18 April 2009

"Gang", "King".... whichever.

I just finished reading "Gang Leader for a Day," by Sudhir Venkatesh. If you read "Freakonomics" you'll remember the chapter called "Why do Drug Dealers Live with Their Mothers?" in which they looked at the economics of the drug trade. Most of the data they analyzed there came from a Indian-American grad student who had spent time in the Chicago housing projects hanging out with a drug gang. Sudhir Venkatesh is that grad student, and this book is his autobiographical account of the five years or so of his life that he spent around the Chicago housing projects, primarily in the company of "J.T." and his branch of the Black Kings drug gang.

This isn't really the kind of book you read to get a grand conclusion, all tied up and made clear; but it's a gripping journal of his life inside a world I really don't know much about. There are a ton of fascinating and harrowing moments along the way (such as when he witnesses, and the Black Kings are on the receiving end of, a drive-by shooting), and there is a sense of closure to the book, since updated housing policies catch up with the Robert Taylor projects by the end of the book (as they have, thankfully, to most high-rise projects in San Francisco).

However, Sudhir spends a lot of the time in the book trying to understand what the tenants think of the gang, and ultimately that provoked an interesting realization for me. J.T. sees the gang as beneficial, keeping order and establishing the boundaries in the projects, since for all practical purposes the police in that era did not come to the projects. At one point he declares, "there is no difference between the gang and this building." Of course, Sudhir wonders, given the gang's predilection for violence and drug abuse, whether the tenants really see it that way.

He attempts to branch out at one point and interview other residents about the economic tricks they use to survive in order to get some of that perspective. The mechanics who fix cars on the street, the woman who runs a candy store out of her apartment: he chronicles many of their adventures in ghetto-scale entrepreneurism. He's surprised by how much both J.T. and the building's tenant association president, Ms. Bailey, are interesting in hearing him retell these fascinating stories.

Of course, that interest is because they (in various combination) extract money from all such activities. Sudhir's information allows them to tighten up quite a few places where they weren't extorting as much money as they could. As one of the mechanics says angrily to Sudhir afterwards, "Man, J.T. is all over these n-----s."

On the one hand, this incident does point out that the combination of the gang and the tenant association are effectively the government of the housing project: they levy 'taxes', the gang is responsible for physical security, and the tenants' association for what passes for social services in that brutal environment. But they have the characteristics of corrupt government as well: the gang members who abuse their women get no punishment because of their position in the gang; the money is skimmed off for the organization.

The realization I had was that this is the form of government not just of brutal Chicago housing projects, but that in practice it was the form of government practiced in much of medieval Europe. As much as afterwards, all kings, dukes, earls, and lords cloaked their actions in the language of divine right, that level of government came from physical domination: the strongest, meanest guys got together, won some battles with other strong, mean guys, and as a result established the local government. If you read about the Welsh Marcher Lords or the events of English interregnums as fictionalized so well in Ken Follet's "The Pillars of the Earth," you can find that that pattern was operating even in relatively civilized England at various points: the people best-organized at wielding the violence and keeping the discipline amongst their thugs take over.

Sadly, seeing those parallel made me wonder whether, at a certain point between subsistence and prosperity, this kind of organization is a spontaneous feature of human societies. Happily, we can rise (and most current societies have risen) above this, but seeing the similarities between 12th century thugs and southside Chicago ones makes both of them seem like slightly more than just anomalies of their respective historical periods.


Dan Lyke said...

See also the rise of the Mafia in Italian neighborhoods in New York, allegedly protecting those residents against the Irish cops.

Leo said...

That sounds like another good one to run down. After I wrote the post, I also realized Ms. Bailey is very similar to the village-dominating grandmother described in The White Tiger.