinois, the study is one of the first to explore gang involvement as leisure activity.
Some participants had left gang life as recently as the prior year, while others had desisted for decades, sometimes after serving lengthy prison sentences. While active with a gang, each of the participants had been a perpetrator, victim and/or witness to violent crimes – including murders, rapes, beatings, shootings and stabbings. Some had trafficked drugs, stolen cars or committed arson or vandalism.
“Developing an in-depth understanding of what drives delinquent and criminal activities – and ways that sports and other leisure activities can be used for prosocial purposes – can help create more effective prevention, intervention and rehabilitation programs for at-risk youths and young offenders” (Berdychevsky, 2017).
While many of the participants had dropped out of school or attended only sporadically, and had no responsibilities and few recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods, they often felt a pervasive need for stimulation – and reasons for engaging in crime and other gang activities were similar to those that motivate other young people to engage in sports or other positive recreational activities (Berdychevsky et al., 2017).
“They even spoke about their violent acts using leisure and sports terminology, such as describing how they ‘hunted’ their victims. One man said he felt as if he were on a football team and the bystanders, fellow gang members or people in his community who encouraged these behaviors were cheering him on from the stands,” Stodolska explains (Stodolska, 2017).
“What was really striking about the people we interviewed was how much many of them enjoyed the violence. Some participants likened it to a drug addiction, which increased their attachment to that lifestyle” (Berdychevsky, 2017).
Moreover, many of the interviewees described experiencing a “rush” – a surge of adrenaline, or a sensation similar to sexual arousal, according to one woman – during gunfights and other violent incidents. While many of them attributed much of their criminal activity to drugs or alcohol, others told the researchers they preferred to be sober while committing violent crimes for the sheer pleasure of seeing people suffer (Berdychevsky et al., 2017).
For Berdychevsky and her team, the takeaway is obvious: gang membership fills a clear need for young people that could be otherwise met through sport. To that end, notes Bedychevsky, the use of leisure activities in gang prevention, intervention and rehabilitation of offenders is under-recognized (Berdychevsky, 2017).
“One of the things that struck me was how smart, charming, articulate and talented many of the interviewees are. And they have leadership skills. On several occasions, I thought, ‘Wow. If you had just made a few different decisions in your life, your future might have been so different’” (Shinew, 2017).
While involvement in gangs and criminal activity may fill the need for excitement and stimulation for young people, it may also be the result of changes in the brain – like lower levels of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that deals with regulating behavior and impulsivity – that, when combined with factors such as childhood adversity, violent video games, excessive television viewing, alcohol consumption, or poor social cohesion, serve to create the right environmental conditions for criminal behavior to emerge.