Sudhir writes that, by the summer of 1990, after he has been observing the BKs (and especially JT) for about a year, he is shaken by the relationship between the gang’s “regulatory” function in the Homes and its violent streak. Sudhir remains disturbed by the beating of C-Note, although he does not bring it up with JT right away. He instead waits until JT and other BKs begin hassling an “irregular squatter” named Brass, who has not paid his tax to the BKs to live in the Homes.
Right away Sudhir has another chance to affect the way that JT deals with other people – or, at least, to comment on it. As with the C-Note incident, after JT harms the squatting party he justifies his behavior to Sudhir as some version of “laying down the law.” But it doesn’t seem to be the case that C-Note wouldn’t have listened to reason – at which point JT’s logic for violence seems a little less persuasive.
Brass yells back at JT when JT accuses him of living there for free, and JT and others beat him so badly he lies bleeding on the ground, as Sudhir again watches, from a parked car, and wonders what to do. This time, Sudhir says something to JT, noting that C-Note, unlike Brass, was paying his tax, and that the BKs seemed to beat Brass unnecessarily (because his tax was so small) and C-Note especially so, as C-Note was an acquaintance of the gang’s and a “regular” in the project.
In short, Sudhir learns a different side of the BKs in these interactions with Brass and with C-Note. Although the organization is patterned after “legitimate” business, it methods are often unsavory, coercive, and violent. Thus there is no greater logic holding the gang together, in many cases, beyond loyalty and fear – two forces JT is adept at harnessing.
JT responds to Sudhir, however, that both Brass and C-Note had “questioned his authority,” and that they therefore deserved punishment, and that it was an unsavory but necessary part of JT’s job as gang leader. Sudhir does not push the issue further this time, but his view of JT changes—from seeing him as a subtle businessman to something more complex, with shades of violence and criminal behavior that Sudhir compares to characters from mobster movies “like The Godfather.”
Sudhir notes throughout the book that there are times the behavior of the gang itself seems modeled on the behavior of gangs in popular culture. In this instance it is mobster movies, and there are other times when Sudhir thinks of representations of black culture from music and TV as well. It’s not clear the extent to which the gang “really is” this way, or subtly and perhaps unconsciously takes on the influence of “gang life” from pop culture.
Sudhir takes a short break from his narrative to describe the larger black-market economic system in which the Chicago gangs participate. Because the crack epidemic was at its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Sudhir was visiting the Robert Taylor Homes, gang leaders like JT were selling crack in especially competitive markets. This meant that any advantage one gang gained over another could result in thousands of dollars in business. Sudhir realizes, from observing JT and his business dealings, that the BKs had a relatively complex system of money laundering, where large amounts of cash could be invested in local stores and “legitimate” outfits, so that the BKs’ income could not be stolen from any one location (of hundreds throughout the gang’s Chicago network) or taxed by the state and federal government.
One of the more complex features of JT’s business is the way the gang deals with large amounts of money. Sudhir hasn’t thought about this much before talking to JT, and he realizes quickly that one can’t just keep huge amounts of cash lying around. As JT points out, that cash could be stolen by rival gangs, or lost; it could be confiscated more easily by the police. So “shelters” for cash are extremely important, as are money laundering schemes that make it appear as though profits are not from the drug trade, but instead derive from local businesses, preferably those that deal in large amounts of cash to begin with.
Sudhir is especially surprised to learn from JT that the Black Kings pay off local city officials, including those on the Board of Aldermen. Sudhir had heard that gangs had penetrated into local government, but JT was the first person (in a position to know) to confirm it to him. Sudhir is also shocked to hear JT increasingly say that gangs like the BKs are “taking care of the community” and “helping others,” by arranging social events and get-togethers, by “regulating” the gray-market businesses of places like Robert Taylor, and by effectively compartmentalizing the drug trade—by selling “only to junkies,” who, according to JT, aren’t particularly worth worrying about. Sudhir wonders whether JT seriously believes his gang is at least partially a charitable, community organization, as he more or less describes it. Sudhir is reminded of comments Charlie and Old Time made, back in Washington Park, about the relationship between Chicago gangs in the ‘60s and ‘70s and social justice movements and organizations, like the Black Panthers.
This is the flip side of the political influence that JT speaks about, in glowing and optimistic terms, for the gang throughout Chicago. For it is true that the BKs can organize young men to vote, and can help to sponsor events like basketball games throughout the community. But these things, in total, perhaps do not add up to nearly as much as does the BKs’ direct “investment” in political authority; the buying of power at the local and state levels. JT doesn’t talk about this in too much detail, but he does make it clear that there are officials throughout Chicago who are willing to “listen” to gangs, and to look the other way when it’s time for criminal prosecution if the gang is willing to “contribute” to the politician’s campaign.
