How gang initiation became a Halloween 'tradition'

Every year, Halloween brings with it the usual offerings of haunted houses, people dressing up and attending costume parties, not to mention the tradition of children trick-or-treating and eating candy, throwing eggs and carving pumpkins.

Halloween also has a history of gang initiations, sometimes attributed up to rumors, fear-mongering and urban legend, while other times viewed as a real and serious threat to public safety.

During this time of the year, stories start to swirl in the blogosphere, social media, online message boards and via email and text about impending gang violence, such as rumors a few years ago that the Bloods street gang would make its recruits murder 31 people in order to join the group.

The website Snopes.com highlights many of these emails and texts, including accounts of signs posted in front of Wal-Mart and other stores warning of gangs ordering their members to kill 34 women, or police handing out flyers warning of gangs that are planning to kill or seriously injure 30 to 50 women.

In recent years, police in some cities such as New York have tried to dispel these fears, while other cities have taken the threats seriously. For example, last year at Fairfield University in Connecticut, the school’s department of public safety sent an email to students regarding reports of a potential gang initiation that would target college students on Halloween. Fairfield and Bridgeport police departments worked together with the university to investigate the matter.

2008 was a busy year for the “gang initiation week” concept. In the days before Halloween in 2008, two men were arrested in Newark, New Jersey for a drug- and gang-related shooting rampage that left two dead. And an intelligence report by the Virginia state police presented a possible scenario in which the Bloods would target law enforcement on Halloween, with an ambush precipitated by a low-level gang member following a call to police about a domestic disturbance or a street fight.

That same year, an email in Baltimore warned of the “car bump tactic” used by gang members. “The car bump tactic is the most common way [gang members] get people out of their cars to either steal the car, rob you and steal the car, kidnap you and steal your car or kill you and steal your car,” according to the sender of the message. “If someone taps your car, do not get out unless you are sitting in front of a police station…. Stay in your car and keep driving.”

Also in 2008, an email was sent to people throughout the country warning of a future gang initiation involving a woman shot in the head at a gas station. And in 2009, rumor spread by text message that gangs would attempt to kill 140 women in northern New Jersey and Hartford, Connecticut. Police concluded that the warnings were hoaxes.

Halloween is no stranger to violence. October 31 has long been associated with pranks such as egg pelting that have resulted in deadly criminal acts, including fatal stabbings and shootings.

According to theFolklorist.com, the legend of Halloween gang initiations has its origins in the early 1990s, and as early as 1980.

In Montana in 1980, a Montana resident claimed that the Hell’s Angels biker gang conducted Halloween initiations. After several years, the story spread to Oregon, with the Hell’s Angels morphing into black and Latino gangs who supposedly targeted whites in Los Angeles.

In 1992, a woman in California was shot to death while riding in a friend’s car. The driver had flashed his car headlights, which another car filled with teenagers misinterpreted as a diss and returned with gunfire. A copycat incident reportedly took place in October 1993, and word of gang initiations spread to cities across the nation.

In 1997, the New York Police Department received information that the Bloods chose October 31 as their gang initiation day. That year, over 135 people had been slashed in random razor attacks, many of them attributed to youth belonging to the Bloods and other gangs.

The NYPD beefed up its reinforcements in anticipation of Halloween violence. And the Latin kings ordered their members to skip school that day. But as it turned out, no gang-related violence occurred.

Whether based on actual incidents or the product of rumors and hoaxes, stories of Halloween gang initiations are not going away. Snopes.com suggests that concerns over gang initiations take hold particularly in hard economic times, during a time of widespread anxiety and fears about the political future of the country. Perhaps, these days, Americans believe they have far more to fear from Wall Street, Washington and the Bloods than from monsters, ghosts, zombies and witches.