Graffiti has served as the billboard of gang violence for decades, or, as Inspector Jon Cargill of the gang unit for Oklahoma City – one of the worst cities for gang violence in the country – puts it, "graffiti is the newspaper of the street." It's a means of provocation and a tool to lay claim to streets, of showing other gang members you aren't scared to fight. "Gangs put the information out there as a way to show territory, to intimidate people, to show disrespect to other groups," Cargill says. "It's a way of riling things up, of going after each other, and it works."
But gang graffiti today has taken a turn for the worse. It's going viral, and virtual. Gang members aren't just writing on the walls of their neighborhoods, they're marking up the walls of Facebook and Twitter, bringing the war of the streets to the world of social media. "Facebook is their new street corner," Sgt. Lou Savelli, a former NYPD gang specialist who now runs a law enforcement training firm, explains. "Rather than yelling at each other on the streets and on the walls, now they do it on the internet and everyone can see."
And by yelling, Savelli means yelling. Many gang members routinely videotape themselves threatening rival gangs, dealing verbal taunts and even flashing guns, and then proceed to embed the videos on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo, you name it. "YouTube has become huge, huge, huge," says Providence Sgt. Michael Wheeler, head of the Providence Police Department's gang unit. "These kids will jump someone and they'll video tape it, or they will write a rap song about another gang and post it." It's graffiti 2.0, live, fully loaded, and likely to provoke more than just a war of words. "If they put it on the internet," Wheeler says, "those other kids are going to fight back."
Commander Leo Schmitz, the anti-gang tsar of Chicago's violence-ridden Englewood district, knows this problem all too well. A longtime member of the Chicago Police Department's gang unit, he was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel last January to tackle crime in Englewood, where 25 percent of Chicago's violent crime in the last year has taken place.
"Gangs are using social media and it's causing many, many problems for us," says Schmitz. "They're going on Facebook, Twitter, other sites, and we'll see something like, 'We capped your ass this weekend. Come and get it.' And then it sets something off. Something breaks. The rival gang will post back something like, 'We're going to kill you little bitches'," he says. Often times it's just for show, but sometimes the posts on the wall mean real bullets on the street. "We just don't know how it will play out."
Like most young people in America, today's gang members have been using the internet since they can remember. With the rise of social media, and the pace and visibility at which it allows individuals to communicate, gang members are able to provoke each other more quickly and publicly than ever. "It's the quickest way to let people know you aren't afraid to fight," Oklahoma City's Cargill says. Graffiti on a garage door can only be seen by so many people, but a Facebook post or a video can be read or watched by anyone, anywhere.
Take TheHoodup.com (be warned, following that link will also take you to some pornography and is definitely NSFW), a virtual hangout spot for gang members and wannabes nationwide. "Where American Hoods Connect" is splashed across the homepage, along with chat rooms for "Open Hood Talk" and regional Hood Talks separated by East, West, Midwest, and Down South. Users of the site, each equipped with their own alias, flashy profile photos, and hood affiliations, are constantly posting, participating in forums like "Shouts to all my official Swans" (Swans referring to an umbrella gang comprised of a number of neighborhoods in South Los Angeles), where posts include shout-outs to a murdered gang member, and banter from other members bashing that very murder.
In addition to the rapid, real-time provocation of violence between gangs, the internet is posing another problem for law enforcement officials that spray-can graffiti could not. Recruitment. "The issue here is not just that today's gang beefs are bleeding over to the internet. The problem is also in how gangsters are getting into gangs in the first place. The web is a critical recruiting tool for the 21st century gang," says a detective and gang specialist in the Houston Police Department who asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "Older gangsters used to tell kids, 'come see us in the hood.' And now it's 'come see us on Facebook.'" It's quick, easy, and a way to foster gang size and solidarity with a few keystrokes, luring in kids surfing the web and looking for belonging and notoriety. "We're seeing outright direct recruitment of people on the web. People are seeking others out," Savelli, the former NYPD gang expert, says. "Gangs are really more concerned about quantity over quality. That's the most powerful gang."
Just as gangs are finding new power through the web, though, so are the police. As gangs and crews make their membership and rivalries more and more public, police departments have additional opportunities to try to tackle them.
"One of my main tools in tracking these guys in seeing what they're doing and tracking their patterns is through the internet. They don't necessarily know the police is following them," the Houston detective says. And just as gang members have aliases and flashy profiles on Facebook, so do the detectives following them: they go undercover online. "I pretend I'm some chick in a skimpy little outfit, and I got lost in the shuffle," he says. "I make up an account that's not me. They friend me and send me a message, just trusting I'm that girl, and then I can find out some things. I kind of just sit back and read everything that they do."
The upsides of web tracking, however, will only last as long as the gangs keep public. As a recent post on TheHoodUp.com warned, "WATCH WAT U SAY FEDS ARE READIN'." The police, however, don't seem too worried. "It's funny, almost ridiculous, how they put their business on the Internet," Savelli says, convinced gang activity will only become more aggressive and visible on social media. "We are only in the infancy stages of the utilization of the web and all its resources for gangs."
The internet-tracking tactic is being picked-up by more and more gang units in police departments nationwide. The National Gang Crime Research Center holds an annual workshop on internet gang tracking, seeking to train police everywhere on how to look to social media to stop violence. And the Chicago Police Department, at the forefront of this trend, announced earlier this month that it would begin installing technology in 3,000 police cars across the city that would enable officers to track social media on the go. As Schmitz, the Chicago anti-gang commander, puts it, "This information is power."