Homeboys and Hoods: Gang Communication and Cultural Space
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224 Homeboys and Hoods Gang Communication and Cultural Space Kings is not only like a gang, it’s a family. Everybody cares about one another. You can never leave one behind. Everywhere we go we watch each other’s back. We never leave nobody running behind. . . . ’Cause, see, the same way we watch their back, they’re watching our back. When he (gestures toward Shadow, his friend) walks in the street and I’m walking on the other side of the street, I’m watching his back and he’s watching mine. That’s how we watch our own. That’s the way you gotta do it. You gotta watch each other’s back. We’re all family, we’re all Latin Kings. And see right there on the wall (points toward graffito on nearby wall) you can read over there by that crown over there with the LK—­ it says “Amor.” And “amor” right there means love. Amor stands for a lot of things. It stands for, uh, the A stands for Almighty, the M stands for Masters, the O stands for Of, the R, Revolution—­ ’cause that stands for Almighty Masters Of Revolution. See, amor. —­ Latino Boy talking to Dwight Conquergood on a Chicago rooftop (June 1989)1 Gangs give new meaning to group communication. For gangs, esprit de corps is an overarching goal and much celebrated achievement of all communication praxis. More than a discursive context, the gang as group is a way of being in the world, both modus vivendi and moral vision. Although gangs span a remarkable range of organizational structures that vary in terms of complexity—­from a neighborhood adolescent street corner society to a city-­ wide supergang that controls the urban drug market2 —­ in-­ group solidarity remains a defining characteristic. For gangs, conventional typologies of communication, such as interpersonal and small group, are inadequate. I coin the term intracommunal communication to capture the group-­ centered cosmology and communitarian ethic of street gangs. homeboys and hoods  225  My focus on intracommunal communication practices extends Lannamann ’s (1991) important critique of the ideological commitment of mainstream communication research. Lannamann noted that academic research on interpersonal communication presupposes the individual as the locus of personhood, leading to a focus on cognitive operations that renders invisible the wider social and historical fields of power within which all human communication is embedded. I would add that this privileging of the individual in communication research both reflects and reifies the “ontological individualism” that Bellah et al. (1985) and Gans (1988) identified as a defining characteristic of middle-­ class America.3 Indeed, the intensely communal ethos of gangs threatens bourgeois individualism and accounts for the anxiety-­ ridden demonizing of them in media images of the “pack,” the “mob,” and “wilding” group—­ middle-­ class nightmares of communalism run amok (see Conquergood , 1992a).4 Cultural Communication of Gangs Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1982a) argued for a dynamic, communication-­ centered understanding of social formations that are constituted and sustained by appeals to the greater value of the group, as opposed to those that are premised on the sanctity of individualism: Every time a member appeals successfully to the paramount need to ensure the survival of the group, its being in existence can be used as a more powerful justification for controlling individuals . . . . Each basic principle, the value of the group, the value of the individual, is the point of reference that justifies action of a potentially generative kind. (Douglas 1982a, 198) Douglas critiqued “passive voice theories” that construe culture as a static entity floating above the everyday communicative interactions, arguments , and rhetorical struggles of living people “who actively make their own environment” (Douglas 1982a, 1, 189). She reconceptualized culture “in the active voice”: Culture is both the fecund residue of past communicative interactions and the dynamic resource for ongoing communicative activities; in other words, meanings are both “deeply embedded [in history] and context-­ bound,” and they are dynamically “generated , caught, and transformed” (Douglas 1982a, 189). Communication practices of “real live human beings” become the 226  cultural struggles crucible of culture—­ the generative site where culture gets made and re-­ made. As Douglas explained: For the cognitive activity of the real live individual is largely devoted to building the culture, patching it here and trimming it there, according to the exigencies of the day. In his [or her] very negotiating activity, each is forcing culture down the throats of his [or her] fellow-­ [wo]men. When individuals transact, their medium of exchange is in units...