The Earl Flynns were a criminal organization, or street gang, founded on the south side of Detroit, Michigan during the 1970s. Reportedly the gang appropriated their name from the Hollywood film star Earl Flynn because they fashioned themselves as flamboyant gangsters in dress. Also, they used ‘gangsta jits’, or hand signs to identify themselves publicly. This semiotic use of hand gestures to display gang membership, common to contemporary American street gangs as well as hip hop culture, evolved from dances such as the “Earl Flynn”, which were in themselves territorial gang symbols. In the 1970s, house parties in Detroit could be identified by gang affiliation through the type of dance party-goers performed, whether or not they were actually in the gang.
The Earl Flynns evolved, like other Detroit street gangs such as their Westside Detroit counterparts in the late 1970s the Nasty Flynns (later the NF Bangers) and Black Killers or drug consortiums of the 1980s such as Young Boys Inc., Pony Down, Best Friends, Black Mafia Family and the Chambers Brothers, out of the racial and economic unrest that transformed Detroit in the late 1960s and 1970s. As people and capital left Detroit for suburban communities, the city's social and economic infrastructure buckled, leaving the community fractured and impoverished. As the murder rate soared to the highest in the United States, and the city became increasingly viewed as dangerous and in perpetual decline, gangs began to seize territories.
The Earl Flynns were regarded as perhaps the most notorious group for several reasons. Firstly, they took great pride in their physical appearance and style which attracted many young people to their parties. The poverty and urban decay percolating through Detroit made the gang lifestyle attractive to many. Secondly, Detroit underwent a demographic shift called white flight that began in the 1950s. Many of the public housing projects such as Herman Gardens went from a racially diverse community to a homogeneous black residence in a few years. Thus gangs appealed to racial unity and pride, amidst the racial intolerance and strife afflicting the city. Moreover, The Earl Flynns became a wealthy organization that monopolized many criminal rackets including extortion, robbery, and drug trafficking. Yet they were also linked to several notorious mass robberies, including a hijacking and robbery of concert goers at a rock concert in Cobo Hall in 1977 that drew the Detroit riot police. Accordingly, the gang grew to include almost four hundred members. Yet this prominence brought police, public and political attention and many gang members were eventually jailed.
The Errol Flynn gang eventually collapsed in the 1980s, partially because of the rise of crack cocaine, which undermined the Flynn’s heroin trade, as well as the successful prosecution of many gang leaders who remain incarcerated today. One member who made a successful transition from thug to honest citizen was Greg Mathis, a lawyer and retired Michigan judge who has his own television show Judge Mathis. He published a memoir Inner City Miracle in 2002 partially chronicling his time in the gang. The Earl Flynns are recognized as the precursors to every gang that followed. Other notable gangs of substantial size and heavily involved in drug dealing from the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s are the "Be Like Boys", "Dexter Boys" (an offshoot of YBI), "Schoolcraft Boys or SCB's", "SNS", "Fenkell Boys", "7 Mile Boys", "Linwood Boys", "Brewster Boys", "Jeffries Boys" and "8 Mile sconys." All except the "Be Like Boys" are named after Detroit city streets or housing projects and some still exist as new generations have emerged to take over.
Dancing Dan, Earl Smith (co - founder).
- Mathis, Greg and Blair S. Walker. Inner City Miracle, Ballatine: New York, 2002.
- Owen, Frank. "Detroit Death City." Playboy August (2004) 60-64.