Land of the Free, Home of the 33,000 Violent Street Gangs

America’s gang problem is growing. Where is it leading?

When 8-year-old Gabrielle Hill-Carter was shot and killed while she played by the street in front of her home in Camden, New Jersey, on August 24, there was some local mourning and outrage. But for the most part, America yawned.

After all, she wasn’t killed by a police officer or by an Islamic terrorist. Her death was “just” the result of gang violence: A member of a drug gang was trying to retaliate against a member of a rival gang, and, as Gabby rode her bicycle along the sidewalk, she happened to get caught in the crossfire. A stray bullet ended her life. It was nothing personal. Happens all the time.

The fbi says that altogether, the United States is now home to about 33,000 violent street gangs, with a presence in all 50 states. There are an estimated 1,350 gangs in Los Angeles alone. And there are at least two gangs in Springfield, Tennessee, where the total population is less than 17,000.

There are a total of 1.4 million criminally active gang members across the country. That means for every two sworn law enforcement officers in America, there are three gang members.

The number of violent gang members today is 40 percent higher than in 2009, and 25 times higher than in 1975. And the figure keeps growing each year.

“We don’t see a drop in the key gang magnitude indicators,” said James Howell of the National Gang Center last March. “In the past five years, we’ve seen an 8 percent increase in number of gangs, an 11 percent increase in members and a 23 percent increase in gang-related homicides.”

Of the 15,500 murders that happen in America each year, an average of 2,000 are gang-related. Though gang members make up less than half a percent of the population, they commit 16 percent of the total homicides and a quarter of homicides in cities of 100,000 or more people. Most victims are themselves gang members, but many, like Gabrielle, are bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Murders, however, are only part of the story. These groups use violence and coercion of all kinds to rule over neighborhoods and to carry out illegal economic operations, such as drug and weapons trafficking, alien smuggling, prostitution, identity theft, robbery, fraud and human trafficking. In many communities, gangs are responsible for a staggering 80 percent of total crime.

Multiplying and Morphing

In a report to Congress, the fbi said “gangs are morphing, multiplying, migrating and entrenching themselves in our inner cities, suburbs and rural communities. They are selling drugs to our kids, shooting up our neighborhoods, invading our homes, robbing our banks and stores, stealing our identities, our money, and instilling fear and violence everywhere they go.”

Part of the reason for the “multiplying” and “morphing” is that in recent years, traditional large gangs have splintered into several smaller ones.

For example, Chicago for decades was controlled by just a handful of large, powerful gangs. But in 1997, the leadership of the largest and most powerful, the Gangster Disciples, was arrested. Almost immediately, infighting and territorial battles erupted among the remaining members. These disputes have gotten more intense with each passing year. Now Chicago has more than 600 gangs, spawning the violence that gives the city the nickname Chiraq.

“They once were massive organizations with powerful leaders and hundreds of members who controlled large chunks of territory,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on July 1. “Now small cliques battle for control over a few blocks.”

This trend means rival gangs often operate just a few streets away from each other. This has multiplied the number of disputed borders, making the city a patchwork of battling territories. This has made life in parts of Chicago and elsewhere significantly more chaotic.

The trend has also led to an increase in gang activities outside of cities. “Gangs are not just an inner city or urban problem,” wrote the Stop Houston Gangs website. “Gang movement to suburban areas can be attributed to several factors including … an abundance of wholesale illicit drug suppliers and the expectation of high profits from new suburban drug operations.”

Expanding drug distribution territories due to America’s growing addictions are also contributing to the diffusion of gangs. The result is that many suburban and rural areas are suffering higher and higher rates of gang-related violence and crime.

Robert Vilchez, the coordinator for the Regional Gang Task Force in Arlington County, Texas, says, “Nobody is immune from this gang problem.”

What’s the Appeal of ‘Thug Life’?

A person’s decision to join a gang generally springs from social and economic factors. Gangs offer a sense of family and support that is often absent in the lives of young people, especially as the number of stable families in America continues to drop. The risk of imprisonment, violence or death that comes with gang life is the price that members are willing to pay for the sense of belonging and community. Staving off boredom is also often a factor.

The appeal of gangs is further multiplied by society’s glamorization of them.

The U.S.’s second most popular music genre is hip-hop. Its subgenres include narco-rap, mafioso rap, horrorcore, and gangsta rap. In many inner city communities, it would be unusual for a young person to listen to any music other than hip-hop. And in these songs, they hear endless boasts about drug use and dealing; clever rhymes about misogyny, promiscuity and even rape; and torrents of lyrics promoting violence toward rival gangs, police officers and others.

This music makes thug life seem sexy. It glamorizes gangsta culture.

And it’s not just a few songs from a few obscure hip-hop artists. A study led by Dr. Brian Primack from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine found that of the 62 hip-hop songs that made it onto Billboard’s most popular hits for 2005, a staggering 77 percent discussed substance abuse, often in the context of wealth and sex. A 2001 analysis in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture found that 22 percent of all hip-hop songs contain misogynistic themes, including depictions of assault, rape and murder. If you expand this to include all forms of violence, the figure jumps to 60 percent. In some subgenres, it is as high as 71 percent.

