By Mark Wachtler
February 12, 2015. Chicago. (ONN) Last year, we reviewed the book Romantic Violence in R World by Mark Watson. The novel detailed the crime, drugs, gangs, corruption and police brutality that are an everyday occurrence in Chicago. Since then, a reader brought to our attention a similar book titled, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. The author spent a decade living with and documenting a poor black south side Chicago neighborhood, including an intimate look at the city’s largest street gang and one of its most deadly and notorious housing projects.
A first-hand look at the real Chicago, the Chicago they don’t let you see.
It’s eye-opening that two books, one detailing a south side black neighborhood and the other detailing a north side white neighborhood, would reveal the same dirty secret. The conclusion of both literary efforts is that the city of Chicago is corrupt to its core and the vast majority of crime isn’t committed by blue collar petty offenders. It’s committed by city officials and Chicago police officers, moonlighting during work hours and in their spare time as violent street thugs, terrorizing an entire city and controlling both the crime and the crime fighting with the authority and power of the state.
Read the Illinois Herald’s review of the book Romantic Violence in R World from our 2014 article, ‘Chicago Gangbanger Book climbs 13 million spots’.
Welcome to the real world - Gang Leader for a Day
The pages of Gang Leader for a Day document Sudhir Venkatesh’s decade-long journey from a college student in Chicago studying sociology and urban poverty to a half-member, half-infiltrator of Chicago’s largest street gang and one of the city’s most deadly and crime-infested high rise housing projects. Welcomed in because he was “a man of color”, Venkatesh spent ten years stuck between the never-ending landscape of the real world and the sheltered and protected society of those that rule it.
Perhaps the best aspect of the book is that the author is never totally sold on either side’s jaded view of reality. Instead, he tells his story from the shoes of people like you and me, people who don’t know who or what to believe anymore, who don’t trust either side - the bad guys or the supposedly good guys. In short, it’s a priceless and rare glimpse into the world we live in today, but most aren’t even aware exists.
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Showing we’re not alone in our enjoyment of the book Gang Leader for a Day, the novel includes in its first pages a lengthy list of media reviews and recommendations, all of them stellar. The NY Times Best Seller is called by the publication, “Riveting.” The Chicago Tribune said, “Venkatesh offers an eye-opening account into an underserved city within a city.” Entertainment Weekly also called it, “Riveting.” Mother Jones called it, “an almost thriller-like tale.” Slate described it as, “Chilling.” And Bloomberg called it, “insightful and entertaining.”
Welcome to Chicago
Right away on page 7, the author quotes an old-timer from the projects who describes the most segregated city in America, ‘”We live in a city within a city,” he said. “They have theirs and we have ours. And if you can understand that it will never change, you’ll start understanding how this city works.” “You mean whites and blacks will never get along?” I asked.’ Venkatesh answers that question, not in the following paragraph, but throughout the pages of the rest of the book.
The author admits he changed the names of the book’s real-life characters and even changed the name of the street gang he all but lived with for a decade. In the book, the gang is called the Black Kings. But by process of elimination and using clues like Venkatesh describing it as an all-black gang and the largest gang in the city of Chicago, it’s obvious that author Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade living among the Gangster Disciples in the notorious Robert Taylor housing projects.
He details how in parts of Chicago like the one described in his book, organized crime organizations control the local government and the citizens are pawns at best, victims at worst. And when he says organized crime organizations, Venkatesh is plainly talking about both the Gangster Disciples as well as the Chicago Police Department. Consider his description on page 59.
The author writes, ‘JT’s gang seemed different. It acted as the de facto administration of Robert Taylor: JT may have been a lawbreaker, but he was very much a lawmaker as well. He acted as if his organization truly did rule the neighborhood, and sometimes the takeover was complete. The Black Kings policed the buildings more aggressively than the Chicago police did.’
The author then moves up one level of government to describe how the Chicago street gangs own the local politicians too. ‘”Well, see, an alderman can take the heat off of us,” JT said with a smile. “An alderman can keep the police away. He can make sure residents don’t get too pissed off at us. Let’s say we need to meet in the park. The alderman makes sure the cops don’t come. And the only thing they want from us is a donation – ten thousand dollars gets you an alderman for a year.”’
How did black Chicago neighborhoods get so bad you might wonder? According to author Sudhir Venkatesh, they’ve always been that way. He describes the transformation in the words of one of the projects’ older residents and former gang members, ‘Lenny proudly recalled his own days as a Black King back in the 1970’s, describing how he helped get out the vote for “the Eye-talians and Jews” who ran his community. He then described, with equal pride, how the gangs “kicked the Eye-talian and Jewish mafia” out of his ward. Lenny even managed to spin the black takeover of the heroin trade as a boon to the community: it gave local black men jobs, albeit illegal ones, that had previously gone to white men.’
