A more than two-month-old lawsuit in Washington became news late last week when the Walla Walla County commissioners responded to the suit by trying to legally define “gang attire.”
The suit was filed June 6 by two members of the Amigos Motorcycle Club named Corey Ray Puckett and John Allen Smith. They wanted to wear soft colors – tee shirts with their club name and insignia on the back – while attending the Walla Walla County Fair last year. A couple of local deputies told them “no.”
The lawsuit states: “Plaintiffs entered the fairgrounds. While in line for the demolition derby, plaintiffs were approached by two uniformed Walla Walla County Sheriff Deputies – Deputy Humphries and Deputy Daschofsky. The Walla Walla Sheriff Deputies told Plaintiffs they must turn their shirts inside out or leave the premises. The Walla Walla Sheriff Deputies informed Plaintiffs that they were enforcing a ‘no gang attire’ dress code. Plaintiffs informed the Walla Walla Sheriff Deputies that they were not in a gang and that the Amigos Motorcycle Club was not a ‘gang.’ Plaintiffs were forced to wear their motorcycle shirts inside out.”
The suit, which was filed by Seattle attorney Michael David Myers, argues that Puckett and Smith’s “right to be free from discriminatory law-enforcement” was violated and seeks unspecified damages and costs of the suit including attorney fees.
Writing A New Law
The ban on so-called “gang attire” apparently began as an unwritten policy inaugurated by a former county sheriff named Bill Jackson in “the 1990s.” There is no formal ordinance that defines what “gang attire” means and that’s what the county commissioners are trying to hammer out now before the next county fair opens its doors on August 31 and, who knows, maybe more Amigos will show up and this time they’ll be wearing patches.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jesse Nolte told Andy Porter of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin that he wanted to get an ordinance on the books “ “that has some standards and procedures as to how we determine what gang attire is.” The problem with that is – and it is a problem that eagerly awaits its moment in some federal court somewhere soon – is that the term “gang” is probably more difficult to define that the term “goth.”
Tom Sawyer Gangster
Not that people haven’t been trying. Mark Twain wrote about Tom Sawyer’s “gang” in Huckleberry Finn in 1884.
“Now we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang,” Twain wrote. “Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood.” Everybody was willing.
“So Tom gave out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he musn’t sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn’t belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued, and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot, for ever.
“Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate books, and robber books, and every gang that has high-toned had it.”
A University of Chicago sociologist named Frederic Thrasher published The Gang: A Study of 1313 Gangs in Chicago in 1929.
According to John M. Hagedorn, a professor of criminal justice who is arguably the leading authority on “gangs” today, “Thrasher was a social reformer and believed that gangs were part of the psychological and group processes of adolescence in poor communities. He was a firm believer in Children’s Court as a means to handle misguided youth and gang delinquency.”
“In the 1950s and 1960s,” Hagedorn has written, “gang research experienced a revival. As concern for minority gangs grew among nervous whites in central cities, some researchers reframed the definition of gangs from being primarily a problem of wild peer groups to being primarily a law enforcement problem. This refocus from the Thrasher definition was in keeping with stepped up suppression efforts by police and a ‘war on gangs.’”
Hagedorn defines gangs as “organizations of the street composed of either the socially excluded or alienated, demoralized, or bigoted elements of a dominant racial, ethnic, or religious group.”
Hagedorn also sees gangs as “an arena for the acting out of gender. Most gangs today are unsupervised peer groups, but many have institutionalized in urban ghettos, barrios, and prisons. Male gang members typically display an aggressive masculinity expressing values of respect and honor and condoning violence as a means to settle disputes. The gang also promotes a traditional, subservient, femininity, but for girls, membership can also be a sign of gender-role rebellion. Like all of us, male and female gangsters ‘do gender’ in a globalized world of uncertainty.”
The legal definitions of “gang” tend to be circular and less insightful than Hagedorn’s descriptions.
In Washington a gang is defined as “any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal acts, and whose members or associates individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity. This definition does not apply to employees engaged in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection, or to the activities of labor and bona fide nonprofit organizations or their members or agents.”
The qualifiers at the end of this definition are specifically intended to protect organizations like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from being called gangs. The definition would be hard to apply to the so-called La Cosa Nostra or the Russian Mafia. But it can also be used to describe any number of high school cliques including formal and informal groups of surfers, preppies and goths.
Nine years ago a Utah Gang Update included this passage:
“There seems to be some association between the gothic movement and drugs. In Murray, most of the school suspensions which occurred during 1996 occurred as a result of drug use or dealing by local gothics. There are several reports of gothics who are on probation from around Salt Lake County – although their numbers are far shy of the number of gang members. In most cases, their criminal behavior does not appear to be linked to being gothic, but rather to lifestyle choices related to their personalities and family situations. However, most law enforcement personnel simply do not have enough information about this movement to make a statement one way or another as to any organized criminal activity as part of this subculture.”
And that passage raises an obvious question. If the Amigos then why not the goths?