The book Monster by Sanyika Shakur is the story of one gang member’s life of crime growing up in a crime ridden neighbourhood outside Los Angeles. Then known as Kody Scott but given the name Monster by his fellow gang members because of his vicious and ruthless acts of violence, Shakur relates a life of crime that started at adolescence and escalated quickly. He relates to the reader that the only feelings of belonging and family that he truly experienced were in the family created by his fellow thugs through a life of shootouts and gangbanging.
In the book, Shakur expresses memories of his mother’s only reactions to his crimes being disapproval and detachment, rather than concern or love. There is little evidence of order or community in Shakur’s experiences either in his time on the street or during his periods of incarceration. The novel Monster and the life of Sanyika Shakur paint a picture of a life ruled by the concepts of the social disorganization theory.
The social disorganization theory, formulated by Burgess, Shaw and McKay, proposes that delinquency and crime are the results of communal institutions like family, church, school and local government fail and stop being active structures within a community. These communal institutions enforce social responsibility, care and concern for the community and positive behaviour within the community. When these institutions degrade and stop playing active roles in the lives of the citizens of a community, the organization and social responsibility of the community is lost and crime and negative behaviour can spread in their place.
The memory of Kody’s graduation at the beginning of Monster is an example of the prevalence of social disorganization in Shakur’s life. He relates how, at the age of 12, his graduation from grade school is treated as a family event and attended by all his siblings, an aunt and an uncle. But as soon as the graduation ceremony ends and the family returns home it disintegrates, with the other authority figures leaving and Kody being yelled at by his mother to clean up his room.
There is no praise, no positive reinforcement, just yelling and orders. As a result Kody flees for the place that he feels he will get that acceptance, love and sense of accomplishment – the hangout of a local gang member. It is in this early experience that it can be seen how the life of a gang member, in young Kody’s eyes, will meet his needs far better than living the life of a civilian and working a regular job, as he describes the clothes of one gang member he emulates as, “Things our parents could not afford to give us” (Shakur 6).
He has been given no reinforcement from his family unit, a family where there is seemingly little or no structure, so he finds that structure and reinforcement, along with the promise of better things, in gang life. Later, after being released from prison, Shakur reflects on his neighbourhood that he grew up in and recognizes its shortcomings: “I couldn’t believe the drabness of the city. Burned-out buildings and vacant houses took up whole blocks. Gas stations and liquor stores owned by Koreans were on every corner. Mexican merchants hung on corners, hawking oranges like dope.
The obvious things that had been there all along I never saw differently” (Shakur 360). This illustration paints a picture of a neighbourhood that is rife with the characteristics of a socially disorganized environment. Shakur mentions no schools, no churches, no public parks or recreational sources of positive enforcement. The things that stand out to him are liquor stores and Mexican fruit sellers. There are burned-out buildings and vacant houses, representative of the void where positive reinforcement and social responsibility is blatantly absent in his community.
As a result, these streets that now cause him to feel depressed are the same ones that led him to a life of crime and murder. The things that are absent from the streets that Shakur sees were also absent from his life. He never mentions school again after that early graduation memory except to say that he never went back, and there is no mention of church at all by him or his family. The concept of faith is so foreign to him that he does not understand it when the Muslim leaders in prison try to explain faith to him.
There is no evidence of social responsibility in the neighbourhood that Shakur describes, only poverty and businesses like liquor stores that provide sources of negative distraction from life and responsibility instead of encouraging improvement or positive behaviour. One of the elements of gang life that appealed to Shakur was the structure provided by the organization of gang sets. He states, “All attempts at new ideas are not successful. Sets fail, much like businesses. Much work goes into establishing a set.
With the success of a set comes universal recognition” (Shakur 81). This description indicates that Shakur’s way of thinking and personality would have benefited from a more positive source of structure and organization, such as in church, school or a community work program. In this illustration Shakur explains that successfully organizing a gang set garners recognition and respect, the ultimate goal. But the gang members he’s organizing with have not been taught how to organize themselves for a positive goal, like a school athletic team or a church choir or study group.
