• Mohamad Tabbaa

Criminal Language

Why do people join gangs?


It’s a question I’ve been asked numerous times and one I’ve pondered for some years now. I’m still not entirely sure of the answer. I joined my first gang at the tender age of eight-years-old, only to spend the next 10+ years trying to escape, mostly unsuccessfully. Episode 2 of the SBS series Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl was therefore equally as difficult for me to watch as the first, though this time because it did bring back memories – unpleasant ones.


Continuing the theme of violence from episode one, this episode takes us on a journey into the unsettling and often misunderstood world of gangs: a world characterised by drugs, criminality and death. Or is there more to it?


Bearing witness to violence, some of it extreme and grotesque, is both a blessing and curse. It can scar one’s life permanently, memory recalling itself to the fore at seemingly random times as if to remind its bearer that a normal life is permanently beyond attainment. Crisp is the sound, in my mind, of a young man’s jaw cracking as he is punched for stubbornly refusing to surrender his brand new phone; fresh is the imagery of a heavy boot stomping a skull into the concrete pavement as punishment for a disrespectful gesture. A disquieting guilt has me questioning whether he — or many others like him — might have been killed in any such ruthless attacks.

 [Exposure] can sensitise one to violence just as it can do the opposite, sometimes simultaneously.

But violence is also a teacher. It grants us an insight into the human condition, into the casual capacity humans have for wanton destruction and the heedless disregard for life outside of their own and that of their ilk; much the same capacity that nation-states exhibit towards one another as they act upon the world stage as hyper-sized individuals.


There is a common misconception that exposure to such violence hardens a person and desensitises them to further violence, fostering an ever-increasing propensity towards it. This is only half true. Appreciation for the terror of violence can also have the opposite effect: if one is able to exit survival mode — a difficult ask — witnessing violence can instil a profound sense of responsibility and empathy for suffering, which might be impossible to learn otherwise. It can sensitise one to violence just as it can do the opposite, sometimes simultaneously.


Likewise gang life also has its lessons, many of which I’ve found quite useful for both the workforce and other organisational activity. At the heart of it, gang life is simply a different way to organise society and the flow of violence, replete with hierarchies, economies, political negotiations and alliances, currencies, nationalities, power and corruption; or, a miniature United Nations. On this reading, the core difference between a criminal gang and police is that one gangs’ violence is deemed legitimate and the other not. Both are uniformed and trained to protect the interests and territory of their gang along similar lines of loyalty, habit, reward and punishment. One simply gets the official stamp of the state and gets to label their violence ‘force’.


Nonetheless, these lessons come at a price. My newfound upward social and class mobility brings with it relief from financial hardship but also the crushing guilt for the abandonment of my peers; a helplessness at the realisation that at some stage one simply has to leave behind what was once a strong bond built around intensely shared experiences and struggles which will likely not be understood by one’s new associates. I still struggle to mend this gap between working class experiences, sentiments and language as I sit sipping lattes with academics at fancy cafés discussing Foucault and Freud.

… there is a reason why songs titled “Fuck The Police” resonate with certain people … just as there are reasons why one particular style of wealth and its amassment is more appealing than its counterparts.

How does one live a standard nine-to-five life with these experiences burnt into their psyche? These are only some of the issues I find myself consistently grappling with as I attempt to reconcile my past with my present, and it is for this reason that I found the coverage on gangs in the documentary severely wanting.


The story of “Westy” provides a useful example in this regard. Fortunate to have escaped the troubled gang-cycle, he has now a greater awareness of its destructive pervasiveness, coupled with the heavy burden of trying to steer youth away from its inviting path. His account is fascinating as it is frustrating. His words, despite (or perhaps due to) being carefully chosen, seem to betray and leave behind so much of his story, which can be gleaned from his tired eyes. His tenuous ordeal seems to be reduced largely to a case of “making easy money” in the empty pursuit of the flashy lifestyle of American rappers.


There is always more to it than this, and yet that something more seems to vanish beneath the dry liberal language of ‘choice’employed in Westy’s interview: a choice to join a gang for easy money and a choice to imitate rappers for their lifestyle. But what free choice does a kid have when offered drugs as early as grade 3, as happened in my primary school? Or what free choice does a teen have when pressured to take drugs again in high school, where 30 of the 33 students in my maths class were stoned? It appears to be more a matter of fate than choice.


An average interviewing technique is only partly responsible for this superficiality. There are a number of divides that seem impossible to bridge in the speaking of history, least of all the issue of memory, which is always a retrospective interpretation: there are no “facts” in history, only narrations. There is also the fraught issue of language itself, entangled as it is in the symbolic realms of class, race, gender and other such discourses. How is one to meet the demands of a lofty liberal language when capturing an experience that occurred well before they themselves had accrued enough to be able to speak it? How is one to describe their life in an elitist language, which itself disavows their experience as abnormal and criminal? It has taken almost ten years of university education, in a constant struggle with language, for me to start to articulate my history and do some justice to its recollection.


The interview captures the impossibility of the question/answer approach to experience and history. What else could Westy say but “we did it for the money”? This is the sole rationale for such actions, which makes sense within a liberal capitalist repertoire where people are rational consumers before they are recipients of violence. This false agency — the “I” who acts — which is the condition of such speech, is the same lie necessary for the legitimacy of legal responsibility; it is what traps us as “guilty” before a judge: “I committed crime”.


In a similar vein, there is a reason why songs titled “Fuck The Police” resonate with certain people but not others, just as there are reasons why one particular style of wealth and its amassment is more appealing than its counterparts. Why don’t gang members listen to Guy Sebastian rather than Tupac, and aspire to the wealth and image of Paul Keating instead of 50 Cent?


Only one of these speaks to their experiences and offers them a language of resistance, a way to speak (or swear) back to power. It is quite telling that, of all the people one could possibly imagine themselves as aspiring to emulate, some Lebanese males from Sydney imagine themselves closest to young disenfranchised black males from America. Perhaps, in this, they recognise a similar political fate.


I reject the notion that one listens to rap and hip-hop in order to become rich, or that one commits to a life of crime solely to make quick easy money, risking life and limb in the process. The real crime here is the erasure of experience and distortion of memory.


The real criminal is language.


[Part 2 of a 4 part review of SBS documentary, Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl. First published in RightNow Magazine]

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