David C. Brotherton and Luis Barrios, The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation: Street Politics and the Transformation of a New York City Gang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
The current direction of gang research began to take form in the 1970s, when there was a renewed public interest in the topic of gangs, occasioned in part by rapidly increasing rates of crime and violence in major cities, riots, white flight, de-industrialization and urban decay. Gang research (once again) became popular and relevant, but now circumscribed by expectations that its findings would help ameliorate the “gang problem” without significant cost or disruption of the status quo – i.e., without a renewed call for the “liberal” policies of the 1960s and/or for anything more radical. A more “scientific” and politically palatable version of the field emerged, whereby researchers attempt to find “causes” of such problems as “gang violence” and the “spread” of gangs, as they are framed in public political discourse (which is to say, ideologically), as opposed to trying to subvert the dominant frames through any particular focus, emphasis, or mode of explanation. The “debunking” motif exemplified in earlier forms of gang research began to disappear.
In the process, typologies proliferated, quantitative methodologies became sophisticated and dominant, and reliance on official (police) sources of information increased precipitously. At the same time, disciplinary consensus as to the definition of gangs remained virtually nonexistent. The problem of definition is universally acknowledged in the field, yet mostly bracketed in the course of research. That is to say, if gang researchers appear troubled by the fact that they cannot define what they are researching and explaining, it doesn’t generally stop them from talking about gangs of various “types” or “in general.” Nor does there appear much hesitation among researchers when it comes to offering solutions, one after another, to “the gang problem.” The relevant questions in this regard include: What makes any group a “gang”? What makes any of the groups that are labeled “gangs” by researchers or law enforcement more similar to one another than to any other groups? What makes such groups – “gangs” – incapable of change in pro-social directions?
Brotherton and Barrios’s book makes these questions unavoidable. It presents a detailed case study of the New York Chapter of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (ALKQN) during the late 1990s – an especially tumultuous period in New York City. The research on which it is based is mostly ethnographic. It includes some demographic data and more than 150 semi-structured, life-history interviews. Significant detail is provided on the contents of group subculture, including written texts, symbolic systems of communication, and ideological doctrines. The history of the group is also illustrated in detail (from numerous sources), with emphasis on relations between the group, the community and local politics. The authors show that the ALKQN became politically active in the late 1990s and, in the process, enacted a series of internal reforms that made it possible to broaden its political agenda and network of allies and supporters. Also shown, state repression became more intense and indiscriminate as the group gained political credibility and efficacy. The ongoing participation of high-ranking members in criminal activities (primarily small-time drug dealing) is also examined in various contexts, including with regard to community response, public relations, internal dynamics, etc. An outpouring of community support for the ALKQN materialized in 1998 in response to Operation Crown, a police sweep that remains virtually unprecedented in size and scope in the history of New York City. It began to dissipate only with the imprisonment of King Tone, the leader and public face of the ALKQN during its political phase.
Luis Barrios, who is an Episcopalian minister and college professor, encountered the Kings and Queens in his congregation. The group appears to have sought him out as a result of his reputation as an activist with roots in many past political struggles. The co-author, David Brotherton, also with activist credentials, became involved after Barrios invited him to the church to observe. Clearly something was happening, the authors recount. The enthusiasm of the congregation, which included hundreds of members of the ALKQN, in response to fiery sermons of Father Barrios (an adherent of liberation theology) was palpable. Community forums and political rallies and demonstrations also began to include the ALKQN. The grievances of the group (especially regarding the issue of militarized policing), together with its direct, confrontational style of political participation, were embraced by large segments of the barrio. As Brotherton and Barrios demonstrate throughout their book, the “bourgeois renaissance” in New York over the last decade increased the range and scope of inequities. Its legitimacy in mainstream media and public, political discourse, therefore, was predicated on the ability of the Giuliani administration to discredit and silence oppositional voices, to destroy nascent oppositional tendencies and forces of every kind, in overtly authoritarian fashion.
The authors’ involvement with the ALKQN took many turns throughout the course of research, often obscuring the relation between observer and observed. For instance, Barrios testified in criminal court, several times, in cases involving the ALKQN. He also gave interviews to various media outlets on behalf of the ALKQN, such as the following with the New York Times. “Let me tell you what I’m supporting in the Latin Kings/Queens Nation. They came out taking sides against police brutality and I came out saying, ‘That’s good. I’m supporting you.’ They came out with this issue of organizing tutoring sessions for children in after school, and I said, ‘I support that.’ They came out against mayor Giuliani, and I said, ‘I support that.’ And every time they come out with one of these issues, I’m saying ‘I support them. OK?’” (184). Brotherton and Barrios’s investment in the outcome of the struggles of the ALKQN is clear; indeed, they would have liked to see a more thorough politicization of the group, with fewer contradictions. But it does not seem to compromise the objectivity of their research, even as layers of intrigue are added, again and again. Moreover, it is doubtful that a more passive engagement with the group would have produced real insights -– which is to say, insights of a kind that anyone besides researchers themselves should care about.
Brotherton and Barrios refer to the ALKQN throughout the book as a “street organization” –- since this is the name preferred by members themselves. “Street organization” is defined as “a group formed largely by youth and adults of a marginalized social class which aims to provide its members with a resistant identity, an opportunity to be individually and collectively empowered, a voice to speak back to and challenge the dominant culture, a refuge from the stresses and strains of barrio or ghetto life, and a spiritual enclave within which its own sacred rituals can be generated and practiced” (23). This definition is confusing because it is not clear what is being defined. In regard to the ALKQN, at least during the period of Brotherton and Barrios’s study, it seems entirely proper. But the authors believe that the term applies, at least conceivably, to other groups (“gangs”) as well. It is open to question whether other researchers dealing with other groups will turn up similar findings – not only whether it is possible to find similar cases. This book should inspire researchers to reevaluate dominant paradigms and many commonplace research assumptions. It should also inspire activists to take a closer look at “gangs.”
Reviewed by Louis Kontos
John Jay College
City University of New York