Dressed in a sleek black and white suit, Al Pacino, portraying the gangster, Michael Corleone, casually pulls out a gun in the middle of a diner and shoots drug lord, Sollozzo directly in the forehead. Nobody can deny the polished and cool mastery of Al Pacino’s daunting gangster, of which he has achieved an impeccable career portraying ruthless and audacious criminals. This classic scene from The Godfather, among one of America’s favorite films, shows why gangsters have fascinated us with their psychopathic tendencies, witty slang, relentless cussing, unsympathetic attitudes, thick Boston and New York accents, and their immense need for power to control others through the use of fear. In the media, the fear of gangs is accelerated in our subconscious due to the exposure of constant gang violence, and the media’s stubborn insistence that protection, in particular guns, are needed for personal safety.
Media prompts our interest in gangsters by portraying them as controlling their own lives to the extreme, while pushing for their desires no matter the number of innocents killed along the way. And the gangster’s vital force of intimidation is the gun. The most infamous gangster, Al Capone depicts his use of the gun as power: “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word” (Jacques). Media spikes the fear of gangs which leads to a growing trend for protection, contributing to gun violence in the United States.
Media negatively represents gangsters as villainous criminals, not afraid to pull out a gun any minute, which frightens people into thinking they can protect themselves with guns. In the fictional postmodern novel, How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, a white man, Jack Franklin, shoots a sixteen year old black boy, Tariq Johnson. While the true reason for this death is open ended, the evidence suggests that this crime was committed on an innocent boy, killed for his skin color and hoodie gang appearance. As such, a crucial influence leading to his guilt is the media. News reporters interview with Brian Trellis, a witness who attempted to stop Tariq from a supposed robbery. Brian continues to question whether Tariq had a gun. However, the news interprets Trellis’ indecisiveness as a strong indication of Tariq’s criminality, “It must have been terrifying to confront an armed gang member like that….[w]ords of a brave man, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Mr. Trellis. It’s clear your actions might have prevented additional violence” (Magoon 201- 202). This report assumes only one side, and supposedly its sensationalism is geared towards obtaining high TV ratings. When audiences have become accustomed to film plots, they feed on the shocking. The heroic tale of a white man shielding society from a black gang robbery and a potential shooting is movie-like with its enthralling attention seeking excitement. But does society see this story as increasing the threat to their personal safety?
As media coverage over gang violence increases, our fears are intensified. Even an immoral character in the novel like Reverend Sloan, who originally processed Tariq’s murder as a gateway to higher fame through social media attention, realizes that the media slants toward one side as he tells the press, “Jack Franklin is not being tried by the media. He can’t be. That’s a job for a court and a jury” (255-256). The media savors the thrill of stories, influencing the public to believe that certain viewpoint. This is clearly expressed when the police accept Jack Franklin’s side of the story. Although this is a fictional novel, its conflicts and characters are realistic. We can trace the similarities of innocent black men shot because of racial hatred, tied with potential gang affiliations, and in several modern cases, particularly in the death of Trayvon Martin. With the media’s subliminal stereotype of the gangster’s appearance hidden in our minds, citizens are often overwhelmed by terror that they claim self-defense from someone who never intended any harm whatsoever. Some media’s exaggerations and narrow views set psychological boundaries between citizens and the “supposed” criminal gangsters. Richard Rodriguez’s essay from Convergences indicates the division caused by the media between fearful citizens and East LA gangsters. He demonstrates each group as if using surveillance on the other: “In the suburbs we [citizens] use TV to watch the mayhem of the inner city. But on the TV in the inner city, they [gangsters] watch us” (507-509). This hateful separation indicates a tension-filled war between society and gang members with a fear of limited preparation. These two opposing sides believing the “other” an enemy leads only to further conflict, especially brutality, and gun purchase as a way of surviving.
With a combination of cruelty and flaring excitement, the media often hints at the need for people to defend themselves because gangs are portrayed as relentless and will stop at nothing. Photographer Joseph Rodriguez presents an intimidating photograph of gang member and father, Chivo, teaching his baby daughter how to hold a pistol. This photo was taken “the morning after a rival gang tried to shoot Chivo for the fourth time” (503). With multiple guns scattered around the child’s feet intertwined with a clump of bullets, the photo is shocking and the strange smile on the mother’s face adds a tragically laughable surprise. It is as though guns are literal toys. With a devastating loss of morality, the gun has become a common necessity for protection, and in this case a life skill. A small innocent baby learns to hold a gun before being able to comprehend the world. Undoubtedly, gangsters are contributing to the next generation of violence.
