I've been watching Gangland, a History Channel program about gangs in America — street gangs, motorcycle gangs, etc. When you watch a lot of episodes of this sort of program back-to-back as I've been doing, you start noticing interesting patterns. Unless the History Channel has been inaccurate in their portrayal street gangs, their origins have all been very similar — not just similar to each other, but also I suspect similar to the the origins of the earliest tribes and nations.
Put simply, most of the gangs profiled over the four seasons of Gangland on the History Channel were first created by people who simply wanted a means of protecting themselves. Some needed to protect themselves from other gangs; some needed to protect themselves from racism; some were just friends who were bullied at school. Whatever the problems in their lives, it was clear to them that the ostensible authority figures in their lives — parents, police, politicians — were unable or unwilling to help them. Usually, they had good reasons to fear for their lives, at least some of the time.
As a consequence, a few enterprising individuals decided to band together for mutual protection and, sometimes, protection of their general neighborhood — or perhaps just their street. Obviously this isn't an accurate description of gangs now, so what happened?
Despite their origins in self-protection and despite the efforts of some to uphold strict personal standards of behavior, they all ended up trying to make money and in the end the easiest way to make a lot of money fast became dealing drugs — especially given the fact that most of those joining gangs were racial minorities in poor neighborhoods, people who were denied equal opportunities to make a living via other means.
What are the ways in which street gangs seem to be like nations?
Colors: Very few gangs run without colors of some sort and every nation has their flag. Gang members consistently report that it's important for them to show their colors and attack anyone who disrespects those colors Consider, then, how "patriots" react when they perceive that their flag is being disrespected or dishonored in some fashion.
Symbols: Gangs all have symbols of some sort, even those without colors. Gang signs are types of symbols, but there are others — the Latin Kings, for example, have the five-pointed crown. Nations, of course, also have lots of symbols beyond their flags. These symbols, like the colors, are defended to the death, especially if anyone shows them any disrespect.
Territory: Gangs are typically centered on territorial boundaries. Many were founded to defend just one neighborhood or street and most have expanded beyond whatever territory they started with. Most make their money dealing drugs so their territory also encompasses whatever places make the most drug money for them. Gangs also go to war with each other for control over territory.
One of the definitions of a "nation" is the ability to exert administrative control over territory. Throughout history nations have gone to war over territory, and usually territory which provides more in terms of resources, money, and economic benefits.
Mutual Defense: As noted above, most gangs seem to have formed simply to help a community defend itself against outsiders. One of the characteristics of a nation is the ability to defend a territory and the people living in it. Alongside territorial integrity, maintaining the lives of the people under one's protection is the most important function for a nation.
Military Forces: The backbone of gangs are their soldiers, people who are willing to kill and die to defend their territory, defend their colors, and of course to defend each other. A willingness to die for each other, regardless of the circumstances, is a value instilled in street gang soldiers from the beginning. This same principle is applied in national militaries, though with even greater effectiveness. Service members are trained to fight and kill to defend the nation but they more often fight simply to defend the people next to them.
Exploitation: Gangs survive and thrive through exploitation — primarily the exploitation of their own people through the sale of drugs, though also the exploitation of outsiders seeking drugs. Gangs created to protect the neighborhood have thus morphed into organizations that survive by exploiting and killing that neighborhood. Nations, too, have survived and thrived through exploitation. People at home are exploited through their labor; foreigners are exploited by having their resources stolen.