It is estimated that over 1.5 million people are members of the roughly 35,000 different gangs operating in the United States. Among those gangs are street gangs, both on the national and local level, outlaw motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, gangs affiliated with organized crime, and gangs made up solely based on ethnicity. The majority of these gangs came to fruition in the major urban areas where they still thrive today. Even relatively safe cities crime wise such as New York or Los Angeles (relative to the most dangerous U.S. cities) have no shortage of gangs vying for territory while carving their own niche in illicit trade.
While gangs are by no means exclusive to America, far from it, when one hears of violence in a major city the typical reaction “it’s probably gang related” echoes across the populace. Compared to many other first world nations, America has a higher proliferation of gang members, and gang violence, and while social conditions that create gangs, and help recruit gang members, such as poverty, failing education systems, and systemic racism all play a major role in exacerbating gang culture, it’s also easy to forget that for a country with a population of over 307 million people, the amount of those members of society involved in gangs is a mere 0.004 percent.
While the culture of fear is actively prevalent in the media on a daily basis, creating a constant anxiety that anyone at any time may fall victim to gang crime, the fact is most gang related crime is aimed at rival gangs, not average civilians. But try telling that to the people who live in many of these cities whose borders contain the highest concentration of gang members in the nation. In the majority of these cities the threat of being targeted by a gang, either for recruitment, or as a victim, is all too real.
*(The cities on this list are, by and large, in no particular order as concluding the number of gang members per city is widely inaccurate and some more recent studies are incomplete. Furthermore, statistics are based upon municipal law enforcement agencies, the FBI and CDC gang information.)
6 East St. Louis, Illinois
As anyone who has driven through East St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri’s brother in Illinois can attest, it’s not a pretty picture. There is no wonder that gangs have built themselves such a nice home in the city where, apart from a street named after current President Barack Obama, seems to be completely forgotten by the rest of the country. The city is one of America’s most violent, and the murder rate in East St. Louis is 17 times higher than the national average. And the murder rate is only going to keep growing as violent street gangs vie for turf almost completely unchallenged by a law enforcement agency that saw its budget decrease by over 33 percent between 2008 and 2011. Welcome to the city of 27,000 where a police officer was shot in the face in a shopping mall, and which the Governor of Illinois called an absolute “war zone.”
5 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
There are parts of Oklahoma City that are beautiful; and there are parts that are downright scary. Note to traveler; if the gas station you pull up to has bullet proof windows, bars on top of that and a bullet proof glassed kiosk for the clerk to sit in, you’re in the wrong part of town. Because of the intense rivalries between street gangs, the violence in Oklahoma City follows such a pattern that has become tried, tested and true for decades as well. Shootings over rival territory, and the drug trade, predominantly between males aged 15-19, and, especially in Oklahoma City’s case, drive by shootings make up the majority of gang violence in the city, making it one of the most gang ridden cities in the country.
4 Camden, New Jersey
There is a disturbing trend to the correlation between the highest levels of gang activity in America’s cities and the amount the budget for those cities’ police forces has been cut. Like others on this list, Camden is no exception to this rule. Also listed as America’s most dangerous city overall, Camden’s police force shrank by over a third between 2008 and 2011, the same period of time that gang membership across the U.S. nearly doubled. What can a city possibly do to combat gang crime, or any crime for that matter without a police force to enforce law and order? In a city with a high school drop out rate of nearly 70 percent that is per capita one of the poorest in the nation, the life of a gang member almost seems appealing to Camden youth. Really. What other options are there? In a wasteland like Camden, there is little chance for many of the city’s population of just over 70,000 to escape either the allure of gang culture, or the impact it has on one's life.
3 Detroit, Michigan
Is it any surprise Detroit is on this list? One of the most dangerous cities in America, it's no wonder it’s also one of the most affected by gangs. A massive decline in industry leading to unemployment and poverty… all perfect breeding grounds for gang culture. What’s worse, with the city’s massive economic collapse on a governmental level as well, where once there were over 4,000 police officers, now there are around half that, in a city with a core population of over 700,000 people.
Another major issue facing what little law enforcement there is left in Detroit is the fact that unlike many other larger cities with gang problems, the gangs in Detroit are not typical in the fact that they don't have any affiliation with the more well know and established street gangs in most cities, or any real hierarchy. Street gangs in Detroit essentially spring up per neighborhood, with names most outside the city wouldn’t even be aware of. Not that it makes a difference.
As the national crime rate decreases across the board in the U.S. Detroit’s continues to rise, in no small part due to the fact that gangs run the streets virtually unchecked by crippled law enforcement. And sadly, it’s predominantly the youth, the ones who have only known Detroit to be a shell of its former self, who seem to continue to get tangled up in gang culture. In 2010, when statistics were most complete on Detroit youth’s involvement with street violence the city counted 106 youth homicides and arrested 12,000 youths for various other criminal activities. Based on preliminary studies, just as Detroit’s crime rate has risen, so has the proliferation of youth in street gangs.
2 Los Angeles, California
Once nicknamed the “gang capital of America” Los Angeles has lost that distinction, but not by much. According to the Los Angeles Police Department there are an estimated 450 gangs active in L.A. comprised of over 45,000 members. Practically every single gang that operates in America with much validity is in operation in Los Angeles. Again, according to the LAPD “during the last three years, there were over 16,398 verified violent gang crimes in the City of Los Angeles. These include 491 homicides, nearly 7,047 felony assaults, and approximately 5,518 robberies…” the majority of which are a result of the drug trade and never-ending turf war to control it. While as a whole for a city of its size Los Angeles is quite safe, in the areas where gangs are most visible, it’s best to stay away.
1 Chicago, Illinois
In recent years Chicago has made a dramatic leap to overcome Los Angeles as America’s gang capital with a staggering 150,000 gang members and become one of the most violent cities in the country. In fact, Chicago recorded 413 murders in 2013 alone, a shocking number, if it weren’t for the fact that it actually represented a decrease from the 532 murders in Chicago in 2012. What’s worse, according to city law enforcement agencies, 80 percent of all shootings and murders in Chicago are gang related.
Again, like most major cities in the United States, economic hardship on the municipality has led to budget cuts and less law enforcement patrolling the streets. There are barely 200 members of Chicago’s anti-gang task force. How can police possibly contend with hundreds of different gangs all operating within the city, primarily the west and south sides, with such little resources? Exacerbating the problem is that the historical hierarchy of the Chicago gangs has seemingly come undone, with various factions of former larger gangs all claiming territory, and clearly willing to shoot first at anyone unfamiliar who may be encroaching on said territory. Even a member of the street gang the Vice Lords himself told NBC news that "there is no one to control this, so it has become haywire.”
Chicago has become a massive and violent play for territory in a powder keg of gun violence, fuelled by the drug trade. Murders for the current year stand roughly similar to last year, at 206 thus far, but after the 84-hour outburst of violence over the 4th of July weekend in which 82 people were shot, and 14 killed, the situation in Chicago seems far from stable.