Gang War

gang violence
Before you can appreciate what the characters in this scenario are likely to do, you need to know something about them. If you knew and grew up with them, you might not see them this way, but here’s how they see themselves:

  • Mark: Always had a thirst for power, and became a gang leader at a young age. Absolutely ruthless, and doesn’t apologize for it. Argues vehemently that he’s actually making life in the neighbourhood better, by putting some order in it. He has benefited from the recent collapse of a rival gang, and is moving to control the whole neighbourhood now, though he himself lives in an affluent district outside it. His gang has been living beyond its means, and desperately needs to secure some new money and resources, so the gang’s raids and extortions have recently increased dramatically.
  • Ray: Mark’s longtime friend, Ray had a rough childhood, thrown out of the house when just a child. He lived in the streets for years until Mark’s gang seized two adjoining houses for its local headquarters, and let Ray live in one and guard the other. Ray is understandably grateful to Mark’s gang and paranoid about losing his new home, and defends both houses fiercely.
  • Paul: The poor guy who was living with his wife in one of the houses Mark’s gang seized. It wasn’t much, but it was home, and he’s tried to get it back, but the authorities won’t help — they’re unwilling to confront Mark and Ray. His wife was so devastated that she killed herself. So Paul’s living in the streets, where he regularly gets beaten up and beaten back whenever he tries to reclaim ‘his’ house. He lives in constant fear, and fierce resentment.
  • Benny: Benny’s the local vigilante leader, and the guy Mark’s gang fears most. He remembers, a bit nostalgically and inaccurately, when the neighbourhood was more peaceful. He’s got a lot of money, and he uses it to hit Mark’s gang anywhere and any way he can. He has kept the gang’s headquarters under siege, and once even vandalized Mark’s private home in a distant, rich neighbourhood. He is consumed with his anger and idealism, and determined to rid the neighbourhood of the gang at any cost.
  • Randy: The other threat to Mark’s gang comes from Randy, the local high school principal, who has used the school as a centre for those determined to oust the gang from the neighbourhood. He does everything he can to persuade his students not to become gang members. Mark recently put out a hit on Randy, so lately Randy has started barricading the school and arming himself. Randy is driven by pride and outrage at what has happened to his neighbourhood. 
  • Russ: Russ is a former gangleader and local businessman whose gambling habit got him into trouble. Once prosperous, he’s fallen on hard times and developed a serious drug habit. Everything his business earns is now extorted by Mark’s gang, or by other gangs that he owes money to as a result of his addictions. His life is full of shame and despair, he desperately wants to get out of the neighbourhood, and he has often considered suicide.
  • Chas: Chas ran a small gang for years, with a lot of members but limited success, until Mark took him under his wing. To some extent Mark and Chas have become co-dependent, with Chas using his small army to help Mark get what he wants, and Mark equipping Chas with what he hopes will help him become a big-time gangster. They are still suspicious of each other because they represent a mutual threat, but their co-dependence keeps them at peace with each other. Chas remains in the shadow of his strange and powerful mentor, and remains poor, desperate and somewhat resigned to his lot, but, for now, keeps chasing the carrot that Mark holds out for him. Meanwhile, sensing the tension, Randy the school principal has asked Chas to form an alliance with him.
  • Alf: Poor uneducated Alf has been beaten up and pushed around all his life. He briefly fell under Benny’s spell and worked as a vigilante, but wasn’t very good at it, and Mark’s gang crushed him and now beats him up regularly and tracks him everywhere. Ironically, while he was once beaten up by Russ, he’s now Russ’ pusher, and that’s the only way he can seem to make a living. Like Chas, Alf’s life is one of continuous desperation and resignation. He’s lived in the neighbourhood all his life, and there have never been good times.
  • Rick: Rick is Alf’s richer and better educated cousin, but like Alf his life in the neighbourhood has been one of continuous subjugation. He’s had a lifelong love/hate relationship with his next-door neighbour Randy. For awhile they fought fiercely, but lately he’s realized that Randy’s the only friend he has. Rick has a self-destructive streak, and has tried to kill himself, and also tried to kill Ray once. He’s never liked Benny and the vigilantes, but recently was hospitalized and had his luxurious house ransacked by Mark’s gang under the false pretense of striking back at Benny. The gang continues to occupy the house while Rick recuperates in hospital. Now he’s thinking maybe Benny isn’t such a bad guy after all. Like Paul, Rick is driven by fear and resentment over his sad lot in life. 

So there are the nine characters in our story. They’re not very likable, I confess. It’s a tough neighbourhood.

