Partygoers got nervous as they noticed groups of young men “mugging” each other at the car show in Kent, Wash., a suburban town just south of Seattle. They weren’t stealing anything, that’s not what mugging means in this instance, but rather glaring threateningly, putting on a testosterone theater. The family friendly exhibit devolved into a war of words between rival gangs.

Astute observers feeling the bad vibe faded away, leaving the area, but most folks simply ignored the young men. After all, kids will be kids, right? But staring soon escalated to threatening, shoving, and fist fighting. Then in an explosive moment, twelve people were shot. Critically injured kids and adults, mostly innocent bystanders, were rushed to Harborview Medical Center. Later that night, a 13th person was shot in what police called a retaliatory shooting.

Gangs are Everyone’s Problem

Gangs are everybody’s problem. According to the FBI there are more than a million gang members nationwide, responsible for as much as 80 percent of crime in some communities. The King County Sheriff’s Office estimates there are 140 criminal street gangs with more than 10,000 members in the greater Seattle area alone, the home of Microsoft, Amazon, REI, and Boeing. While the overall trend has been sharply downward, gang-related crime has increased a shocking 165 percent since 2005. And half of the gang related crimes go unreported.

Gang Culture

Gangs are people who share a group name and identity, interact among themselves to the exclusion of others, claim a territory, create a climate of fear and intimidation within their domain, communicate in a unique style, wear distinctive clothing, and engage in antisocial activities.

What You Need to Know

No matter what their affiliation, gang members hold three things preeminent: respect, reputation, and revenge.


If you cross a gang member things will get ugly. Simply looking at one with the wrong expression (e.g., mugging) can get you badly beaten, if not killed. Imagine a banger’s reaction to an overt act of disrespect such as a derogatory comment or physical altercation. However much respect you might feel you want or deserve the average gang member craves it tenfold. Their formula is simple: disrespect me and you must pay, and pay in a disproportional amount. They do not care about the punishment they may receive. While prison might be life altering for you, it’s a minor inconvenience to them. Disrespect equals disproportional retaliation. Guaranteed.

Gang Reputation:

Gang reputations are made through violent antisocial actions. Reputation is so important that gangbangers will even brag to the police, admitting crimes (or even making them up on occasion) in order to boost their status. When a 25-year-old gang member was arrested after a club fight where a 36-year-old victim was beaten to death, he told the officers, “I got good elbows. People don’t know about my elbows.” He later pled guilty to negligent homicide.

Gangbangers don’t measure the world like you do. They don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay Social Security, they drive without licenses, own stolen guns, and they rarely expect to grow old. They live in the moment, doing whatever they feel like without regard to consequences. Their values are not yours, and you need to recognize this fact. It’s like negotiating with a crocodile, pointless. If you get too close, the crocodile will bite your head off.

Gang Revenge:

Revenge is a huge deal with gangs. If a gang member feels disrespected or thinks that his reputation has been harmed, retribution will certainly follow. You know that now, but here’s why: If he does not retaliate, he’ll get knocked down a peg or two, beaten, disgraced, or killed by his associates. Consequently, no assault or insult can be left unanswered, no matter how small.

Wearing the wrong colors, traveling in the wrong area, or gazing with an unsuitable expression can bring about the same type of murderous retribution. Assault, rape, murder, whatever, it’s all on the table. While vengeance can be swift, that is not always the case. Some Asian gangs, for example, talk about a “100-year revenge,” patiently waiting for the right opportunity to strike when you least expect it.

Staying Safe:

If you think you are “bad” enough to take on a gang member, you are downright stupid. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to stay safe. Some tips:

  • Don’t be there. Nine out of ten dangers can be identified and avoided by exercising good situational awareness. It’s easy to get to know the normal vibe of areas where you live and work, so if something looks, feels, smells, or sounds “wrong,” pay attention. If you sense danger or see others reacting to something hazardous you cannot see, leave. If you’re not there when trouble starts, you cannot get hurt. You bet you have a right to be where you are, go where you want to, but you also have the right to stand naked covered in bacon on the Serengeti. Neither is an intelligent thing to do.
  • Blend into the background. Don’t draw attention to yourself. If you’re a law-abiding citizen chances are you will not have problems with gang members, even if they live in your neighborhood unless you cause problems or otherwise make yourself an obvious target. If you see a fight starting, leave. If you spot a drug deal in progress, leave. If you see a group of guys wearing colors, walk away. Avoid dangerous people, situations, and locations whenever possible. It may be hard on the ego, but you’ll live longer that way.
  • Plan your day. As an example, if you need to use an ATM, the one inside a crowded grocery store is much safer than a standalone kiosk, especially at night. If you need to get gas, doing so during rush hour makes a lot more sense than at 2 a.m. As you travel, be cognizant of areas and times best avoided and plan your routes accordingly, even if it takes longer. Public places with bright lights, security cameras, and lots of people can be deterrents to criminal action.
  • Avoid public transportation, especially at night. Yeah it’s “green,” but it’s also damnably dangerous in many areas. Unless you know that the route you plan to take is safe, well patrolled, or both, use a car. If you’re assaulted on a bus or train there is little chance for escape. Even if you prevail, any fight with a banger will turn into a feud with the whole gang. That’s a war you cannot win.
  • Let the professionals handle it. No matter what you see happening around you, if you do not need to get involved, don’t. You can report crimes anonymously, of course, but don’t physically interfere unless your life or that of a loved one is in danger. In most jurisdictions there are gang units specifically trained to deal with these criminals. They have the experience and resources to succeed where you will fail.

Gangs are ubiquitous, terrifying, and dangerous, but if you keep these simple tips in mind you will have a good chance of walking away unscathed next time you find yourself in close proximity to a gang member. Act wisely and be safe.