Over the last two decades, the most successful hip-hop stars have made hundreds of millions of dollars graphically extolling sexual assault and rape, drug culture, gun violence and subversion. “Ya’ll nervous knowin’ them guns on full service, ready to fire; One body, two body, three body, four; Young sittin’ on paper, I’m above the law,” Jay Z said on The Blueprint2, an album that sold more than 2 million copies.

In her book The Hip Hop Wars, Brown University professor of Africana Studies Tricia Rose says it is plain to see that such music perpetuates violence. “It is silly to claim that what we consume, witness and participate in has no impact on us as individuals,” she writes. “The depths of the commercial success associated with violent, gang and street culture as ‘authentic’ hip-hop has given violent black masculinity a seal of approval, thus encouraging these behaviors among the kids who are most at risk, and who ‘need’ to embrace this model if manhood is to survive. … We can’t constantly make violence sexy for young people … and expect them not to valorize violent action.”

Rose names those she believes are some of the most dangerous voices in the genre: “Far too many of the most financially successful lyricists in hip-hop—Jay Z, 50 Cent, T.I., and Lil’ Wayne among others—overemphasize and glorify violent tales and gang personas because these are profitable. … [T]here is too much getting rich from the exploitation of black suffering. … Where is all the media-supported outrage about this?”

That’s an important question. Why is gang culture and the music that promotes it off limits for criticism? Why do prominent politicians—most notably President Barack Obama—endorse the music of Jay Z and others who glorify thug life? Gang culture brings suffering and death to hundreds of times more people than police misconduct does. Why don’t people rally against that with the same kind of persistence and force?

‘Your Cities Are Burned’

On July 1, the Chicago Tribune said part of the reason for the rising rates of gang violence in the Windy City is that accusations of police unjustly killing black people has police officers “under the harshest light.” Many officers feel that “no one has their backs,” the president of the city’s police union said. This “has led many officers to feel unsure about stopping anyone,” the Tribune wrote.

Editor in chief Gerald Flurry looked at this trend in the August 2015 Trumpet. “Police are pulling back from doing their jobs for fear of attack, or losing their jobs or going to prison for doing anything that could be perceived as racist,” he wrote. “What happens when fearful police pull back? Criminals run amok!”

It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in which criminals are emboldened by police timidity, and emboldened criminals causes police timidity.

The National Alliance of Gang Investigators’ Associations says that not only do America’s multiplying gangs “adversely impact the quality of life within our communities with violence, drugs and associated criminal activities,” but they also pose “a clear and present danger to our internal national security.”

At present, that last bit may seem hyperbolic. But as the health of U.S. families keeps deteriorating, more young people will seek the support of a gang. And as America’s demand for illegal drugs, prostitution and other outlawed trade keeps growing, the gangs supplying these illicit goods and services will become still more powerful. And if an economic siege is brought against America—which the Trumpet’s July 2016 issue explained is prophesied in your Bible to happen soon—it could result in a massive surge in gang membership and power.

A time is coming when the kind of violence that is now mostly localized in gangs will fill the streets of America’s cities and beyond. And its savagery will surpass anything currently on the scene.

In his book Ezekiel: The End-Time Prophet, Mr. Flurry points to several specific Bible prophecies to prove that, in the near future, the United States will suffer societal breakdown on an unprecedented and utterly devastating scale.

He points to a prophecy in the book of Isaiah of a terrible period just before Jesus Christ’s return in the “last days” (Isaiah 2:2). Referring mainly to the U.S., Isaiah 1:4-5 state: “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward. Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.”

The “whole head is sick” refers to the corrupt and intellectually diseased leadership of the U.S. The “whole heart faint” means the general population is in the same condition. “Neither the leaders nor their followers have the will or the strength to get to the roots of race riots or terrorist attacks and solve them once and for all,” Mr. Flurry writes. “Their ‘heart’ is so weak and unhealthy that the governmental system is about to ‘faint,’ or collapse!”

Verse 7 describes this future breakdown: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.”

This is a sobering description of what is building in America and what the future holds. Since the people of America are laden with sin, and since the leaders are “sick,” Mr. Flurry says, “we will experience desolation and burning.”

On the streets of America today, the lawlessness of gang culture is expanding, darkening and ruining more and more lives. As this lawlessness becomes ever more prevalent, it will contribute to wide-scale societal breakdown. As Mr. Flurry has said, this points to some terrifyingly dark times ahead.

But that darkness will not last long.

‘Boys and Girls Playing in the Streets’

The same Holy Bible that warns about these rapidly approaching dark times also says that just on the other side of those years will come the return of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes clear that, at His return, His radiant light will confound and obliterate the darkness of this world.

Jesus Christ will force everyone alive to relinquish tribalism and violence. He will usher in an age filled with the peace and safety that has always eluded mankind. He will bring about an era of stable, happy families. It will be a time of purpose, abundance and joy for all people. In that beautiful future, no child—like little Gabrielle Hill-Carter—will be found next to a bicycle on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.

God inspired the Prophet Zechariah to write a moving description of some aspects of that future world: “There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in these days, should it also be marvellous in mine eyes? saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 8:4-6).

What a beautiful picture! Cities will be “full of boys and girls” like Gabrielle “playing in the streets thereof.” They will play and be safe. They will learn and grow. And when they enter their teenage years, they won’t have to fear being sucked into the vortex of toxic gang culture. That evil will not exist.

God says this reality will “be marvelous” in His eyes. This vision can be real to us, and stirringly marvelous in our eyes, too.