Gangs on Trial: From the Corner to the Court

This week in North Philly Notes, John Hagedorn, author of Gangs on Trial, writes about why and how gang members are stereotyped and demonized in the courtroom.

I have spent more time in courtrooms the last few decades than I have on street corners or playgrounds. Over the same period, I have written many more court reports as an expert witness than I have journal articles as an academic. Why? Turning my attention to “gangs in court” was a conscious choice based on some fundamental beliefs I have on the uses of research and on my determination to challenge injustice.

First, the question raised by sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, “Sociology for whom?” has long streamed through my head on a continuous loop. Lee’s 1976 presidential address to the American Sociological Association attacked careerism in sociology. My mentor, Joan Moore, as well as my role model, Kenneth Clark, both argued that research should consciously benefit the community or it would be used by elites for their own interests. Clark’s haunting question, “What is the value of a soulless truth?” became my credo, accompanying my slogan, “Research not stereotypes.” From my first study on gangs in Milwaukee, I was conscious of the implications of my research. In the 1980s I told my People & Folks respondents—the “top dogs” of gangs in Milwaukee—that the purpose of my research was to provide evidence that “jobs not jails” was a better solution to Milwaukee’s gang problem.     

In other words, I believe research needs to be understood outside of “truth for its own sake,” and deliberately designed to benefit those in powerless communities, especially those who are stigmatized and demonized. If social scientists will not defend the powerless, what values do we have? Did we understand sociologist C. Wright Mills when he called on social scientists to challenge the rationalization of society?  

Second, I realized frustration/aggression theories of violence are not only applicable to the streets. Just go to any trial of a gang member and listen to the angry tone of the prosecutor saying the community is “fed up” with gang violence and wants… well, prosecutors often say “justice” when they mean “revenge.”

Social psychologist Craig Haney teaches us that sentencing is not based so much on the criminal acts of flawed human beings, but on the belief the accused has an evil character—“unstoppable evil” was what one of my defendants was called. Evidence of the criminal act is secondary to what prosecutors believe is the less than human nature of the accused. Demonization was taken literally in one of my first cases, when the defendants were labeled “Followers of Our Lord King Satan”, a law enforcement make-believe acronym for Georgia’s FOLKS gang.

Violence is hard, sociologist Randall Collins concluded, and in order to justify it and overcome our deeply embedded inhibitions. Philosopher David Livingston Smith argues the victim needs first to be dehumanized. On the streets rival gang members are called “Slobs” or “Crabs” or some other non-human appellation. You are killing an “it” not a “he” or “she.” I found that is precisely how it works in the courtroom, with a predictable racist tinge. Gang members, typically Black or Hispanic, are dehumanized—another of my defendants was called a “mad dog.” What do you do with a mad dog? If you can’t kill it, you lock it up and throw away the key. What better description is there of today’s sentencing policy? 

I began my expert witness work in 1996 opposing a possible death penalty for Keith Harbin, who was then on trial. At that time, there were few academics willing to consult with the defense, and hesitant to risk the ire of law enforcement. There clearly was an unmet need. From the start, I saw my expert witness work as an extension of my social responsibility to confront racism and dehumanizing policies and practices. 

So, it is as simple as that. My “life in court”—and this book—are the results of my particular circumstances, the general punitive nature of today’s mass incarceration society, and my belief in the social responsibility of research.

Watch a video of John Hagedorn talking about his book here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: