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Gang Leader for a Day

January 15, 2009

Based upon notes taken during his eight years of PhD field work in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of Chicago’s bleakest housing estates, Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day – A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line is far more than it appears to be if you judge the book purely by its title and cover.

Gang Leader for a Day’s cover makes a valiant attempt to portray the book’s author as some kind of fearless rebel; a sociological Dirty Harry who cares little for rules and procedures when it comes to getting to the truth.  The cover even features him in a leather jacket standing on a stairwell and gazing into the camera with the kind of thousand-yard stare that says “I’ve been in the shit”.  The title might even convince you that this is an icy examination of the Thug Life full of the tricks and techniques that drug dealers use to keep the product flowing.  However, the truth is that Gang Leader for a Day is a warm and human book about what it means to be poor and Black in America today.  Venkatesh paints a picture of a community abandoned by the state and left to the devices of highly-skilled and manipulative robber barons who mercilessly exploit their neighbours for private gain whilst hypocritically championing the values of community and togetherness.  Worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as not only The Wire but also Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (2007).

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is its structure as a form of sociological memoir.  Half set of field-notes, half academic biography, the book deals in some depth with how Venkatesh felt while carrying out his research but the psychological insights are entirely limited to the book’s author.  Indeed, as a sociologist and experienced field worker, Venkatesh knows better than to second-guess the motivations of the people he writes about.  Instead he chooses to describe people’s actions and mannerisms whilst faithfully transcribing what they say about themselves.  Of course, how people describe themselves and how they act are frequently at radical odds:

‘When I had first met her, on the gallery outside J. T.’s apartment, Clarisse had set herself apart from other prostitutes – the ‘hypes’ and ‘rock stars’ – who sold sex for drugs.  Plainly she had lied to me about not using drugs; I guess she’d wanted to make a good impression.’ [page 156]

This gives Venkatesh a rather enjoyably naïve persona that makes the book incredibly readable.  Indeed, if the point of reading this book is to find out about a largely alien world then having a narrator who is almost child-like in his lack of street smarts is precisely what you want.  The fact that Venkatesh is so unthreatening and ignorant also allows him a degree of access that would have been unthinkable for a more knowledgeable and assured researcher.   Indeed, Venkatesh’s persona unlocks so many doors for him that one cannot help but wonder if it is not an elaborate act whereby Venkatesh pretends to be ignorant of everything in the hope that others will take it upon themselves to ‘school’ him.  However, if this innocent personality is indeed a research tool then Venkatesh gives no indication of it in the book, indeed at times it even gets him into trouble.

Initially, Venkatesh’s innocence is almost comical.  After deciding to learn about the plight of the inner city poor he strides onto a housing estate armed with a questionnaire prompting the following exchange:

‘“How does it feel to be black and poor?” I read.  Then I gave the multiple-choice answers: “Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.”

The guy with the too-big hat began to laugh, which prompted the others to start giggling.

“Fuck you!” he told me.’ [page 14]

Venkatesh’s lack of cunning and desire to make friends and learn about people rapidly sees him being adopted by one of Chicago’s up-and-coming gang leaders to serve as a kind of biographer and courtier.  J.T. effectively leads Venkatesh around, showing him what he wants him to see, and then starts taking him to meetings as a kind of status symbol; a way of saying to other people ‘I’m important enough to be studied by an academic’.  Later in the book, a meeting with the upper echelons of J.T.’s gang leads to the suggestion that Venkatesh might serve as some kind of Public Relations officer for the gang.  This is because, by controlling what Venkatesh sees (under the auspices of his needing protection), J.T. is using Venkatesh to disseminate a more positive image of drug dealers as community-minded businessmen.

Interestingly, Venkatesh is only remotely aware of the expected quid-pro-quo between him and J.T. and when his thesis supervisor expresses concern about Venkatesh’s lack of distance from the gang, Venkatesh is perplexed and presents it as academics wanting to fit his field-work into pre-existing avenues of research.

