January 19, 2003

The Gangs of . . .

New Yorkers of film no worse than Chicago counterparts

By John Hagedorn. John Hagedorn is a senior research fellow at the Great Cities Institute and associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago


There's a lot of Chicago in "The Gangs of New York."

This movie dazzles us with Civil War-era gangs that were violent, but also intensely involved in ethnic politics, fiercely Catholic or Protestant, and knee-deep in the rackets. It is Martin Scorsese's candid description of the role of gangs and violence in urban politics that allows the movie to transcend its time and place.

This movie has more to say about the nature of gangs than any other recent gangster film.

And New York's gangsters had nothing on Chicago. In the early years of the 20th Century, Irish politicians, in their bid to build a Chicago machine, formed "Social Athletic Clubs" modeled after the ones organized by Tammany Hall. These gangs of adolescents and young adults were mainly used to help win elections by "any means necessary."

A bit of violence here, some stolen ballot boxes there, and a good dose of intimidation everywhere were provided by the pol's "clubs."

Ragen's Colts, for example, a South Halstead Street gang sponsored by Cook County Commissioner Frank Ragen, not only took part in electoral violence but became notorious bootleggers.

Both in New York and Chicago, race played a major role in gang life. Herbert Asbury, in the book on which "Gangs of New York" was based, devotes two chapters to the pogrom misnamed "draft riots" that ended the movie. It may be that the racist bloodshed that shook New York in 1863 was the one act of violence the film did not exaggerate--Asbury estimated that more than 2,000 people died in the two weeks of killing, though most historians quote a much lower number.

The draft riots fed on Irish and immigrant hostility to being conscripted to fight in the Civil War.

New York's black population became bloody scapegoats for class hostility. Asbury describes how, as the riots started, gangsters led a mob to burn down the Colored Orphan Asylum, with "colored kids" still inside. Every day saw more lynching of "Negroes," complete with mutilation and other acts foreshadowing the South's soon-to-be-formed Ku Klux Klan.

Similarly, Chicago's gangs played a key role in the 1919 race riots, which killed 38 people.

Leaders of the riot were Ragen's Colts, the Murderers, and the Hamburgs, of which Richard J. Daley was a 17-year-old member.

The drive-by shooting, turned into an art form by Al Capone and synonymous with contemporary gangs, was invented by the Colts and other Irish clubs who drove their cars into Bronzeville and shot at black residents--many of whom, World War I veterans, shot back.

The 1922 Race Relations Commission concluded: "Gangs and their activities were an important factor throughout the riot. But for them it is doubtful if the riot would have gone beyond the first clash."

Chicago's Irish gangs of that time, like their earlier New York cousins, were fiercely proud of their Irishness and Catholicism, utterly racist, violent and politically savvy, and they supported themselves through the rackets. The alliance between the machine and the Irish immigrants led to patronage and the "maturing" of wild Irish gangsters into respectable machine soldiers.

As one Chicago police officer of that era told me, his Bridgeport friends were "club" members as kids, but when they grew up, most of them became cops.

Black and Latino gangs today also exhibit many of the characteristics of Scorsese's gangs.

While the Dead Rabbits were Catholic, the Vice Lords are Muslim. Rev. Louis Farrakhan has worked closely with black gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles, in ways that remind the literary of Irish priests in the pages of James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan."

Both in prison and on the streets, religion has always been the gang member's companion.

Today's drug economy has its parallel in Prohibition, when fantastic profits were made by a few who, in turn, provided survival-level jobs for many. In Chicago, it was Italian and Sicilian gangs, frozen out of patronage by the Irish machine, who ran the rackets.

Gus Russo's recent book "The Outfit" tells the familiar story of how Italian mobsters easily corrupted Chicago's "hands-out" politicians. It wasn't much different in New York.

There is also a long history of the involvement of black and Latino gangs in Chicago politics.

It was the political threat posed by black gangs in the 1960s that led Chicago's Boss Tweed, Richard J. Daley, to declare war on them in 1969. Yes, that would be the same Daley who was president of the Hamburgs for 15 years and never commented on what he did during the 1919 race riots.

Twenty First Century VOTE and other political ventures have recently linked black and Latino gangs with today's edition of ethnic politics.

While ethnic rivalry is a major theme of the movie, a powerful subtext is the intensity of racism. Contrary to the theories of some prominent Hyde Park academics, race has always been central to the gang experience in Chicago. From the gang-led 1919 race riots to decades of mob rioting and bombings, white gang violence has been used to keep the black community in its place.

As Irish gangsters matured out of their gangs into city jobs, the first Mayor Daley used city power to create what historian Arnold Hirsch calls the "second ghetto" by constructing a wall of highways and public housing to concentrate, segregate and isolate African-Americans.

And that changed things. The gangs that formed in the mid-century ghetto were institutionalized in both public housing complexes and on the streets. These gangs today are violent, political, religious and control the underground economy, just as their Irish and Italian ancestors did.

But the possibility of any "ethnic succession" or a "declining significance of race" is no longer taken seriously by disillusioned ghetto residents. Unlike the gangs of New York or Daley's Hamburgs, Chicago's current gangs are not on the way to getting jobs with the city or becoming respectable.

Their gangs are organizations of the socially excluded, not organizations benefiting from their links to the powerful.

Scorsese has opened wide a window on the dynamics of race, religion, street organizations and politics, both for yesterday and today. The solution to our gang problems, his movie suggests, lies not with a "war on gangs" or midnight basketball leagues. New York and Chicago's Irish gang leaders became politicians, got out of the gangs and got their piece of the pie.

It's democracy, racial equality, economic development and reconciliation that are most needed to bring peace to our streets.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune


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