Ten Minutes with Rainmaker Matthew Valasik
Matthew Valasik is informally known as a “gang scholar.” After completing his PhD
in Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California, Irvine and joining
LSU as an assistant professor of sociology in 2014, Valasik’s focus has been on applied
research at the intersection of geography, place, and theory to better understand
the community contexts of crime and policing. Last year, he led the first study to
show a statistical connection between homicide, blighted buildings, and proximity
to convenience stores in Baton Rouge, finding that nearly 25 percent of homicides
take place within the same areas that comprise about 3 percent of the city.
In a time when gang behavior, traditionally defined within a specific neighborhood or territory, often finds parallels in various online activities of organized groups, Valasik continues to explore how his specific expertise on gangs can translate to new ways of thinking about communities with shared agendas on a much larger scale.
What motivated you to study criminology?
Law does not operate within a black box where we only look at legal precedent. There are also social factors that influence law as far as how judges react, and things like that, right? So, we take those things into account when we study criminology.
At Irvine, we had an interdisciplinary approach that was couched in the school of social ecology, which is different than normal sociology in the sense that you’re engaging with the community through research to address societal changes and phenomena. It is a very practical orientation that attempts to reach the broader public. Based on my training, everything I do has a policy implication. I’m not a big fan of just sitting in the ivory tower looking out of my window. I want whatever I come up with to have some application in the real world. It has to benefit society in some way.
How did you first get interested in studying gangs?
I was broadly interested in neighborhood-level theories of crime, and my PhD advisor George Tita studies street gangs. He was a PI on several large grants, so I started moving in that direction, too. At LSU, however, there are a limited number of criminologists so I get involved in lots of different projects and do things that go beyond the scope of just street gangs.
I look a lot at violence, because the serious crimes are the most extensively investigated and documented. Crimes such as sexual assault or aggravated assault don’t always get reported to police. Then it’s as if the crime didn't happen. But with homicide you know what happened—there's always a body. With homicides, you know for sure that a crime occurred. It’s solid data.
“Historically, you know, if you were a youth in a neighborhood and you felt marginalized, you tried to find others who felt marginalized too, and you’d form your own group as a response to that. Well, now with the Internet, you can talk to someone and they can get you a ticket for a bus or a plane, and a day later, you’re over in Turkey crossing the border.”
With studying street gangs, I do a lot of conventional things. Where are we expecting them to hang out? What are their mobility patterns? A lot of times you assume gangs live in the territory they're hanging out in. Most of the gang literature says that gang members hang out with each other a lot. So, you would expect when police stop them that where they’re hanging out is going to be their turf. That’s the traditional thought process, but that’s not always the case. In Los Angeles, for example, gangs don’t always behave that way. Gang members often commute to their territory. So, I look at those patterns more empirically with data and come up with a kind of mobility typology.
These mobility patterns then relate to possible interventions. With civil gang injunctions, police can basically put a restraining order on a gang telling them that they can’t hang out with each other in public in a particular area, their turf. If gang members get caught hanging out in public, they can get fined or arrested. But if they’re not actually hanging out in their turf, then it’s kind of a waste of resources, right? It’s not effective. As criminologists, we try to figure out if this approach works for certain gangs rather than others. And then, how do we apply that?
You’ve broadened your approach as to what it means to be a “gang,” right?
Together with a couple of co-authors, Shannon Reid and Matthew Phillips, we’re now looking at using what we know about street gangs to apply it to other groups that gang scholars traditionally always put at an arm’s length; “I don’t study this.” These groups would be prison gangs, terrorist groups, white supremacy groups, and motorcycle clubs, for example. But the argument for me and my co-authors is, “How different are these groups, really?” Are the characteristics that make them different actual “definers,” or just descriptive of this type of group?
I did one piece with Matthew Phillips where we were looking at ISIS and trying to compare ISIS to street gangs. Do they line up? If they don’t, what makes them different? You know, a lot of times people join these types of groups, regardless of what we want to call them, because they’re missing something, or feel marginalized either by society or threatened by some other group. Historically, you know, if you were a youth in a neighborhood and you felt marginalized, you tried to find others who felt marginalized too, and you’d form your own group as a response to that. Well, now with the Internet, you can talk to someone and they can get you a ticket for a bus or a plane, and a day later, you’re over in Turkey crossing the border.
It has become much easier for people to join groups that traditionally would be local. In academia, we need to respond to this. Originally, Shannon Reid wanted to study skinheads in graduate school, but if you say you want to study neo-Nazis, most gang scholars will likely tell you that it’s not a gang.
This started a process of us looking at white power youth groups and doing an exploratory comparison to see if characteristics of individuals in these groups are similar to black or Latino gang members or white youth in non-white-power gangs. Then we began doing a lot of reading and research on the recent emergence of alt-right groups. This is a whole new phenomenon that’s happening here. It’s exciting.
I hear you have a book coming out this fall?
Yes. It’s called Alt-right Gangs: A Hazy Shade of White, which is a play on words off the Bangles’ song, “Hazy Shade of Winter.” It’s coming out in September, right before the election.
So, should alt-right groups be considered gangs?
Originally, American gang scholars went over to Europe and asked, “Do you have gangs?”, and heard, “No, we don’t have gangs.” Because when they’d envision gangs, it would be as a hierarchical and very structured drug organization. But that’s not typical. That could be one evolution of a gang, but that’s not what the majority of gangs look like. A gang can be just a group of youths that might have a name and cause trouble together. And there’s a lot of variation of how much trouble that could be. There can be serious crimes, or just a bunch of delinquent activity. It’s the structure and persistence of the group that matters. They can’t just show up like a flash mob. A lot of European scholars say, “Oh, we just have trouble with some youth groups.” They had to come up with a new framework—a new definition of what it means to be a gang, such as being street oriented.