Venkatesh’s trusting nature eventually leads him to serve as a kind of political football between the different power-blocks within the estate.  At one point, a youth club leader takes the sociologist under his wing and invites him to a meeting of the local gangs as his guest.  When J.T. turns up, he is incandescent as by allowing the youth worker to publicly befriend him, Venkatesh has sent the message that the youth leader has J.T.’s ear, albeit indirectly.  This is not the only time Venkatesh’s innocence gets the best of him either as later on he gets used as an spy by one community leader,  as an emotional and financial crutch by the single women of the Robert Taylor Homes and as a tool of community retribution against a man who decides to beat up an aspiring model.  Other reviews of this work have spoken of Venkatesh’s courage in conducting this research and I can only echo the sentiment.  It is not until quite late in the book that Venkatesh realises his role in the community and how others see him and he is quite distressed when it is all laid on the table :

‘ “Why do you want to hang out?”

“I suppose I’m learning.  That’s what I do, I study the poor.”

“Okay well, you want to act like a saint, then you go ahead,” Ms. Bailey said, laughing.  “Of course you’re learning!  But you’re also hustling.  And we’re all hustlers.  So when we see another one of us, we gravitate toward them.  Because we need other hustlers to survive.”

“You mean that people think I can do something for them if they talk to me?”

“They know you can do something for them!” she yelped, leaning across the table and practically spitting out her words.  “And they know you will, because you need to get your information.  You’re a hustler, I can see it.  You’ll do anything to get what you want.  Just don’t be ashamed of it.” ’ [page 188]

The concept of the ‘hustler’ is really the key to understanding Gang Leader for a Day.  Traditionally, we think of criminals as either rogue elements within a society or elements that are parasitical upon a larger social infrastructure.  Gommorah goes a long way to undermine these visions of crime by suggesting that the Camorra is a natural by-product of capitalism and the relative poverty of Southern Italy but Venkatesh makes a much stronger claim.

The Robert Taylor Homes are a community largely ignored by the state; ambulances do not come when called and police are as likely to help you as they are to shake you down or run you in.  This means that the homes run as a pure capitalist society.  People are constantly ‘hustling’ in order to ‘survive’ but survival is generally defined as little more than having somewhere to sleep and enough food to ensure that your family do not starve.  In effect, the lives of the people in the Robert Taylor Homes are, as Hobbes put it, engulfed in a bellum omnium contra omnes –  war of all against all.  There are no contracts, there is no independent police, there is no steady income.  this means that people have to spend all of their time scratching out a living and competing with each other for resources.  Hustling can involve illegal activities such as theft, selling drugs or prostitution, but it mostly involves legitimate money-making schemes in which people take it upon themselves to provide services in return for cash, favours or payment in kind.  This might involve fixing cars, carrying out repair work, spying on someone, beating up a trouble-maker or something as mundane as bulk buying sweets so that the local children do not have to walk all the way to the shops through a dangerous area.  The need to hustle is constant and all consuming and it gives rise to social structures such as gangs, churches and residents associations that use different sets of skills in order to pool their resources and provide some of the basic functions of a government.

The most chilling person in Gang Leader for a Day is not J.T. or his superiors but Ms. Beasley the overweight fifty-something head of the local residents association.  Ms. Beasley exercises soft power in the way that women always have in societies that tend to use force as a means of problem solving.  She has eyes everywhere and is adept at extracting favours from people and using what official powers she has to not only protect her favourites but to tax the locals by getting cash, favours and payment-in-kind in return for not reporting them when they do illegal things such as squat empty apartments or run shops out of their front doors.  Ms. Beasley even takes a promising teenaged gang member as a lover in return for giving him a place to sleep.  Indeed, one of the Homes’ residents suggests that a key survival skill is to “Make sure Ms. Bailey’s always getting some dick” [page 213] and that is without mentioning Bailey’s crude use of power as a warning to Venkatesh, a sequence so horrifying in its ramifications and sadism that I do genuinely do not want to spoil it in this piece as I think it justifies buying the book alone.

