Minneapolis has had gangs for as long as I can remember. In the late 50's and early 60's, you had the Baldies, the Greasers and later the Animals. The Baldies had shaved heads, wore preppy clothes, and jacked their pants up to their armpits. The Greasers had long greasy hair, wore too short black jeans, white socks, and if they could afford them leather jackets and engineer boots. The Animals were just animals.
In the mid 60's the Suprees, and other gangs, identifiefd themselves by wearing wool jackets with black leather sleaves. The color of the wool identified the gang to which you belonged. Some men who are now deep into middle age still have those green jackets.
In the late 60's we either all became Hippies, or got too stoned to care.
In most cases gangs didn't split along racial lines. Instead they represented schools, or neighborhoods.
Some gangmembers went on to become convicts, some lawyers, some doctors and some cops. But during that time frame they did the same thing gangs of today do, they created their own alternative reality.
Not everyone could join a gang. You had to be cool. But cool was a relative thing that could change depending on perception, peers and circumstance. And it generally did not include anthing remotely pro-social. In our world the heros weren't the Lyndon Johnson's or Richard Nixon's. The legends were people with names like Alabama Geno, Motorboat, and Grey Eyes, or in the hippie era Jack Flash, Barabas or Scorpio Mike. We didn't look to Wall Street or downtown Minneapolis for our role models. The skills we admired were the ability to kick high, to take a punch, to score weed, and later for some, the ability to score hard drugs, shoplift without being detected, or open a safe.
Generally the smart kids and the jocks didn't get into the gangs. The Suprees might have been the lone exception. In most cases, the gangs were made up of kids who felt they weren't able to compete in the world of academics or sports. If they got the girl, the girl didn't tell anyone....unless she wanted to be identified as one of those girls. The rule of the day was mostly get high, party and fight.
But for all the similarities that exist between gangs of 40-50 years ago and gangs of today there is one glaring difference. Back in the day, cowardice was never cool!
Two weeks ago a young man was shot while running down the street. Some stories suggest he was the wrong target, others that he was shot over something as trivial as someone unwilling to braid someone elses hair. But no matter what version you hear, he was unarmed and shot in the back. Later someone drove by the young man's house and indiscriminately shot into a group that was gathered to mourn his passing.
A few weeks before that, a young man was gunned down from the bushes as he walked to his car near Lake Calhoun.
Yesterday Minneapolis had it's 30th homocide of 2010. Three people were shot at the Old Colony Gas Station on Washington Ave. One died.
By all accounts, none of the victims were armed.
Back in the day, if you had a beef with someone, the two of you pounded on each other until one, or the other, said "uncle". Then you stopped. It was intimate. You had to look each other in the eye. You had to put your hands on each other. Many times when you were done, you shook hands. If you walked up behind someone and "sucker punched" him, you were likely to be ostracized by your own gang.
In fact, even back in the days of the Old West, when everyone had guns, if you shot someone in the back, you were a "bushwacker". No one looked up to someone who didn't have the nerve to stand toe to toe with their adversary.
Now apparently all that has changed. Now all you need to do to be a tough guy is shoot someone from the bushes, or in the back, or shoot into their house.
People involved in the thug life have a unique ability to see themselves through rose colored glasses. Instead of viewing themselves as petty theives and purse snatchers, they imagine themselves as skilled technicians of legerdemain. Instead of seeing themselves as spouse beaters they see themselves as players. And instead of seeing themselves as cowards, they see themselves as tough; despite all actions to the contrary. In fact, many of them go to movies and root against villans who are doing the very same things they are. It's a self-preservation thing. If they ever see themselves as petty as they really are, they have no choice but to change.
When the murder rate goes up, the response is generally the same, more police, different politicians, and an after school program or two. None of those things are bad. And they do keep a lot of people employed and in the public eye. But first and foremost, we have to change the definition of cool back to where someone who shoots an unarmed person in the back is recognized for what he is. And only that person's peers, neighbors and those important to him, can accomplish that.