Sudhir recognizes, early in his research, that the relationship between “illegal” acts and the “police,” who are supposed to arrest those committing them, is far different from the relationship he’d known till now, as a suburban youth in California.
In simplest terms, the police in the Robert Taylor Homes do not uphold the law, as there appears to be very little that the law does to support those in need. Outside the projects, in wealthier parts of Chicago, the law might protect those whose property has been stolen, for example, or protect women whose husbands abuse them. But in the Homes, the police are an almost entirely punitive force. They mete out punishment to those who stand in their way, and they take advantage of those in need. There are some policemen, like Officer Reggie, who are from the projects and seek actively to protect those who live there—but on the whole, the police see the projects as a community dependent upon them, and therefore as a community from which concessions can be extracted. It is a pragmatic, and not a legal, system.
Thus, the police in this environment are nearly the same as the gangs or the members of the partially-corrupt management of the Homes (Ms. Bailey). Social services, protection, safety—no one entity can guarantee these for the members of the community, and each entity is out to make sure its power is unchecked. This means that, so long as the police are not harmed, they might allow illegal acts to continue; or, so long as the police get their cut, the illegal activities will not be shut down. “Crime,” then, must be redefined under these more pragmatic, and less abstractly moralistic, guidelines. In the projects, crime isn’t something that’s “against the law” so much as it’s something that harms another person directly, often physically. Crimes without victims, like prostitution or drug use (although these can be debated) are much lower on the “crime”-scale than those with obvious victims, like murder, assault, and rape. Gang leaders typically mete out punishment at their discretion. JT, for example, sometimes beats those who cross him, but other times he lets people go because they can be of use to him. As with Sudhir’s research, the line between “crime” and “lawful activity,” or between “police” and “gang,” is really no line at all, but a set of shifting propositions people live with day to day.
Crime and the Police ThemeTracker
Crime and the Police Quotes in Gang Leader for a Day
I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.
You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live! Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.
You always take the sure bet in this game. Nothing can be predicted—not supply, not anything. The [person] who tells you he’s going to have product a year from now is lying. He could be in jail or dead. So take your discount now.
And we don’t just fight each other. We have basketball tournaments, softball tournaments, card games. Sometimes it’s just people in the organization who play, but sometimes we find the best people in the building ... so it’s a building thing.
Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side.
JT’s ambitions ran even higher. What he wanted, he told me, was to return the gang to its glory days of the 1960s, when South Side gangs worked together with residents to agitate for improvements in their neighborhoods.
Shorty-Lee was puzzled. He looked over to the three other BKs. They were toting spiral-bound notebooks in which they “signed up” potential votes. But it seemed that neither Lenny nor JT had told them there was an actual registration form and that registrars had to be licensed.
I was nervous, to be sure, but not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought about that angle. ... Only later, when I began sharing my experience with my advisers ... did I begin to understand—and adhere to—the reporting requirements for researchers who are privy to criminal conduct.
The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t. He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy...
The women wrote and spoke openly about their struggles. Each of them had at least a couple of children, which generally meant at least one “baby daddy” who wasn’t in the picture. Each of them had a man in her life who’d been either jailed or killed...
You didn’t have to get mixed up in this shit.
He must have heard that I’d helped drag Price into the lobby. I didn’t say anything. JT slapped my leg, asked if I wanted a Coke, and walked off to the fridge.
You think I don’t know who you [expletive] are? You think we all don’t know what you’re doing? If you want to play with us, you better be real careful. If you like watching, you may get caught.
You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people’s needs.
The pages of the ledgers were frayed, and some of the handwriting was hard to decipher, but the raw information was fascinating. For the past four years, T-Bone had been dutifully recording the gang’s revenues ... and expenses.