The main message I took away from Gang Leader for a Day is the value of democracy.  Robber barons such as J.T. or Ms. Bailey are quick to claim that they ‘help’ the community but the truth is that while they provide a service, they get far more out of the community than they put in.  The book speaks of a clash between gangsters of J.T.’s generation and those of his superiors as to whether to look at the gangs as a business or as a family (this dichotomy is brilliantly reflected in the clash of viewpoints between The Wire’s Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale) but both of these schemas clearly flatter the drug dealers; one has a choice as to whether or not to be a customer and a family is based upon mutual love and support but if one is born into a housing estate one is either exploited by the people in power or one dies either of starvation or from punishment beatings.  What is ultimately chilling about J.T. and Ms. Beasley is that they are not only supremely powerful, they are also utterly unaccountable.  This is a capitalist system red in tooth and claw.

Gang Leader for a Day displays the horrors of human nature and how even in supposedly liberal democracies, a brutal feudal state is never further away than your nearest housing estate.  It presents the life of the underclass as a hideous daily grind of people working not only to support themselves but also individuals who use their power and skills not to help their community but to actively benefit from it.  However, though the powerful bleakness of Venkatesh’s work should give anyone who reads it pause for thought, it is also a book that stresses the human capacity for finding happiness and just getting by in the face of horrific odds.  Despite J.T’s hopes for a biographer and PR officer, the real heroes of Gang Leader for a Day are the squatters and the single women who live by their wits and find reasons to be happy despite the forces arrayed against them.

6 Comments
  1. January 19, 2009 4:15 pm

    Fascinating.

    This was a major component of Freakanomics, a work I don’t hugely recommend since it reduces much of this to a kind of “gosh, wow” level. It’s an interesting work, but not more than interesting if that makes sense.

    I hadn’t actually planned to check it out as I had the mistaken impression it was more of an academic paper rather than a full work. Now I know better, and based on your comments, I’ll definitely pick this up.

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  2. January 20, 2009 10:47 am

    It’s definitely worth picking up. It’s also a very quick read, Jenny and I got through it in a couple of days and I normally read incredibly slowly as I am easily bored.

    I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it actually as I can’t help but feel as though he’s leaving some stuff out or misrepresenting himself as he is just SO naive and SO unrelentingly positive, but maybe it is just my cynical heart :-)

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  3. January 21, 2009 10:44 am

    I’ll definitely be picking it up, as per your suggestion, I’m just waiting for the paperback edition (I dislike hardback and dislike trade paperback format even more). It’ll be interesting to compare it to Gomorrah, which I expect to read during next month.

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  4. January 22, 2009 10:12 am

    I can’t even begin to understand the appeal of the Trade Paperback format. It has all the downsides of the hardback (size, cost) with all of the downsides of the paperback (flimsiness).

    I can’t cope with hardbacks simply because I read in bed a lot and I am prone to nodding off and dropping my book on Jenny’s head. You should have seen the terror in her eyes when I brought home Alice in Sunderland which is not only hardback but also the size of one of those huge photographical coffee table books.

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  5. January 23, 2009 11:27 am

    I think the appeal is to publishers, not readers, I agree with you entirely on the problems of the format.

    Hardback sales have been declining for years, rather than give readers paperbacks which they clearly prefer publishers have instead been issuing trade paperbacks and then waiting months before a proper paperback release. Many readers, rather than wait, will stump up for a trade paperback which costs more than an ordinary paperback, but those same readers increasingly will not stump up for the even more expensive hardback format.

    So essentially, I see it as a publisher move aimed at maximising revenue. They’re businesses, so that’s their right, but I have no love for it as a practice.

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  6. January 23, 2009 10:22 pm

    I remember last year I had been through a phase of reading nothing but hardbacks for review and I picked up Swanwick’s Bones of Time to read just for me and it was like putting on slippers after walking around all day in uncomfortable shoes :-)

    If they want to increase their profits they should go into drug dealing or prostitution… it’s no excuse for putting out unmanageable books.

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