Researcher Studies Gangs by Leading One
SCOTT SIMON, host:
You won't read many books that open with a more arresting passage than the new one by Sudhir Venkatesh. So let's just ask him to begin.
Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Author, "Gang Leader for a Day"): (Reading) I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. in a crack den - Apartment 1603 in Building Number 2301 of the Robert Taylor homes. Apartment 1603 was called the roof since everyone knew that you could get very, very high there, even higher than if you climb all the way to the building's actual rooftop.
As I opened my eyes, I saw two dozen people sprawled about, most of them men asleep on couches and on the floor. No one had lived in the apartment for a while. The walls were peeling and roaches skittered across the linoleum floor.
The activities of the previous night - smoking crack, drinking, having sex, vomiting - had peaked at about 2 a.m. By then, the unconscious people outnumbered the conscious ones. And among the conscious ones, few still have the cash to buy another hit of crack cocaine. That's when the Black Kings saw diminishing prospects for sales and closed up shop for the night.
I fell asleep, too, on the floor. 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.
SIMON: Sudhir Venkatesh is now a professor of sociology at Columbia University. And he's the author of this new book, "Gang Leader for a Day." He joins us from studios at the Columbia School of Business in New York.
Thank you so much for being with us, professor.
Prof. VENKATESH: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
SIMON: The first people you met on the south side of Chicago with the group you ran with here - not only write about but ran with here, the Black Kings - they assumed you were Mexican.
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. This was the late 1980s and there was a lot of antagonism among Mexican American and African-American street gangs in Chicago. And I was a graduate student doing a survey and I walked into this housing development that I didn't know was officially going to be closed down and...
SIMON: This is the Robert Taylor homes.
Prof. VENKATESH: This is the Robert Taylor homes. And they started calling me Julio.
SIMON: I have to ask you to share the question you asked them because this could be from a "Saturday Night Live" routine. Academic - University of Chicago academic walks into a store and asks...
Prof. VENKATESH: How does it feel to be black and poor? They laughed. And they offered a response that, I have to tell you, it's a profanity and it wasn't one of the choices that they had on the questionnaire.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Yeah. But that's how you met the Black King later known as J.T. From the first, he impressed you with something.
Prof. VENKATESH: When the words came out of his mouth that he had a college degree, I was floored. The last thing that I had expected to hear was a major street gang leader, a person in this community, having a college degree. He was working at a downtown corporate firm, in sales, and he decided to go back to his community, into the housing developments and sell drugs because he felt an African-American could not get ahead in corporate America at that time and he wanted to go somewhere else to make his money and make his life.
SIMON: Now that we're talking in 2008, does a representation like that seem particularly ludicrous now that somebody from the south side of Chicago stands a very good chance of being president?
Prof. VENKATESH: Well, on the one hand, it would seem that we have come a long way from that time when I met J.T. in the 1980s. The first African-American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, had just died, and the city was in a turmoil, and conflicts among African-Americans and white ethnics in the city was at its - was at a high. And J.T. felt like there is absolutely no chance for him in the city and that you probably represented the taste and the opinion of the majority of African-Americans at that time.
SIMON: In your description, the Black Kings in the Robert Taylor homes and other gangs for that matter, they moved in to places because they provided city services that the official city agencies stop providing.
Prof. VENKATESH: Here, we have the street gang that was a philanthropist. They gave money to children for back-to-school clothing, and they ran basketball leagues, and they provided security and escorts for the elderly to go to the store. It was a very strange world for me to come into.
SIMON: Remind us, though, how the Black Kings made that money.
Prof. VENKATESH: They had several hundred people. They were selling, primarily, crack cocaine in the housing projects in Chicago. And they were tied into other street gangs in other parts of the city. So they were part of a citywide drug-dealing operation.
SIMON: Tell us about the day you turned to J.T. and said, I think you're overpaid.
