You don’t need to visit a rival gang’s street corner (or even leave the comfort of your couch, for that matter) to talk smack, because now you can do it through YouTube. A recent Google Ideas-funded study found that while American gangs use the Internet for some criminal activity, they mostly use it to post YouTube videos or to self-promote. So, really not that different from how the rest of us use the Internet, except for all the guns and violence.
Of the gang members polled for the study, 46 percent said they'd posted gang-related videos online, and 56 percent said they'd watched gang videos. Neither of those figures are surprising, as there are thousands of gang-related videos on YouTube alone.
Chicago, whose gang violence problem has been making national headlines for years, is the backdrop of hundreds of amateur gang-related videos with thousands of views each. The amount of Chicago gang-related videos and their relatively high view counts is startling, until you remember teenagers in America use YouTube the most out of any social network.
A video called “Humboldt park Latin Kings,” for instance, has three young men shit-talking so ferociously for the first minute it reads like a rival gang member psych-out (and it probably is, for someone from Satan Disciples). They curse and say things like “Internet thug,” “nightmare on L street,” and “king love” while flashing gang signs into a cell phone camera. Their bravado is so flamboyant the unseen cameraman bursts into giggles.
The comment section is full of insults too, with some commenters (who have commented on other Chicago gang videos) focusing on how the young men were dressed. To be fair to the fellows in the video, there is a thin line between dressing like a skateboarder and dressing like someone in a gang. Also, “throwing up forks?” (That could be a reference to the Folk Nation's use of downward-facing pitchfork as a symbol.)
One video of gang members digitally repping, titled "Eastside Kings 89th in Dragon’s Hood," has a young man proudly displaying his house arrest ankle bracelet a couple of times to the camera with a “fresh out the joint, bitch!” while they roam enemy gang’s territory. "Ghetto Side 24 Latin Kings" is literally a 14 minute compilation of what a few members did one night out, which included much cursing and street harassment, spray painting gang tags, and smashing cars until alarms went off. Another video features a girl toddler making a gang symbol within the first 15 seconds over eerie music. It’s all surprisingly personal.
The typical gang video is a combination of different mediums: photographic montages of members posing as a group or doing illegal activities alongside pictures of money stacks, tattoos and guns, along with intricate drawings of their gang symbols, all intercut with seconds of actual footage over some rap or hip hop song.
Combined with all the MS Paint covering people’s mouths or eyes or drawings on photographs, you’re looking at hours spent editing less than five minutes of video that's basically pro-gang propaganda.
Besides gang members posting their own videos, there are a few YouTube channels dedicated to Chicago’s gangs that have achieved so much success that any other YouTuber would have monetized the channels already.
The most popular one, CHITOWNBANGN, has collected 4 million views since 2009, with 283 videos and 3,800 subscribers. ChicagoHoodz773, started in January of last year, is approaching half a million views on 61 videos with 1,300 subscribers. These numbers are impressive considering the video quality for both is terrible and the camerawork is so shoddy sometimes the footage is blurry beyond all facial recognition (unintentionally). That hasn’t stopped thousands of people from watching these videos on a regular basis.
Who are these people tuning in? Are they cops? Rival gang members residing in the city or on either coast? Friends or family members of gang members? Random strangers living in safe suburbs curious about gang life? With that many views, probably all of the above.
Amidst the extreme muchisimo caught on camera you’ll stumble upon the occasional RIP video, reminding you the threats of violence are not trapped on the Internet. These videos, in comparison, are incredibly tender.
So where is YouTube in all of this? I asked YouTube for comment on the gang-related portions of the site, and the representatives that responded didn’t seem to know about it when I first emailed. As a YouTube representative wrote,
Video flagged on YouTube are reviewed 24 hours a day and we act quickly to remove material that violates our policies. We recognize the concern over potentially dangerous videos and have developed Community Guidelines that prohibit, amongst other things, gratuitous violence, dangerous and illegal activities, and inciting others to commit violent acts. In addition, our policies on threats and harassment result in the removal of material containing intimidation or predatory behavior.
Still, there's a ton of footage on YouTube–72 hours are uploaded every minute, says the site–and only a small portion of it is actually gang-related. Like any massive social network, YouTube relies on the community to flag videos for violating Terms of Service, which in this case no one seems to be doing.
As the issue gets attention, it's likely that some of the videos get swept away. But in the gang world, where repping your set is just as important (if not more) than crime and violence, social networks and YouTube are just another tool in the arsenal.