“They house free speech rallies, but it’s free speech in terms of their own speech; they want to be heard. They don’t want to hear the other side’s speech. There’s also a lot of irony and a broadly defined attitude that they’re just joking around. But again, it really doesn’t matter if you’re joking around or not. You can still be causing harm with what you’re saying or doing.”
At the same time, in this day and age, the idea of being “in the street” is that you’re out in public intimidating people. Well, now we have other public forums. If you’re intimidating someone on Twitter, isn’t that just as public as being on the street in your local neighborhood? As such, there is a need to reevaluate these definitions so that they accurately apply to current times.
There’s a group called Proud Boys, developed by a guy named Gavin McInnes who was an original co-founder of VICE media. He then started to go down the right-wing path, left VICE, and developed Proud Boys. He considers them to be “Western chauvinists.” But this is all dog whistles and coded language. Western civilization is code for white civilization. And yes, anyone can be a part of the group as long as they adhere to the idea that Western civilization is the best. The majority of the members are white young men, in their late teens or early twenties feeling marginalized by society—whether it’s because of job opportunities or changing social pressures. But they do encourage violent acts and are particularly aggressive against Antifa. There’s been a ton of rallies in Portland, for instance, with a group called Patriot Prayer. They house free speech rallies, but it’s free speech in terms of their own speech; they want to be heard. They don’t want to hear the other side’s speech. There’s also a lot of irony and a broadly defined attitude that they’re just joking around. But again, it really doesn’t matter if you’re joking around or not. You can still be causing harm with what you’re saying or doing.
As scholars, we’re trying to provide a starting point for people to look at these groups to have enough background to say, “Yeah, we have some interventions and things that could work.” The field has spent the last 30-plus years saying, “Oh, you can’t study this group because it’s not a street gang.” But let’s get some actual empirical data to actually test this.
Could you give some examples of blind spots?
I tell students all the time, here’s a dissertation waiting for you: If you start interviewing fraternity and sorority members, they could fit into some gang definition. Boy scouts, too. Then the question becomes, “Why aren’t they considered a gang? Why do we not look at them?” For instance, the hazing incident we had here at LSU a couple of years ago. That could easily have been prosecuted as gang activity, but they didn’t do that. If the same thing would have happened north of Government Street, it would have been a completely different scenario.
How could studying this make our communities safer?
In many ways, it’s about pragmatism. Have you heard of Operation Ceasefire? It started in Boston, trying to reduce gun violence in the early ’90s. Basically, if you go into a neighborhood and say, “We want to get rid of the gangs,” this doesn’t work. A lot of residents are going to say, “I don’t agree with that.” Because gang members are not only these nefarious evil people—they’re brothers, cousins, and fathers. They have ties to the community. People might say, “My sibling or kin is not really bad; just misguided.” Nobody wants them to be locked up and the key thrown away. But if you go into a community and say, “We want to get rid of your gun violence,” no one says, “I want more gun violence.” It just happens, though, that gang violence—over 95% of it—involves guns. So, you can kind of get to the same thing; do a rope-a-dope, and kind of go around it.
Through this approach, you can give gang members three options. “Stop, and we’ll support you.” Or, “Don’t take our help and just stop. If you don’t trust us, fine, but stop.” The third is, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll throw the book at you.” Then commit all available prosecutorial resources to locking everyone in that group up. Traditionally, there’s always one group that will buck the horse, and then they become the example. All of the resources actually do get thrown at that group.
But do we know for sure this will work with alt-right gangs? No—because we haven’t studied these groups enough. We might have to tailor our approaches slightly different than how we tailor them today for street gangs.
“There’s finally been some calls now to actually consider white power groups as domestic terrorist groups. The question is, why hasn’t this been sooner, instead of ignoring them for the last 30 years? It’s disconcerting. But we have almost a hundred years of research on street gangs; we can infer some things, instead of starting all over. Let’s try to apply what we know.”
Charlottesville in 2017 was a turning point. A lot of these far-right individuals that talked amongst each other online finally manifested together in the real world, resulting in several severe injuries and one death. We need to pay attention to what’s happening online and provide guidance on what eventually could translate into some type of future act of violence. Sort of like red flag laws for people who have guns. We don’t say they can’t own a gun in the future, but temporarily, they’re not going to own it because we’re concerned about their safety and the safety of others. Right now, we’re just sitting back waiting for the next thing to happen. It’s just a matter of time.
I am interested to see what will happen with this election. I’m hoping it’s not going to be the catalyst that drives people in the alt-right to violence. About 6% of the American population is sympathetic to their point-of-view, which is a substantial number of people. It’s not nothing. But again, it’s not the vast majority of people across the country.
There’s finally been some calls now to actually consider white power groups as domestic terrorist groups. The question is, why hasn’t this been sooner, instead of ignoring them for the last 30 years? It’s disconcerting. But we have almost a hundred years of research on street gangs; we can infer some things, instead of starting all over. Let’s try to apply what we know.
The Rainmaker Awards are given each year by the Office of Research & Economic Development, Campus Federal Credit Union, and the Council on Research to faculty who show outstanding research, scholarship, and creative activity for their respective ranks and discipline. The awards recognize both sustained and continuing work, as well as the impact that work has had on faculty members, departments, and our academic community. There are three award categories: Emerging Scholar, Mid-Career Scholar, and Senior Scholar. For each category, an award is offered for a faculty member in the area of Arts, Humanities, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and one in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Emerging Scholar Award
Mid-Career Scholar Award
Senior Scholar Award
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development