An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 11: Clothes / The Look

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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First appeared: 1999 published at the California State University (Northridge),
First redistribution at MarkupDancing: 2010-10-05 00:10:18,
Last modified: 2020-02-19 12:36:33.

The advent of teens wearing baggies and the gang-banger look, and more recently–the junkie look, does not necessarily mean that gangs have arrived in a particular neighborhood. Neither do graffiti, code words, and symbols automatically translate into gang activity. A number of other studies agree (Clay and Frank 1994) (Also see “Taggers” above).

A good deal of the literature suggests that “Clothing is a primary form of gang member identification.” It further suggests that where gang activity threatens the school environment, school boards are pressured to respond to the gang-fashion so popular nowadays (Lane et al l994:64).

School personnel may be overreacting as a result. Instead, school and police should look for the escalation of crime. The gang attire in and of itself does not mean that more crimes are also being committed. However, on the opposite side of this coin is the fact that if gangs are present in an area, the crime rate will certainly escalate.

Growing out of the “grunge” look and with the adulation of the hip-hop culture with its “attitude,” baggies and shaved heads, or gang attire, has become popular nation-wide among teens including upper and middle-class white adolescents as well. Gang attire is d8isplayed everywhere as the chic fashion statement for young people. It is shown all over MTV and other teen videos.

Of course, teens have for many years adopted the dress of one another, particularly in ways found offensive to teachers, parents, and other authority figures–nothing is new about that.

Today, however, gang attire is displayed with fanfare; it is widespread even among the wares of some of the very posh, expensive designers.

But in the wrong neighborhood, gang attire can get a youth in a lot of trouble and maybe even shot! On the other hand, white teens in upper and middle class white suburbia who sport the look will probably not be rounded up in “sweeps.”

In addition, focusing too much on attire as a tool for gang identification clearly leads to outright discrimination giving authorities license to apprehend and investigate young people when there is no rational basis for either inquiry or arrest. The community must act as the vanguard ever watchful of its constitutional guarantees. A case in point occured in 1985. In the midst of public outcry for protection, Chief of Police Gates, in Los Angeles proposed civil sanctions against suspected offenders who wore gang attire. The proposal was quietly dropped. Obviously, imposing legal sanctions based on the way people dress is inconceivable under our system of government. Quite a stir arose as a result, and an outraged and justifiable protest came from the Latino as well as from the Black communities.

Of course, all the wannabes and peewees wear the gang look although many are not yet involved in drug dealing and other criminal activity. In the peewee age group, shopping for clothes is still done with Mom, but it would seem that even she is willingly to buy the “in” look, the very clothes that could get her youngster shot!

By the same token, many hardcore members have adopted designer labels or insignias of sports teams to wear with their baggies. Hence we have an odd admixture today, a crossover between the sports fan and gang attire. And marketing and merchandising strategies have grabbed the look and taken off with it in advertising gimmicks featuring gang and junkie themes to sell their fashions.

Efforts to mandate clothing standards by school personnel have failed miserably short of going to a school-wide uniform. In Bannister v Paradis (1970) a lower court ruled that the prohibition of clothing because of style and taste was unconstitutional unless such clothing imposed a danger to the health and safety of others or caused a disturbance or other disruption (Lane et al. 1994:64). There have been numerous other cases dealing with clothes: one arguing about skirt length — Wallace V. Ford (1972), and another one dealing directly with the issue of gang attire Olesen v. Board of Education of School District No. 228 (1987).

On the other hand, school uniforms have served some schools well in dealing with the gang problem. MacClay Junior High, situated in the midst of gang infested projects, in Pacoima, California–a Los Angles barrio suburb, applauds the uniform established on their campus in the last few years. School administrators and teachers like the idea of everyone looking the same. Whether or not the uniform has done anything to ameliorate the gang problem is not clear, but at least on campus, there is no longer a gang banger image.


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