Besides the news media portraying gangsters in a sadistic light, gang members themselves use social media to threaten and gain power, adding to the terror, and use of gun violence on individuals. According to Sanjaya Wijeratne, et al., 86% of police officers look at social media at least twice a month to help piece together gang investigations. Their article “Analyzing the Social Media Footprint of Street Gangs,” projects gang members, mostly young teenagers, who use various media sites as Twitter or Facebook to bully, threaten, sell drugs, and “publicize” their weapons. One gang member from a Chicago interview threatens over social media with a gun: “Someone says something to me on Facebook, I dont[sic] even write a word. The only thing I do is post my 30-popper, my big banger” (Wijeratne et.al 92). Research conducted exposes gangs using mostly hateful language filled with hostile cussing, and very little of which is positive. All of this adds to the fear, as police and officials scrounge social media to predict possible devastations from violent gang attacks. Yet, some may feel guns have always terrified us no matter who is holding the weapon.
Although some may argue guns have always created fear, and that gangs are portrayed accurately in the media, the media’s portrayal of gangs has only accelerated gun violence. News media enforces our angered attitudes toward gangs as seen in the tone of Richard Rodriguez, who argues, “Those of us who live elsewhere are shocked by the mayhem—little pops and flares in the night and answering sirens, far away. We deplore all of it. And when something hideous happens, which it does, in the morning paper or on the news, then we mutter something, […] its freight is obscene we dare not enunciate: ANIMALS. SCUM” (504). Rodriguez’s harsh diction and choice of “scum” and use of all capital letters in the last two words echoes a gang-like hatred, despite the fact he is a professional writer. Mainly, it projects the horrendous feeling of terror built from the media’s representation of gangs as “animals on the loose.” This term “animals” reminds us of an uncontrollable creature we wish to control, but its unpredictability leads to pervasive fear. One wishes to suppress it, as the gun acts like a safeguard exasperated by fright. An Oakland police officer stated it best about the struggle for power: “Have you ever been in a physical fight? It may be the only moment in your life when you can control the outcome” (Rodriguez 507). Mimicking the action of gang members, police known as our protectors, sometimes are at fault for crimes because they shoot out of trepidation. Joseph Rodriguez’s dramatic and shocking visual of two and a half year old, Thomas Regaldo III, dead in a white coffin, brings home the disastrous effect of gang violence. Richard Rodriguez looks fixedly at the imagery of Joseph’s photographs because in real life one cannot “stare without fear of being killed” (504). Because of the continuing panic of escalating violence surrounding gangs, 87% of gang members have friends who own guns for security which “suggest[s] […] weapons both for protection and for use in crime” (Bjerregaard). Essentially, your gun is your friend in this world.
Similar to Al Pacino’s scene, Italian gangster boss, Tony Soprano, portrayed by James Gandolfini in the hit crime gangster TV show, The Sopranos, charges into a diner, pulls out a gun, and inserts it into his victims mouth without another thought. As a helpless customer tries to stop the situation, he is easily reduced to uselessness by Tony’s power. A gun makes him invincible to the general public and installs terror. As a freshman new to college, reports of crime incidents have intensified my fear when walking late at night. Groups of men walking in the shadows trigger this intimidating image of a gang, and I timidly avoid eye contact. Lingering from the traditional path, I avoid those jamming to their loud music, and imagine where to run in dire situations. Although I have never met an actual gangster or had a close violent encounter, I have been influenced by the media to believe these people exist, waiting to strike. They are human beings, yet we consider them animals from the two dimensional media. Gangsters are like actors, living in a portion of fantasy and machismo, acting tough to obtain their desires, but in reality we all just want to survive.
Bjerregaard, Beth, and Alan J. Lizotte. “Gun Ownership and Gang Membership.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 86, no. 1, 1995, pp. 37-58. doi:10.2307/1143999.
Jacques, Wesley. “Necessary Roughness.” The Little Black Book Of Mafia Wisdom: Secrets, Lies, Tricks, And Tactics Of The Organization That Was Once Bigger Than U.S. Steel, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, 2012. EBSCO.
Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. 2014.
Rodriguez, Joseph. “‘Chivo; Funeral of Thomas Regalado III’ 1993, 1992.” Convergences: Themes, Texts, and Images for Composition, 3rd ed., Bedford St. Martins, 2009, pp. 503, 508.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Gangstas” Convergences: Themes, Texts, and Images for Composition, 3rd ed., Bedford St. Martins, 2009. pp. 502-510.
Wijeratne Sanjaya, Derek Doran, Amit Sheth, and Jack L. Dustin. “Analyzing the Social Media Footprint of Street Gangs,” Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2015 IEEE International Conference, 2015, pp. 91-96.