Posted on April 27, 2023

Who Is a Gang Member? Question Sparks Racially Charged Debate in Alabama Legislature

John Sharp,, April 23, 2023

Boogaloo boys, Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are often referred to as alt-right militias who appear at demonstrations wearing military fatigues, Kevlar vests or polo shirts.

But that attire is not singled out in Alabama legislation that aims to increase criminal penalties against gang members. Tattoos and certain street clothing, however, are listed as an identifying feature of a gang member. Those features could lead to stepped-up penalties for people participating in crimes benefiting a gang, according to the legislation.

The differences are sparking a racially charged statehouse debate pitting Alabama’s mostly Black Democratic Caucus against the mostly white Republican supermajority.

The State House showdown boils down to the definition of a gang and gang members as specified in legislation that would enhance criminal penalties against people who commit crimes and who are identified as a member of a gang.

“There isn’t a bill more important than this one to me,” said State Senator Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. “This is taking a whole race of people and throwing them into another category.”

Emotions were high on Wednesday while the legislation was debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The issue prompted one Democratic lawmaker to urge his Republican colleagues to scrap the word “gang” and replace it with “criminal enterprise,” which the Alabama Attorney General’s Office – the agency pushing for the legislation – says it would not object to doing.

“Let’s also look at using language to include terrorist groups, the mafia, and hate groups,” said Senator Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. “Not just gangs.”


The two bills – SB143 and HB191 – advanced out of the House and Senate Judiciary committees within the past two weeks. The committees approved the bills despite anguished opposition from Black lawmakers who say the definitions of a gang member is akin to “legal profiling.”

Both bills also add enhanced penalties for using or possessing a gun when committing a crime while promoting gang activity. They also would charge juveniles over 16 as an adult if they are participating in any gang-related crime.


The legislation has the backing of over 160 law enforcement officials in Alabama and its introduction comes at a time when violent crime, specifically shootings, continue to plague the state’s cities.


The legislation would elevate any felony committed to promote the interest of a gang automatically to its next highest level. The same would apply to the use of firearms intended to promote gang activity. {snip}


Defining who could be a gang member is based on what’s already defined through federal and state laws dating back to the 1994 federal crime bill that led to stricter punishments for gang members.

Alabama is one of 43 states including Washington, D.C., which have some sort of definition for gangs that closely follows federal language, according to the National Gang Center.

The federal definition labels a gang as an association of three or more individuals who collectively adopt some sort of group symbol or identity (examples include sign language, colors, names), and engage in criminal activity.

Under HB191 and SB143, a “gang member” is defined as someone who meet one or more of the following: admits to membership in a gang, identified as a gang member by a parent or guardian, or is identified as gang member by an informant.

Seven identifying criteria are then included within language of both bills. At least three or more of the following must be met to be identified as a gang member:

  • Adopts the style of dress of a gang.
  • Adopts the use of a hand sign identified as used by a gang.
  • Has a tattoo identified as used by a gang.
  • Is identified as a gang member by physical evidence.
  • Has been observed in the company of one or more known gang members four or more times.
  • Has authored communication indicating responsibility for the commission of any crime by a gang.

Matthew Valasik, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama, said there are “definitely racial undertones” with the gang definitions utilized in Alabama and elsewhere. He also said there are “class undertones” as well.

“At LSU, there was an individual who died from a hazing and five to six guys were charged,” said Valasik, a former professor at Louisiana State University and co-author of the 2020 book, “Alt-Right Gangs: A Hazy Shade of White.

“They were all young white guys,” Valasik said. “If we pick that incident up and move it a few blocks off campus in another neighborhood, I can guarantee you that the prosecutors would have charged them with a gang enhancement.”


Democratic lawmakers argue the legislation is filled with potential unintended consequences that single out Blacks.

“People use the word ‘gang’ so frivolously that we don’t know who is in a gang or not,” Singleton said.

He said he fears the legislation could lead to innocent people labeled as a gang, such as those affiliated with a fraternity.

“I’m in a fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and I wear letters and all my brothers wear letters,” said Singleton. “I throw up a sign. I have a tattoo on my shoulder. I’m definitely not in a gang.”