Diary of a PhD Gangster To better understand the Chicago gangs he'd been sent to study, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh joined them. Venkatesh chronicles his undercover effort in Gang Leader for a Day.
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Diary of a PhD Gangster

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Diary of a PhD Gangster

Diary of a PhD Gangster

Diary of a PhD Gangster

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To better understand the Chicago gangs he'd been sent to study, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh joined them. Venkatesh chronicles his undercover effort in Gang Leader for a Day.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So at the beginning of this book "Gang Leader for a Day," Sudhir Venkatesh writes about waking up in a crack den surrounded by junkies and drug dealers. He writes, quote, "the activities of the previous nights - smoking crack, drinking, having sex, vomiting, had peaked at around 2 a.m. By then, the unconscious people outnumbered the conscious ones and among the conscious, few still had the cash to buy another hit of crack cocaine. That's when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for sales and closed up shops for the night."

It sounds to many like a nightmare, but for Sudhir, it was just another of day of research. As a sociology student in Chicago, he made unlikely friends with one of the most violent gangs in the city, at that time, the Black Kings.

And over the course of seven years, he divided his time between the white, leafy suburb of Hyde Park and one of the country's largest public housing projects, Robert Taylor. His book "Gang Leader for a Day" is the story of that experience and Sudhir Venkatesh joins me now in the studio. Thanks very much for waking up this morning.

Mr. SUDHIR VENKATESH (Author, "Gang Leader for a Day"): It's great to be here. Thank you.

STEWART: I appreciate it. You went to the projects as a student about to embark on this research project with a survey in your hand with a question on it, a provocative question, what does it mean to be black and poor? What was the response from the people you asked this question to?

Mr. VENKATESH: Probably not something I can say on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VENKATESH: I was a nerdy sociologist who gave them five choices asking them how does it feel to be black and poor and they said you can't ask questions like this. You have to come and hang out with people if you really want to know what it's like. And they actually kept me there for about 24 hours because they actually didn't believe that anyone was to stupid enough to ask questions like this. They thought was a street gang member from a Mexican gang. They didn't know what I was. And so when they let me go, I came back and I stayed for seven years and the book is a product to that experience.

STEWART: Describe to people what the scene was like in Chicago at the time when you started this project? How prevalent were the gangs? What was their influence?

Mr. VENKATESH: So just to set the context, we're talking about communities like the Robert Taylor project, which are about 40,000, 30,000 to 40,000 people. Ninety-seven percent of them are not working and the families living off $10,000 per year.

So these are places where there's no government really. So the street gangs are the police force. They're the philanthropist who residents turn, so, it's a place that residents were, in some sense, had no other choice but to have these very complicated relationship with the street gang that they're subject to their violence but they have to live in these communities. And this book is about, really, about the leader of one of these gangs.

MARTIN: His name is J.T. You met him - you became close friends with him. This man is someone who went to college.

Mr. VENKATESH: Yeah. The first words he uttered - that were uttered from his mouth took me by storm when he told me I have a college degree. I couldn't believe this guy, actually. And his story is interesting. He worked in corporate America in the late 1980s and he figured that he - an African-American couldn't get ahead in the corporate America. And he became despondent and he came back to his projects to run a crack-dealing street gang because he was so just pessimistic.

MARTIN: This - as you allude to, this gang was more than a drug-running criminal operation. They also served as a community support group in many ways. They created their own economy, power structure, even a justice system that you actually took part in at one point. Can you explain what happen when you found yourself getting immersed in this militia government?

Mr. VENKATESH: Yeah. That's a great way of saying it. It's an economy and a separate justice system. So when you can't rely in the government, you know, I can take people to small claims court. These folks have to police themselves. So it's this underground economy and when something goes wrong, they have to punish people who don't pay for example, or they ask the gang to find the people that don't pay.

And there was this one incident - it was actually about domestic abuse, but the same kind of justice, where I was in a stairwell and the street gang and some squatters found a person who had raped and assaulted a young woman. And they were beating them up. And one of the squatters was being choked and he was going to pass out. He perhaps even died. And I was standing there. I was the only one who saw this until I became - I was no longer the fly on the wall, actually, just kick the person until he let the squatter go and then got the choked hold off. I was not expecting to become involved, but you can't sit there and just - and not do anything.