Sudhir continues by saying that “community-based organizations,” or CBOs—charities supporting neighborhoods in the South Side—also have complex relationships with gangs like the BKs. Sudhir relates JT’s vision for a rejuvenated South Side, one in which, like during the ‘60s and ‘70s, gangs help agitate for better living conditions in projects and better professional opportunities for families. Sudhir listens politely to JT’s speeches on these subjects, but wonders if JT really means what he says—that the BKs do what they do only because they care about supporting their communities.
This is another instance, as after the beating of C-Note and Brass, when Sudhir is less inclined to believe exactly what JT says. In fact, it becomes clear as the narrative continues that Sudhir grows increasingly critical of the things JT says about his own life, and about the way the gang operates. Like perhaps any leader in his position, JT is prone to exaggeration – which is the enemy of the kind of objective work Sudhir is trying to do.
Sudhir describes in more detail the BKs’ relationship to political life. He attends, with JT, a meeting run by Lenny Duster, a community organizer for a local group called PRIDE. At the meeting, Lenny tells many young “foot soldiers” for the BKs that they must go out and “register” voters in Robert Taylor, encouraging them to vote for Democrats, to make sure that Robert Taylor is supported by powerful people in city and state government.
Although Lenny only appears in the book for a few paragraphs, he, like other characters (Autry), occupies an important role in the Homes, as a mediator between “legitimate” authority, in the form of government or police, and “illegitimate,” or gang, authority.
Sudhir goes along with some of these foot soldiers as they “canvas” Robert Taylor. Sudhir describes an especially awkward moment in which one woman meets with a young and motivated gang member named Shorty-Lee, directing a “voter drive.” The woman says she doesn’t need to “register” with the BKs, since she’s already an officially registered voter. Her questioning of the foot soldiers, especially of Shorty-Lee, reveals that they do not understand how official voting works, and that BK “registration” is really an unofficial way of coercing Robert Taylor residents into stuffing the ballot boxes for Democrats in the precinct. Sudhir tells the foot soldiers maybe they should continue their canvassing later that day, thus relieving the embarrassment they feel after speaking to the woman.
This is one of the more comic aspects of the book. Sudhir takes great pains not to laugh at his subjects, even as his subjects occasionally laugh at him. And Sudhir has a good rapport with a great many of the BKs, meaning that casual joking is almost always in order. But in this case, Sudhir realizes just how little some of the foot soldiers understand about the political process. This is an educational and civic problem, to be sure – but Sudhir also senses that it is a problem of the recognition of the power democracy can bring to underserved communities. For, after all, anyone living in the projects really does have a vote that can be used in elections.
Sudhir follows other members of the Robert Taylor community, since JT is spending more and more time on political organizing efforts. Sudhir meets with Kris and Michael, two other “hustlers” like C-Note, and helps them as they run a temporary car-washing business one day. When Michael gets in an argument with someone whose car has already been washed, T-Bone, one of JT’s lieutenants, comes by and “breaks things up” peaceably, then “winks” at Sudhir as he walks away. Afterward, Sudhir talks to Kris and Michael about the incident. Kris and Michael claim that, since the police don’t come to Robert Taylor, they must pay small amounts of “protection” so that the BKs will help them when they’re in need.
The idea of “protection” is central to the book, cropping up here and in many different sections. Simply put, the BKs intimidate most people running gray-market business in the projects into paying “tax” to them, which, the BKs claim, is money the BKs can then use to support their organization. The BKs, in turn, stand between the gray-market business and any other entity that might attempt to disrupt it – most likely the police or another gang. This kind of “protection” is not really optional, though, as evident in this instance.
Another day that summer, Sudhir observes an incident in which Robert Taylor community members become angry, especially a woman named Boo-Boo, who claims that the “Arab” clerk at a bodega nearby has raped her daughter, Coco, and given her an STD. Sudhir goes with Price, another BK lieutenant, down to the store, and finds out from others gathered there that one of the store clerks was indeed having a sexual relationship with Coco, who is sixteen, as a trade for “diapers” and other products for Coco’s daughter. The situation is defused when another man at the store, the owner, gives away products like soda to the community members gathered, and promises that the other clerk will no longer be involved with Coco.
