This is a rare free post from Ben Westhoff’s Drugs + Hip-Hop newsletter.
For your loved ones this year, please consider:
*A discounted subscription to Drugs + Hip-Hop, on-sale for only $40 per year, or $5 per month.
Thanks for reading!
The public perception of a “gang” was largely informed by the movies, music, and media coming out of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
You know: Blue and red, crack cocaine, drive-by shootings.
But gang culture on the other side of the country was radically different.
While researching my upcoming piece on the troubling life of Afrika Bambaataa for The Hip-Hop 25, I became fascinated by the Bronx gangs of the 1970s.
Famously portrayed in The Warriors, and more recently in The Get Down, these gangs were not only critical in the birth of hip-hop, but their styles and values were sui generis.
Influenced equally by West Side Story and the Hell’s Angels, some of these Puerto Rican and Black gangs worse swastikas and called their enforcers “Hitlers.” And many took drastic measures to protect their neighborhoods from heroin.
These were violent campaigns, during a time when an opiate epidemic was overwhelming New York City.
Perhaps most shockingly, the straight community applauded them.
Earlier New York gangs, from the 1950s, were populated by teenagers brawling over blocks or girlfriends. They couldn’t afford regular guns, so they made their own contraptions to fire .22 caliber bullets. From New York City Fighting Gangs:
They relied on home made “zip-guns,” made out of elastics and a door latch — sometimes made in the shop class at school. However, these guns were notoriously finicky, sometimes exploding in the face of the operator.
These gangs petered out and all was quiet until the dawn of the 1970s, when New York’s economy began to sputter. Unemployment soared, and filling the void were new gangs calling themselves “cliques.” From Eric C. Schneider’s excellent book Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings:
Returning veterans from Vietnam supplied the leadership that the draft and enlistments had removed from the neighborhood. A sudden decline in the city’s economy after 1969 left adolescents again struggling to find work… a retreat in the War on Poverty cut off avenues out of the streets.
They operated out of the South Bronx, which was ground zero for the city’s economic woes. I’m sure you’ve seen videos of the blocks of rubble and burned-out high-rises.
As their neighborhoods decayed, young men (and many women) tried to take control, to protect themselves, their friends, and their families. “The kids in the gangs are the most romantic figures in the neighborhood,” said a South Bronx junior high teacher named Manuel Dominguez.
Zip-guns were replaced by so-called Saturday Night Specials, cheap, small-caliber handguns so-named because they were supposedly used in weekend stick-ups. The gangs also brandished baseball bats and machetes, which they would use to steal candy from newsstands, or terrorize rivals in school hallways. But they also staffed community centers, organized voter drives, and sometimes held bake sales to benefit victims of fire or injury.
Fighting with other gangs was called “jitterbugging,” and it was ok to walk through another gang’s territory, so long as you took your colors off. The walls of the abandoned tenements where members squatted were decorated in day-glo psychedelia.
Cliques had names like the Bronx Aliens, the Golden Guineas, the Young Sinners, the Ghetto Brothers, and the Savage Skulls. Many members were Puerto Rican, from families of recent immigrants. According to The New York Times in 1973:
The disciplinary squads take orders from a president, a vice president and a war counselor — titles that are familiar to earlier generations who remember “West Side Story.”
Even more influential were the Hell’s Angels, the white motorcycle gang. They were known not just for bashing skulls, but for their association with the counter-culture, famously acting as security for the Rolling Stones at Altamont.
Hell’s Angels-style denim jackets became all the rage, often studded and with cut-off sleeves. In 1971 the Times interviewed Benjy Melendez, the 17-year-old founder of the Ghetto Brothers, who said Hell’s Angels movies (I guess like this one) spurred his cohort to action:
Everybody got bikes [bicycles], put their girls on the back, brrr‐brrr‐brrr‐brrr, blowin' up balloons and lettin' out the air to make 'em sound like motorcycles.
The jackets were referred to as “colors,” with the gang’s logo on the back and a variety of patches including, often, swastikas. The Hells Angels were notoriously racist, with some members adopting Third Reich imagery, and at least one white Bronx gang followed suit, called the Grateful Dead. Some Black and Puerto Rican gangs also wore swastikas, though not to support white supremacy. As documentary filmmaker Shan Nicholson told Vice:
They really identified with the “outlaw” culture and lifestyle…At the end of the day they wanted to shock and scare people, so they reappropriated these symbols, and made them work for them.*
*Keep in mind Bronx gangs weren’t the only non-racists wearing Nazi swastikas. The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux wore them because they thought it was punk rock.