It isn’t only the aldermen and policemen that are bought and controlled by Chicago’s street gangs either. The author writes, ‘JT told me he never wanted to run for office, but he was certainly attracted to the new contacts he was gaining through the Black Kings’ political initiatives. He talked endlessly about the preachers, politicians, and businesspeople he’d been meeting.’
The black perspective and blind racism
Gang Leader for a Day often touches on the resentment and bitterness felt by black Chicagoans against white people. But the book also details how the crooked police victimizing the black community are black. The ministers victimizing the black community are black. The corrupt politicians victimizing the black community are black. The gang bangers and drug dealers, killing black children in Chicago’s projects, are also black. But nearly every real-world black character in Sudhir Venkatesh’s decade-long journey blamed only white people for all of those atrocities and more.
One section details an exchange between the author and one of the Chicago Housing Authority building presidents, ‘”Okay, so let’s go back to the original question. You want to understand how black folks live in the projects. Why we are poor. Why we have so much crime. Why we can’t feed our families. Why our kids can’t get work when they grow up. So will you be studying white people?” “Yes,” I said. I understood, finally, that she also wanted me to focus on the people outside Robert Taylor who determined how the tenants lived day to day.’
Another section reads, ‘Ms. Bailey interrupted. “If your family is starving and I tell you that I’ll give you a chance to make some money, what are you going to do?” “Make the money. I have to help my family.” “But what about school?” she said. “I guess it will have to wait.” “Until what?” “Until my family gets enough to eat.” “But you should stay in school, right?” she said, sarcasm rising in her voice. “That’s what will help you leave poverty.”’
But the author also repeatedly sees with his own eyes how some of the most corrupt officials in the black community are their own local representatives. Many of whom made themselves rich by street-taxing the city’s poorest citizens and shaking down local criminals. He describes how it’s those local leaders that are the bridge between the people and the government officials who owned and operated their world safely from downtown.
One entry reads, ‘At one point during the meeting, Ms. Bailey mentioned the “donations” that she regularly procured from the gang, to be applied to various tenants’ causes. JT had repeatedly told me that he had to keep Ms. Bailey happy - having his junior members carry out her orders, for instance, and paying her each month for the right to sell drugs in the lobby. But this was the first time I ever heard Ms. Bailey admit to this largesse. In fact, she discussed it with a measure of pride.’
A painful dose of reality
Throughout the book Gang Leader for a Day, this reporter was struck by the many honest concession made by the author. The realizations he writes about still aren’t acknowledged in American society. If one were to try to tell the media or politicians about the world going on all around them, they’d say you were crazy. But Venkatesh captures one shocking reality after another. In one brief excerpt, the author describes how much of Chicago is actually ruled by heavily armed militias, not the government, ‘In a neighborhood like this one, with poor police response and no shelter for abused women, the militias sometimes represented the best defense.’
In another portion of the book, the author documents America’s secret apartheid system that denies rights and benefits to men and fathers for no other reason than their gender. He explains, ‘Until a few years earlier, they could have gotten a few hundred dollars a month in welfare money, but by 1990, Illinois and many other states eliminated such aid for adult men.’
Other shocking sections of the book document how sex is used as currency in Chicago just as often as money. And it’s not just the poor young ladies offering their services on street corners. Just as often, government officials from powerful politicians to local DCFS and CHA employees demand sex in exchange for government services and benefits.
In one section the author writes, ‘The thought that a tenant had to let the building president sleep with her partner was alarming to me. But among these women such indignities weren’t rare.’ When the women of Chicago’s low income housing projects told him why they had to trade sex for so many things, he writes, ‘Their answer made perfect sense: When it became obvious that the housing authority supported a management system based on extortion and corruption, the women decided their best option was to shrug their shoulders and accept their fate.’
Author Sudhir Venkatesh goes into even greater detail writing, ‘Then there were all the resources to be procured in exchange for sex: groceries from the bodega owner, rent forgiveness from the CHA, assistance from a welfare bureaucrat, preferential treatment from a police officer for a jailed relative. The women’s explanation for using sex as currency was consistent and pragmatic.’
Throughout the book, the author’s impression of the Chicago Police Department is that it’s little more than a terrorizing violent crime ring. He documents for readers one of his encounters with the CPD in which the police literally robbed him, ‘As JT and I stood talking in a corner, a group of five men suddenly busted into the room, all dressed in black. One of them held up a gun for everyone to see. The other four ran to the corners of the room, one of them shouting for everyone to get up against the wall. Four of the men were black, one white. JT whispered to me, “Cops.” He and I took our places against the wall.’
