Thursday, 5 March 2009

Sudhir Venkatesh - Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin 2008)

Before The Wire’s graphic depiction of poverty in America and in the predominantly black ghettoes of its major cities, Sudhir Venkatesh, a budding socialist decided to get in with his tutor by helping out on a project exploring poverty and the ghetto in Chicago’s worst housing estates. In 1990, he went round a dangerous piss-strewn estate asking the wrong people, ‘How does it feel to be black and poor?’ They didn’t take too kindly to this long-haired brown boy from middle-class America asking them about their daily lives and how they felt about being doomed as a race in a country that kept them in the lowest income brackets. They held him hostage overnight. He feared for his life. But felt he had a moment with their ruthless leader, J.T. who explained to him that if he wanted to know how it felt to be black and poor, he should take the time to get to know his subjects instead of asking them stupid questions. The next day, instead of running away, he returned with a bag of beer and the intention of immersing himself in the gang life, so he could get to the core of their hopes and dreams.

Sudhir ended up spending four years immersed in this gang, The Black Kings, in the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago (so bad they were eventually torn down during the tail-end of Clinton’s run), watching how they dealt with the community, each other, and effectively acted as pushed and protector to a portion of society the police had no interested in supervising anymore. It’s a startling journey, true, sad and funny all at once. Despite the clunky inappropriateness of his field research and getting too close to his subject, and occasionally falling back too much on his internal journey rather than really getting under the skin of his subjects (in some cases out of fear for his life and for cloudy ethics given this was a violent drug gang) and the fact that he never really witnessed much illegality, just the rosy side of gang-life, it’s still a fascinating study of the oppression of an underclass, one that has only ever been adequately reflected in ‘The Wire’ and David Simon’s other work around the Baltimore slums.

Once he has convinced gang leader J.T. he is writing his autobiography, he is given unprecedented access into gang life and gang economics, how the money is structured and spent and accumulated, from taxes for protection and territorial privileges, to straight-up drug-selling. Part of this research ended up in ‘Freakanomics’, but here we meet the gangsters, like T-Bone, who is desperate to get back to school and become an accountant and leave all this behind; C-Note, a tragic old man going straight after years of drug-abuse, trying to make his way in life without crossing the lines of territory with the gang; Ms Bailey, who is the community liaison to the gang, who protects and provides, runs the community and ensures she gets her cut; and J.T., charismatic, realistic, yet delusional and obsessed with respect. These characters paint a fascinating portrayal of the realities of what it is to be black and poor in America. As the gang life changes and the territory evolves, so do the gangs and they evolve and mutate to reflect societal changes, and their entrepreneurial spirit means that they could be hustling in the street or in the boardroom but they’ll always provide for their dysfunctional gang family, because they have to, they have no choice. If you have the choice of going to school or selling drugs and paying for food for your hungry brother, what are you going to do? The most heart-wrenching parts are when you see ordinary people, not in gangs, try and provide, going to extraordinary lengths to make money, or those who exploit their communities in ways other than selling drugs, be it selling sweets to hungry children, or redistributing crack money, or allowing your kitchen to be used as a production factory for the huge amounts of narcotics flooding through the buildings.

This is a fascinating brilliant yet flawed and at times naive and shallow study, but is well-written, though sometimes too one-note, too in Sudhir’s head, it is best when objectively commenting on life, and more than adequately surveys a section of American society that is marginalised and stereotyped in the media, one than is as human as you or me. It’s a good companion to the superior Wire, and once Canongate reprints ‘The Corner’ in April, will be less relevant but till then, enjoy an absorbing story.

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