Some Bronx gangs took it further, utilizing Nazi nomenclature in their structures and titles. From the Times:
Some gangs have what they call “Beat‐Up Squads” or “Gestapo”—one gang even has the word “Gestapo” embroidered on the caps of its squad members. Their primary function is to discipline unruly members, usually with whippings, although they sometimes attack and “discipline” nonmembers.
So, why all of this “discipline”?
Yes, turf disputes remained, but in large part the gangs existed to rid their neighborhoods of heroin dealers. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings suggests this cause, more than anything else, renewed the Bronx gang culture in the early 1970s.
When gang violence was criticized, members shot back: “Yeah, but the street is free from pushers.”
“We persuaded ‘em to leave,” a guy from the gang called Peacemakers told the Times in 1972, speaking of heroin dealers and adding that they used force. Members of the Secret Bachelors gang were arrested for the murder of a drug dealer whose body was found “with six bullet holes in the shape of a Cross.”
“The cops weren’t doing anything. We were doing their dirty work,” Savage Skulls member Danny DeJesus told Jeff Chang for his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
By this time heroin was a greater scourge in New York than anywhere else in the country. Soldiers returning from Vietnam brought it in their rucksacks, and the city became the country’s primary distribution center.
The drug was not just seen as a threat to public safety. It represented the disintegration of the social fabric itself, particularly in the Black community.
I’ve written about how 1980s hip-hop was virulently anti-drug, but the situation was even more extreme in the early 1970s, during the time when hip-hop was being born in the South Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa, a warlord with the Black Spaces who founded hip-hop culture, posted flyers encouraging kids not to smoke angel dust.
When it came to heroin, however, the gangs sought to strangle it at the root. From the Times:
Few of the gangs require an initiation of new members although some tie up drug‐using newcomers in their clubhouses and make them undergo “cold-turkey” withdrawals.
These accounts are chilling. Definite trigger warning on the following, from Schneider’s book:
The Immortals, another Bronx gang, raided a “shooting gallery” (an apartment where heroin users could keep or rent “works” and shoot up) run by a young woman and raped and murdered her, while critically wounding her two male companions.
As awful as this was, the gang’s anti-drug efforts won them great PR, not just from South Bronx residents, but throughout the city. Wrote Pete Hamill, the famous New York Post columnist:
The best single thing that has happened on the streets of New York in the past ten years is the re-emergence of the teenage groups…These young people are standing up for life, and if their courage lasts, they will help this city to survive.
Reported The New York Times:
Specialists at Lincoln Hospital and other health and community officials in the South Bronx say a marked increase in youth violence has accompanied a marked decrease in overdose cases and other indicators of narcotics use.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Obviously, the Times’ report is anecdotal, and we’re not going to find any data showing the impact of gangs on heroin addiction.
But their methods remind me of repressive southeast Asian governments, like Singapore and the Philippines, where officials attempt to suppress drug usage by curtailing civil liberties and, in some cases, wantonly murdering drug dealers. China does this as well.
You don’t need to be a harm-reduction activist to know that fighting drug use in this way leads to deep societal problems. People suffering from opioid use disorder need treatment, not to be tied to a chair while they go through withdrawal.
“Shooting galleries” fulfill an important community function by providing a (relatively) safe space for addicted users, something like a beta version of supervised injection facilities.
Penalizing drug use does not make it go away, it just sends it deeper underground and makes it less safe.
The Bronx gangs may have been seen as performing a community service, but they were likely exacerbating the problem.
Still, this story has something approximating a happy ending, as New York City authorities dealt with the gangs in novel ways. First they apologized for curtailing community resources, and then worked to rectify the situation. From the Times:
After six months of research by a special force on gangs, Mayor Lindsay of New York announced allocation of $1‐million to the city's youth service agency for programs to deal with the resurgence in gangs and gang violence. The programs will include job training and placement, recreation and remedial education.
“I believe that this group of youngsters has basically good intentions and in joining gangs I think that they're responding in a normal fashion,” said U.S. representative Mario Biaggi, who represented the Bronx and was backed by both the Democrats and the Conservative Party of New York State. “I think these youths are searching for their identity, and they are handicapped by lack of recreation facilities.”
It’s shocking to read those words, considering how cities like Los Angeles would respond to their own gang problems in the 1980s, often by rounding up anyone young and Black and charging them as criminals.
We seem to have learned many of the wrong lessons. But it’s interesting to think about how morality surrounding drug use has shifted over the years. We once thought of drug users as the enemy. Then, drug dealers. Then, politicians enacting drug laws and police enforcing them.
With drug legalization becoming more common, we may soon have no one to blame but the molecules themselves.