What I’d like you to do is to put yourself in the place of each of these characters and imagine what they might do next. How will the story of this sad community unfold? For example:

  • Suppose the authorities finally evict the gang from Paul’s house. Will Paul be satisfied living next door to the gang that humiliated him, or will be try to evict the gang from that house as well?
  • Vigilante Benny’s frustrated that, while many admire him, so few of the neighbours are willing to join his vigilante group and actually do anything to get the gang out of the neighbourhood. He’s contemplating another attack on Mark’s house, but he really needs to do something that will shake the people of the neighbourhood from their fear and lethargy and get rid of the gang themselves, and he’s not sure attacking Mark’s faraway house would have that effect. What can he do to really stir up the neighbourhood, and/or so devastate Mark’s gang that they decide to go elsewhere?
  • Principal Randy is terrified of the hit that Mark has put out on him, having seen what has happened to Alf and Rick. He’s barricaded himself in his school, and has some major weapons pointed at Rick’s house next door (where Mark’s gang is still holed up) and at Ray’s across the street, in case he’s attacked next. Mark’s gang has told him that if he doesn’t disarm and show the gang that he has no weapons, he will be killed. What happens next?
  • Will the co-dependency between Mark and Chas hold, or will Chas take up principal Randy’s offer? Or will Chas play them off against each other, and see who offers the most?
  • Once Rick gets out of hospital, how long will he tolerate Mark’s gang occupying his house? Will he be mad enough at being made Mark’s patsy to join up, reluctantly, with Benny? Or, seeing Mark’s gang’s threat against Randy, will he put aside their differences and ally himself with the principal?

As you may have guessed, I’m setting you up. This is another of my If the Shoe Were On the Other Foot exercises. The ‘neighbourhood’ is Asia and the MidEast, Mark is America, Ray is Israel, Paul is Palestine, Benny is Bin Laden, Randy is Iran, Russ is Russia, Chas is China, Alf is Afghanistan and Rick is Iraq.

The purpose of the exercise is to try to get you to see how the leaders or the people of each of these countries see themselves now, and why they are doing what they are doing. I can appreciate what drives people to commit suicide, and to become a suicide bomber. I can see why people who have hated each other for a long time continue to attack each other irrationally and refuse to find any kind of workable compromise.

I can see that Al Qaeda, while it has succeeded in nearly bankrupting the US, has been ineffective in getting mainstream Islamic people to rise up against their governments, expel all vestiges of the West and create a single monolithic Islamic state. In that sense, especially since Bush is bankrupting the US even without its increased military spending, Bin Laden’s campaign has been a total failure. I can see why the situation in Russia and in Afghanistan (and in many of the former Soviet states) is so hopeless that the only real choice of the people is to kill themselves (by suicide or by drugs) or to flee. I understand China’s ambivalence to the US, its interest in establishing the SCO China-Russia-Iran-(India-Pakistan-Former Southern SSRs) alternative economic and power bloc, and its desire to wean itself off dependence on the US. And I can appreciate why Iran feels it has no choice but to become a nuclear power and threaten Israel, in its own defence (and why, as Sy Hersh explains this week in The New Yorker, the first response of Iran if it is attacked will be to pour its troops into Iraq to fight the US there).

The situation is complex, which is why there is no clear human answer to it. Aside from its scale, it is not all that different from the situation in many poor urban areas that the government has given up trying to serve or save, and which are loosely controlled by the equivalent of the Afghani warlords who control (except for the capital) that country. In that sense, my little gang war scenario is a miniaturization of the situation in Asia and the MidEast, but not an oversimplification of it. The approach of the West to impose a Western-style political and economic system on the MidEast, where such systems are utterly alien, is much like the approach to ‘clean up’ gang-controlled areas of American cities: send in the troops, level everything, and let the ‘market’ build something that they will own and look after, so they’ll keep the locals in line to defend it. The hope is that if everyplace looks like an American suburb, replete with McDonalds and the Gap and Starbucks and heavily-armed cops and vigilantes and big privatized jails and pro-American churches and all the other icons of American capitalism, everyplace will start to act and be like an American suburb, and the ‘problem’ will go away. It hasn’t gone away in America’s cities (where this tactic has been tried) and it won’t go away in the MidEast either.

If the US could figure out how to ‘liberate’ its own poor and down-trodden areas from poverty, disease (the infant mortality in these areas of the US is higher than in many third world countries, and the life expectancy lower), crime, abuse of power, corruption and desperation, it might then discover that the same approach could liberate many nations struggling with the same cycle of despair. But because this is a complex problem, and the existing systems and prevailing imaginative poverty are only capable of addressing simple problems with simplistic solutions, the US hasn’t the faintest inkling how to do it. The ‘right answer’ is never invasion, occupation, more guns, more prisons, more law enforcement, or ‘leaving it to the market’. These merely contribute to the problem.

