Journalist Gini Sikes’ 8 Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangs is a brilliant, heart wrenching account of girl gang-bangers in LA, San Antonio and Milwaukee. Sikes captures the violence, the struggles, and the strength of the children and young women who get involved in gangs.
Much attention has been paid to male gang members, but girl gangs have their own stories. While many start out as adjuncts to a male gang, they are their own community—the potential to be equally violent, but saddled with the sexist power structures of both society and within the gang hierarchies. Girl gang members are victims of constant sexual violence, from being molested when they are children to gang initiation rites where they are forced into sex with large groups of men. Girls as young as 10 are initiated into the gang life, which for many youth provide a sense of family and protection alongside the ubiquitous violence and death.
One of the notable commonalties among women gang members are repeated pregnancies, some mothers barely in their teens. Some see motherhood as a way to get out of the life, some as a way to hold onto their relationships with male gang members, some because of rape, and some because it’s the only thing they know, surrounded as they are with other young mothers, including their own mothers. The longing for normalcy and a family to call their own can be a way to ease out of gang-banging, but many girls try to sustain a foot in both worlds at great cost to themselves.
Sikes doesn’t sugarcoat the violence, which in a way gives the women their full due, rather than portraying them as shadows of men. The book opens with a girl gang member shooting a male rival at a party in retribution for the killing of a friend’s relative. The women brutally beat and slash other women; they are fierce and intimidating as any male gang member.
Sikes is a nonjudgmental witness. She presents the despair of their lives while showing how self aware the young women are about their circumstances. Many have dreams of leaving the life, going to school, getting regular jobs. But they face almost insurmountable odds, trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence that thwarts them at every turn. Yet the book presents stories of women who manage to struggle toward a better life for themselves and their children. But Sikes makes it clear that there is no one solution or answer. There is no way to predict who who will go under and who will climb up. There are too many factors—the problems are too complex—to point to the road out.
As hard as the women’s stories were to read, and as violent as some of them are, I couldn’t help but respect them. Just the amount of sexual violence virtually all of these women endured was horrifying. Their lives are so complicated, between being trapped by expectations of women and the male hierarchies of power, and between a society that turns its back on them as if they are worthless, and the lure of a self-chosen family, that it’s almost impossible to calculate their strength, as well as their vulnerabilities.
There’s a striking scene at the end of the book, where a former girl gang member—the girl who shot the rival gang member mentioned above—gives a talk about her life to a large room of adults. She is dressed in typical gang wear, with sneakers, large baggy flannel shirt and jeans, her hat pulled low. She reads out a long list of crimes she was jailed for, and then begins to remove her outfit. Piece by piece of clothing, she tells the audience not to judge women by their appearance or their past. She finishes in a pantsuit and heels, saying, “I’m here to tell you not to judge a book by its cover. Just as I changed in front of you now is how someone’s heart can change if you show them how.”