In the absence of that positive reinforcement their organizational skills turn to forming a successful set that will have adequate numbers and sufficient weapons to launch an attack on gang rivals. The social network that should have existed within the community as a source of strength and positive reinforcement was replaced by a social network within the gang community, spreading violence and drug use throughout a community weakened by lack of leadership and socially positive structures. There is a sense of apathy portrayed in the neighbourhood that Shakur grew up gangbanging in that allowed the social disorganization to spread.
He describes occasions in which he and fellow gang members would follow rivals into local businesses to assault them and business owners would simply step out of the way. This is another scenario in which positive behaviour could have been reinforced. The local businesses do not represent a traditional social structure like a school or a church, but a group of local businesses banding together to stop gang violence on their premises and to enforce the law against crime and encourage local youth towards more positive pursuits would have produced the same effect.
Instead, other citizens turn a blind eye to the theft and violence that occurs on their property out of fear or apathy. This attitude allows the disorganization to occur just as the failing of the communal institutions does. Shakur’s experiences in the multiple prisons in which he is incarcerated also provide evidence of a lack of structure or positive reinforcement. Shakur repeatedly gives examples of prison guards that mistreat and beat African American inmates because they are African American or because they are gang members.
When discussing the juxtaposition of the environment he grew up in with the prison environment he explains that much of the disorganization and violence in prison stemmed from, “the fact that most of us grew up in eighty percent New Afrikan community policed – or occupied – by an eighty five percent American pig force that is clearly antagonistic to any male in the community, displaying this antagonism at every opportunity by any means necessary with all the brute force and sadistic imagination they can muster”(Shakur 223-24).
In a socially organized society law enforcement would be another structure that would reinforce positive behaviour within the community and help to encourage a sense of community responsibility. Here, Shakur describes a police force where the opposite is true. Instead of encouraging positive action the police antagonize citizens, especially those that are male, and use brute force and unnecessary violence to enforce the law, while taking advantage of their position of authority over the citizens.
Instead of using their authority to be role models within the community and protect the people from crime by discouraging it, the police that Shakur grew up with on his Los Angeles streets abused their power and took advantage of their authority to wrongfully accuse Shakur and his community. This represents a clear departure from the social structure necessary for social organization, and a degradation that could have definitely resulted in the presence of social disorganization instead.
The structures of authority within the gang world relate Shakur’s need for reinforcement and organization that he didn’t find in his social community. During his stay in prison he describes plays for power in which an inmate member of one gang would physically assault or publicly humiliate an inmate member of another gang as a means of establishing dominance for himself over the other inmate and for his gang set over the other gang set.
Again, this is an example of the lack of social structure, both out in the community and within the confines of the prison, resulting in a social structure and community spreading in the criminal world and encouraging negative behaviour and crime. It is in this prison system that functions as a microcosm of social disorganization that Shakur discovered the New Afrikan Independence Movement, which is presented as a contrast to the unstructured, violent, socially disorganized world that Shakur has known.
Again, he feels a sense of belonging in the structure and positive reinforcement of his attitude. He learns to take pride in his heritage and where he is from instead of reacting out of anger and ignorance at the police and other members of society that he feels degrade him. In the movement Shakur explains that he learned that his behaviour was directly related to the environment he was in and the reinforcement he was given, and that the only way to create a positive environment for himself and his people was to create one. In himself, Shakur develops his own social organization.
He describes how he left the gang community while in prison and expresses surprise that there was not more resistance. It makes sense that after a life in the gang world where any opposition or threat to the authority and structure of the gang was met with anger, violence, and potentially death, that Shakur would be apprehensive about announcing his decision to turn his back on gang life and his surprise at the calm reaction. Shakur also changes his life outside of prison, instructing his friends to not address him using the N-word and refusing the cocaine they bring him.
The reactions of his friends and family to his new attitude and outlook on life illustrate the reinforcement of social disorganization. His gang member friends try to give him money and drugs right away so that he can delve right back into a life of illegal activity and crime. His mother displays a detached, almost unemotional attitude that indicates that she doesn’t think it’s possible for him to avoid returning to the gangbanging life he knew and make a new life for himself.
In her reaction, his mother displays all the characteristics of a socially disorganized community in her inability to offer positive reinforcement or organizational help or structure. It is only through Shakur’s will and new sense of purpose that he escapes the socially disorganized world he lived in for one that is organized with the structure and positive reinforcement he needs to succeed. Works Cited Shakur, Sanyika. Monster. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
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