MARTIN: And I mean, some frightening stuff happened to you during these seven years. I mean you were threatened, people pulled weapons on you. Why did you keep coming back? What did you have to know before you could leave this research?

Mr. VENKATESH: I think every time I thought I had enough, another door opened. So just when I thought I understood what the - how the street gang runs its economy, I had to listen and figure out why the residents could even tolerate a gang like this. When it was one neighborhood, then I wanted to know about the city as a whole. Then, I realized that the gang has this incredible hold on the poor neighborhoods. And then I wondered, oh, what did the police do? So I started befriending police. And I think, unlike journalists who make it, what, a day, a week, a month on a story, I had seven years and I took advantage of it. I just want to go deeper and deeper and deeper.

MARTIN: At one point, J.T. does turn to you and offers you this - what he calls opportunity of a lifetime. Can you tell us what happen?

Mr. VENKATESH: He offered me several opportunities of a lifetime. The one that I - maybe I'm thinking of this one, I got to step in his shoes and actually hang out with him for 24 hours and watch how he made decisions and run his organization. And that opened my eyes up to a side of the underground economy I really hadn't seen before, which is the - just the ruthless violence. You know, two of his drug sellers had an argument and he would have to figure out who is lying, who stole the drugs for him, and beat the living daylights out of them. So any romantic view I had about this - once I walked next to him - were quickly dispelled just by watching the violence.

MARTIN: Which you did have. You write about how this kind of watching a movie unfold before your eyes and it's pretty cool to hang out with a really important gang leader. And those eventually - how did your perspective on this all change at the end of seven years?

Mr. VENKATESH: I think the hardest thing for me in writing this book was not to romanticize these folks and not to just give a one-sided portrait of what they were like. And the fact is that they were extremely violent. And as I kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper, I had to balance my own ethical, you know, decisions about getting this close and watching violence like a war reporter, frankly, and trying to do something about it. And so, I would see drive by shootings and beatings and things like that. And a lot of what this book is about is my own attempt to wrestle with getting caught in the middle and figuring out what to do and I stumble all along the way.

MARTIN: What did you come away with - how did living this life - because you were really living with them - how did it change how you do your work and how you do sociology, this academic kind of pursuit?

Mr. VENKATESH: So the kind of sociology I do where I move in with families in poor communities used to be exactly what sociologists did a hundred years ago. But it's totally gone out of fashion. You know, where you see sociologists doing surveys and things like that - census polls. I think this is what you have to do. I'm not saying I want everyone to go out and live with a street gang. But I do think there's a value of getting really, really close to people and stepping in their shoes just to understand what life is like from their side.

MARTIN: Real quickly. Did J.T. or any other of the gang members read your book?

Mr. VENKATESH: I have this - I have a book and I'm - hopefully I'll give it to J.T. and it says be careful what you wish for because it just might come true. He thought I was his biographer. So, you know, here it is.

MARTIN: Thank you so much Sudhir Venkatesh, author of "Gang Leader for a Day." Thanks for coming by the BPP.

Mr. VENKATESH: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: Appreciate it.

(Soundbite of music)

And that is it for BPP. We're always online at npr.org/bryantpark.

I'm Rachel Martin here in New York City, BPP world headquarters.

STEWART: And I'm Alison Stewart.

We've been at KCPW. They have been tremendous hosts. Thanks to Bryan Shaw(ph) and everybody who's made this so possible.

And, Rachel, I'll make you a little jealous. I'm about to go have a little brunch with…

MARTIN: What?

STEWART: …some BPP listeners who have come to the station…

MARTIN: Oh, that's great.

STEWART: …to hang out, have a couple of jokes, chat about the show a little bit.

MARTIN: Tell them thank you from New York.

STEWART: I will tell them a big thank you from New York. And hey, do check out our blog. We're going to have more reports from Sundance and more video diaries, interviews with filmmakers, musical performances. We'll keep it going all week as long as the festival goes.

I'm Alison Stewart singing off. See you, Rachel. See you, everybody.

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