This important section illustrates just how essential small shop owners are on the periphery of the housing projects – these shop owners sell the kinds of products that residents of the projects cannot really get anywhere else, since there are few cars around. And when families, as in this case, need goods just to keep going, or so that children can be fed and clothed, then the shop owners occasionally take advantage of their position of power, and the result is here described.
Sudhir attempts to see other parts of the Robert Taylor Homes. He visits Ms. Bailey, the building manager in Robert Taylor A, and she walks with him across competing gang lines to Building B, where there is a small Boys and Girls Club, run by a man named Autry. Autry immediately puts Sudhir to work and takes a liking to him, telling him about “mediations” he and a policeman named Officer Reggie organize, in which gang members with “beef” can fight in a controlled environment. Although Sudhir wonders at how Autry and Officer Reggie can condone violence like this, Autry argues that this “mediated” form is far better organized, and less lethal, than what might occur otherwise.
Officer Reggie and Autry are both important and fascinating characters in the story. Officer Reggie seems, at least to Sudhir, to be purer of intention – his greatest aid to the community is to help break up gang disputes and make sure that a certain kind of order is maintained in the projects as much as possible. But most of Reggie’s fellow officers don’t care to find out much about the living conditions in the Homes. Autry’s status is a bit more ambiguous, as he runs the Boys and Girls Club but also seems to enjoy the power that this “brokering” position affords him.
Autry invites Sudhir to a meeting about the “Midnight Basketball” organization, which some in Robert Taylor hope to organize as a community bonding effort. Sudhir attends and runs into JT, who walks in surrounded by other BKs. JT is surprised to see Sudhir there under Autry’s “protection” rather than his own, and when the two speak privately before the meeting, Sudhir realizes that JT is angry Sudhir has apparently “switched” allegiances to Autry.
The midnight basketball idea is one of the more striking and imaginative of the gang’s plans to help the community. The idea is straightforward and fairly powerful – that, if gang members are playing a game together on a given night, then they’re not out causing trouble in other parts of the neighborhood.
Sudhir argues that he is still writing JT’s biography, at least primarily, and that he wants to know “what other people think about” JT. JT seems to accept this, but remains suspicious of Sudhir, and Sudhir wonders if he hasn’t made a grave error in becoming friends with Autry and moving beyond JT’s “protection” in Robert Taylor.
Here, Autry shows just how difficult it can be to depend on certain subjects. Autry has made clear that he knows Sudhir depends to an extent on JT, and thus Autry is willing to “test” Sudhir and force him to decide which group he wants to affiliate himself with in the Homes: the BKs or the Boys and Girls Club.
There’s a shooting in Robert Taylor a few weeks later—innocent kids are caught in stray gunfire between the BKs and the Disciples, the gang congregating near zone B. Sudhir attends, with Ms. Bailey, an official meeting with the Chicago Police soon after, and notes how members of the Robert Taylor community express anger at the police, who attempt to answer their safety concerns but more or less concede there is little they can do to interfere in gang-related “warfare” or the preparations for it.
In this case, as Sudhir describes, the police have very little they can do or say to help the residents, since the police presence in the Homes is so minimal to begin with, and it is unlikely that new officers will be brought in to help. But the police do act as conduits for the residents’ frustration at least.
Ms. Bailey hints to Sudhir, however, that he should return to the meeting room in a couple hours, and he does. There he finds a Pastor named Wilkins, along with Autry, members of the BKs and the Disciples, and Officer Reggie. Pastor Wilkins mediates between the two gangs, and arranges for a “penalty” such that the BKs get increased drug territory from the Disciples for a week. This, because the BKs didn’t “retaliate” against the Disciples for the accidental shooting.
Here, the “penalties” are not all that dissimilar from the kinds of tax penalties a government might levy against a legitimate business. But, of course, in this case the business in question is the selling of crack cocaine, and punishment is a working-out of “turf,” since no one is paying real government taxes on any profits accrued.
After the meeting, JT confronts Sudhir again in private, and politely but firmly tells him that, since Sudhir is attending gang-related events individually now, without standing at JT’s side, Sudhir is now “on his own.” JT says again that he cannot “protect” Sudhir in these situations, and Sudhir says he feels that JT is “slipping from his grasp.”
Another instance of protection. It’s not clear whether JT is in fact threatening Sudhir here, saying that Sudhir ought to stay close to him and not bond too much with others in the projects. Or, as Sudhir hints, perhaps JT is simply jealous that Sudhir is focusing on other people for his research.