The book documents a conversation with one Chicago police officer in which he admits many cops use forfeiture laws to rob residents in poor black neighborhoods, especially gang members with cars, cash or jewelry. He recalls the discussion, ‘”I’ve ridden along with JT and a few of his friends in their sports cars,” I said. “Sometimes a cop will pull us over for no reason. And then-“ “He asks to see a paycheck stub, right?” “Yeah! How did you know I was going to say that?” “We can’t arrest their mothers for living in a nice house. But when we stop them in their fancy cars, we can legitimately ask whether they stole the car or not. Now, again, I don’t do that stuff. But some other people do.”’
Not a gang member or criminal himself, the book’s author documents how he and countless other Chicago citizens are robbed regularly by police officers who claim they are confiscating drug proceeds in accordance with the law. VenKatesh recalls, ‘On a few occasions, I’d been riding in a car with some gang members when a cop stopped the car, made everyone get out, and summarily called for a tow truck. On a few other occasions, the cop let the driver keep the car but took everyone’s jewelry and cash.’
The author details another incident where police robbed a CHA home, ‘Then a fourth cop showed up, swaggered down the hall. It was Officer Jerry. He wore black pants, a black and blue fleece jacket, and a bulletproof vest. He started to beat and kick the father violently. “Where’s the money, nigger?” he shouted. “Where’s the cash?”
The real terrorists
Near the end of his book, author Sudhir Venkatesh documents that after living in the projects for a few years - a Middle Eastern American graduate student in an all-black housing project - the Chicago Police eventually figured out who he was and that he was writing a book about his first-hand experiences in the Robert Taylor Homes.
He goes on to detail how the Chicago police responded, ‘”Listen, I’m only trying to get a better understanding of what you do,” I said. “Maybe I could tell you a little bit about my research.” “Fuck you,” Jerry said, staring me down. “You write any of that shit down, and I’ll come after your ass. You got me? I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want you talking to nobody else, and I don’t want to see you around these motherfucking projects. I know who you are, motherfucker. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.” Venkatesh goes on to document how the police broke into his car attempting to steal his book-in-progress.
Another real-life character in the book that talks about the Chicago police is the head of the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club, about the only safe and constructive place many kids in the projects have. The author describes his reaction writing, ‘Autry insisted that I not write about the police. His explanation was revealing. “You need to understand that there are two gangs in the projects,” he said. “The police are also a gang, but they really have the power.”’
Author Sudhir Venkatesh’s repeated experiences with Chicago police officers eventually had him as afraid of the police as the rest of black Chicago is. He writes, ‘I began to fear the police much more than I had ever feared JT and the gangs. As Autry had told me, it was the cops who had the real power. They controlled where and how openly the gang could operate, and, if so inclined, they could put just about anyone in jail.’
Poor, black Chicago gets shafted again
It’s no secret that when the Chicago Housing Authority announced it was tearing down the city’s many crime-ridden high rise public housing projects, it also promised that every resident there would be moved into one of the new ‘scattered’ subsidized housing units throughout the city, including among the new multi-unit buildings being built on the huge real estate footprints left over after the high rises were torn down. But it was all a lie, and according to author Sudhir Venkatesh, every City Hall bureaucrat and local CHA building president was in on the lie. And they all got rich from the deception.
The author’s longtime CHA manager contact, Ms. Bailey, confirmed she and all the other building presidents were being paid off by the Housing Authority to make sure the residents never found out there was no new housing for them. One hundred thousand angry, homeless residents would create a riot, if not a revolution.
Venkatesh details one discussion with the local CHA building president Ms. Bailey, ‘”Well, I already told them I need a five-bedroom house in South Shore,” she said with a rich laugh. Then she told me the building presidents’ personal requests. “Ms. Daniels wants the CHA to give her son’s construction company a contract to help tear down the buildings. Ms. Wilson made a list of appliances she wants in her new apartment. Ms. Denny will be starting a new business, and the CHA needs to hire her to help relocate families.” “And you think the CHA will actually agree to these demands?” Ms. Bailey just sat and stared at me. Apparently my naivete was showing once more.’
He went on to write, ‘I asked Ms. Bailey how much she was getting. “Sudhir, I’ll be honest with you,” she said, smiling. “We’ll be taken care of. But don’t forget to put in your little book that the CHA also gets their share. We’re all washing each other’s hands around here.”’ The author doesn’t fail to mention the real-life ending to his multi-year friendship with the residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, all of which were promised a place to live in the city’s new low-income housing.
He explains, ‘In place of the projects, the city began to build market-rate condominiums and town houses, three-story structures tucked cozily together instead of the sixteen-story high-rises separated by vase expanse. Robert Taylor tenants had been promised the right to return to the community once construction was done, but fewer than 10 percent of the units were set aside for public-housing families.’
The book Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh takes readers on a ten-year journey of Chicago’s Robert Taylor housing projects. He doesn’t hold back in describing one terrifying, violent or criminal episode after another along his journey. His first-hand experiences with criminal police officers and corrupt government officials is both revealing and refreshing. The book is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
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