The ‘complex system’ answer is to remove the obstacles that prevent the people from taking back power and resources from the warlords and the gangs, and to provide incentives that will encourage and reward them for doing this for themselves. If the people win the peace, the people will protect it.

This is not easy, of course, and it will take generations and cost far more than the trillion or so that Bush has squandered in Iraq. Complex system changes never are. But it’s achievable, with enough time, energy, and resources. But first we need to get rid of the imaginative poverty and simplistic thinking that merely exacerbates these problems, and the people, like those in the Bush regime, who resort to them.

There is a real question of whether we can still afford the money, the resources, the energy and the time that it will take, to do this in most of the world. My guess is that the answer to this is no. But perhaps if we try it in a few places, and discover that it works, we will be motivated to do everything we can do to make it work everywhere else. So that, ultimately, there will be no place left for those who would exploit the ignorance, anger and suffering of others for their own advantage. Andthe gang wars of this planet, at every scale, will finally be over.

Image: Donna DeCesare, taken for Dart Center in Guatemala last year.

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6 Responses to Gang War

  1. Carroll says:

    So, you write stuff like this when you’re not feeling well? Hope it was just a 24-hour bug after all. Sure sounds like you’re back to fully fine form again!

  2. judith says:

    chas is very sneaky and you would be surprised at how much in control of the situation he is. he knows when mark is going to take a pee, before even he knows and just wait and see who really is financially holding the ball. have you heard the story of the sleeping tiger?

  3. Chris says:

    Hi,This morning, as I was doing the dishes, thinking about the disgraceful cap which the French soccer player put on his career with that head butt, souring what was otherwise a pretty good world get-to-gether, it occurred to me that to change the world we need to change our minds and hearts. Some of us put a lot of effort into activism of all kinds, but we also need, in each of our interactions with anyone, to be kind, and to show the kind of understanding of circumstances which you are talking about in your latest blog. I found your site using the terms “Change Your Mind” and “Change the World”. If we can treat each and every person with respect and consideration on a one-to-one basis, there is hope for trickle-up diplomacy. I realize this is not quite on-topic, but I reckon it applies. FWIWChris

  4. Steve Farber says:

    I’m glad to have found your site, Dave. Looks like I have quite a bit of reading to catch up on…

  5. Martin-Eric says:

    Doing the right thing has been attempted before. What happens then is that those who benefit from doing the wrong thing regroup and strike to ensure that things return to “normal”.I suggest looking up the Zion Protocol. One of its main lessons is that those who cheat, all while maintaining the appearance of fairplay, systematically win, while those who mean well and play by the book constantly get trampled. This is what makes it so difficult to achieve durable, positive change.Change is only ever accepted by the Powers That Be if it means more money and more power to them. Proposals to bring back the power to the people does not interest them, because it would weaken their position. Making everybody healthy, truely productive and individually empowered does not interest them, because it would kill the economy of learned helplessness.This is the threat that faces humanity: itself. Or rather, the few humans who strive to maintain the status quo, because it fills their pockets and fulfils their dreams of allmightiness, at everyone else’s expense.

  6. fredda says:

    How wonderful to disc0ver your blog… ^^you said: “The ‘complex system’ answer is to remove the obstacles that prevent the people from taking back power and resources from the warlords and the gangs, and to provide incentives that will encourage and reward them for doing this for themselves. If the people win the peace, the people will protect it.”I live in the Philippines, and the US always felt an obligation to interfere with us (done under the guise of “helping” ofcourse!) , inflicting Western ideals on us, such as dem0cracy (which destroys us, as the pe0ple are uneduCated and aren’t nati0nalistic and keep voting for the saMe old status-quo suppr0ting American-mimicking clowns in the governMent)and trying t0 run our ec0n0my. If Filipinos were left to their 0wn devices, they wouLd divide the state into small tribes and local towns (city counciLs, maybe?)- Filipinos find it so hard to be uniTed.and the people here would protect the peace- why shouldn’t they? the Americans have always wanted to help/save us- but I think that we should be SAVED from the US’ bullying us and controlling us and those in the status qu0 who supp0rt the Americans. I agree that we sh0uLd change our hearts, but we should also be very fiRm in BLAMING, AND JUDGING, AND SPEAKING OUT OUR OWN VERSION OF “TRUTH”- so that this endless cycle of despair of poverty will end….s0meday. ^^reporting from Manila, Philippines,Fredda

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