Prof. VENKATESH: I saw the street gang. It was relatively early on in our relationship and I didn't see him doing anything. I saw him delegating orders and telling people where to stand, and go get him a coffee or coke or something like that. I said, you know, you're not really doing anything. I think you're overpaid. And he said, well, why don't you try it for a day?
And we had ground rules. I couldn't fire a weapon. I wouldn't deal drugs. But it gave me a chance to understand some of the complex decisions that he had to make, and it was just fascinating to see the kind of managerial prowess that he had, again, in a very illegal and dangerous world. But he had to manage a complex operation that I think any business person out there could probably understand some of the difficult decisions that he had to make.
SIMON: There - sitting there in the studios at the Columbia Business School, share some of those business decisions with us that you saw, some of which you learned.
Prof. VENKATESH: A guy comes to you and will sell you crack cocaine at $100 today when it normally sells for 125. But you have to pay him a higher price in the future so he's going to give you a discount now. Another guy says pay me a higher price now and you can lock in a lower price months later. What would you take? And I'm thinking rationally. I'll take the lock in a cheap price later.
J.T. says you can't. There is no later in this world. You have to take what's now because the future doesn't exist.
SIMON: I have to ask you about what I found just about the most shocking part. You participated in a beating once yourself.
Prof. VENKATESH: Yeah. It was - there was a young woman named Tanisha(ph), a very pretty young woman who have been doing modeling and her boyfriend, Bebe(ph), was upset at her because he thought that she was getting business and not giving him his 15 or 20 percent. And so he beat her up and he cut her up and...
SIMON: You say doing business, this was of sexual services?
Prof. VENKATESH: Sexual services, modeling, everything. And then he felt he had a right to claim part of her income. And so he beat her up and he cut up her face and it was an awful situation. And because these folks in this community could not rely on the police, often what they do is they round up squatters who lived in the building as a sort of militia.
And so they rounded up three people and said, okay, we're letting you live in this building illegally. You need to find this guy, Bebe. So Bebe's running down the stairs, they're chasing him in the building and he comes after the squatters and they get him in a hold. And Bebe's a big, big man and strong man. And he's got one of the squatters in a choke hold, and I'm the only one who sees this and "I'm observing this," quote, end quote. I'm a neutral, partial observer. And that line was crossed immediately when I kicked Bebe in the stomach. And so that he let go of this guy and the choke hold went away. And immediately, I just realized, boy, I'm starting to get involved in something just a little too deep. And they eventually took Bebe and they beat him up.
And I remember telling one of the elder tenants in the community that I feel bad. This is - I did something awful. She said to me, well, you're just like us. You're just going to have to live with it.
But then I understood, firsthand, what it means when you can't rely on the police. When you can't rely on folks to help you, you have to help yourself.
SIMON: On your way home to Hyde Park, you'd stop at a pretty famous bar there called Jimmy's(ph) and find yourself getting angry about people like yourself...
Prof. VENKATESH: Oh, man.
SIMON: ...which is to say sociologists.
Prof. VENKATESH: Jimmy's became my resting place on the way home. And, you know, like many other people who'd go to bars, I'd sit alone and try to wash off what I've saw or just try to find a way to come to grips of what I was feeling. And the anger that I was experiencing was in part driven by the fact that sociologists, social scientists had - were not really seeing this world or choosing to ignore it and were really not taking the time to figure out exactly what was going on in these inner-city communities.
You know, most of them would, in a responsible way, ask a survey, here and there, ask few hundred people, and then, turn their backs. And I struggle to figure out what value I could offer if I didn't spend the time. And then there are the ethical questions. Okay. Now, I'm spending the time and now, I'm just trying to get involved and this - these lines I have to cross. And I struggle to figure out exactly what my contribution could be. And it's taken me a long time. And I still struggle with that question of exactly how to be a good sociologist.
SIMON: Professor, thank you so much.
Prof. VENKATESH: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Sudhir Venkatesh. His new book is "Gang Leader for a Day." And to read an excerpt from his book, you can come to our Web site, npr.org/books.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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