Identity politics can lead to some truly violent outcomes. Case in point: the Aryan Brotherhood.
Aryan Brotherhood Tattoo

Wikimedia Commons

The 1950s Civil Rights movement brought about sweeping changes — including some in prisons. Desegregation extended behind bars as well, and as inmates of all races started mixing on the yards and in the showers, the violence got to be more than prison guards could control. In self-defense, prisoners began forming racially exclusive gangs that still occupy every prison block in the country to this day.

One gang, the Bluebirds, exclusively comprised white inmates with some Irish ancestry. At some point during the mid-1960s, as the violence and illegal smuggling operations picked up inside prisons, the Bluebirds joined forces with a few other gangs and forged a new organization: The Aryan Brotherhood.

Blood In, Blood Out

Aryan Brotherhood Blue Birds

Twitter/Aryan Brotherhood

The Aryan Brotherhood started out very differently from other prison gangs. Unlike the Black Guerrilla Family or the Nuestra Familia, which are “racist” in the sense that their membership happens to draw from a single racial group, the Aryan Brotherhood was explicitly racist from its inception, and drilled white supremacist ideology into all new recruits (called “progeny”).

The group’s constitution, which members are supposed to memorize and only write out for new members to memorize, explicitly calls for exclusive loyalty and respect on the basis of a shared white heritage.

For the first ten years of its existence, the gang took this blood oath very seriously and kept its members far away from other races. AB, as it is sometimes known, was so serious about race and ethnicity in the early days that members would sometimes turn white prospects away if they weren’t at least part Irish.

To this day, though admission standards have somewhat relaxed, members still frequently sport a shamrock tattoo as a nod to this early exclusivity.

Of course, as any veteran politician could tell you, ideology has a way of hopping out the window when there’s good money to be made. By 1975, the Aryan Brotherhood had drifted away from a tight cadre of fighting Irish in the San Quentin yard and toward a sprawling community of inmates all over the country.

With this expansion came opportunities that a simple self-defense organization could never exploit. By forming an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, AB found itself in a position to ship loads of drugs into prison and carry out loads more cash for laundering on the outside.

New Opportunities For The Aryan Brotherhood

Aryan Brotherhood Repeat Offender

Twitter/Aryan Brotherhood

This enlargement and diversification brought major structural changes to the Aryan Brotherhood. For nearly 20 years, the gang had operated as a direct democracy: Each brother got one vote, and members brought every important issue before the full assembly of men who weren’t currently locked up in solitary confinement.

This system, which had worked fine when the group had a few dozen members in the same facility, proved unworkable by the early 1980s, when paroled members who kept working after their release had organized branches in every state.

To better manage the flow of money and drugs, as well as to better direct the beatings and murders that have made AB the terror of America’s prisons, some reorganization was needed.

By around 1985, the Brotherhood had taken on its current organization. Briefly, the gang is split into two largely independent wings: One centered on California’s prisons, the other on the federal system.

Nobody who wants to live can tell just how close the two groups are, and it’s possible they operate as a single unit for most purposes, but it’s also possible they’re two mirrored versions of the same gang who hold separate franchises.

However the system works on a large scale; both factions have an identical internal structure: Paramilitary, with presidents, vice-presidents, majors, captains, and lieutenants.

Today, the Brotherhood resolves important matters via a standing council of 12 senior members, rather than a popular vote. These men don’t last long, with several being remanded to life in solitary confinement or death row, which means the line to the top levels moves quickly.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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