Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy by Donnie Brasco, pt. 3/3

An FBI surveillance photograph of Joseph Pistone, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Tony Rossi.

Welcome to the final installment of The Way of the Wiseguy, by Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco. Brasco infiltrated the mob between 1976 and 81, providing the FBI with a great deal of evidence that lead to, according to Wikipedia, “over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members.”

Between Donnie Brasco and Dobyns’s No Angel (about his infiltration of the Hells Angels), you may be wondering how any organization can protect itself against infiltration. I suspect that any organization that takes in new members is vulnerable. Even if you have to know a guy who’s already in the organization to get in, people who are already in the organization can turn state’s evidence and start working with the government. (Therefore I recommend not organizing to commit crimes.)

However, several factors probably make an organization significantly harder to infiltrate:

1. Conduct business in a language other than English (or the local language, wherever the organization is)

2. Only accept members from an isolated group that feels little connection to the broader culture

3. Difficult to fake entrance requirements (such as killing someone.)

The Mafia is not America’s only organized criminal organization. We have all sorts of criminal gangs from virtually every ethnic group. Most criminal organizations draw heavily from people who are isolated from the mainstream culture–folks who either don’t see their way to success in mainstream culture or don’t care if they prey on it.

I enjoyed this book; unfortunately it is still under copyright and the author is still alive, so I’m not quoting as much as I’d like to. I encourage you to pick up the book and read it yourself.

But let’s let Pistone talk. On the Wiseguy Way–and getting what you want out of life:

Say you’re out for a night on the town… And the maitre d’ says, “sorry, you have no reservation.” …Here’s what ninety-nine percent of the population would do–they would turn right around and leave.

Now here’s what wiseguys would do. …

Wiseguys never ever make restaurant reservations. They just show up at some five star joint and give the maitre d’ some made up name. When no reservation is found, that’s when wiseguy do their wiseguy thing. …

“What do you mean, no reservation?” Lefty demanded, his voice rising… “Check again.” … pretty soon all of us were angry and yelling and making a fuss… “No table? How can there be no fucking table? Check the fucking book again.”

Within minutes, we had the best table in the house. …

… they satisfied our demand, however irrational it was, imply to get us to stop making a fuss. Most people don’t like fusses…

The fact is, most people don’t have the stomach for confrontation that wiseguys have. Wiseguys are absolutely unafraid to confront people, even if they know they are dead wrong about something. For wiseguys, a wrong can be turned into a right simply by arguing your point loudly and forcibly. The value of getting in someone’s face and knocking them off-balance cannot be overstated. Wiseguys know this–wiseguys understand the currency of fear. …

you pretty much get what you ask for in this life, and most people are too timid to ask for what they want.

Personally, confrontations make me almost physically nauseous. I have trouble telling a waiter my order is incorrect, much less making a fuss over anything.

The Wiseguy Strut:

You can spot a wiseguy a block away from the way he walks. … They walk around like they own the streets, which, in effect, they do. … in their neighborhoods, on their streets, wiseguys basically announce themselves as wiseguys. It is a badge of honor to be connected in their neighborhoods, and, as a result, they are respected and even admired by their neighbors…

Of course, if you don’t respect them, you might get killed, but matters seem to go beyond that:

Ordinary people in wiseguy neighborhoods get something in exchange for showing mobsters this respect. Neighborhoods that are dominated by wiseguys are also considered to be under the protection of these wiseguys. There are far fewer robberies, rapes, or muggings in wiseguy neighborhoods than in even the safest precincts of the city. … You would have to be one stupid burglar to come into a mobbed-up neighborhood and knock up the corner bar. … There isn’t a police force in the world that deters crime as well as the presence of wiseuys. ….

Pistone may at times exaggerate, but I think he is basically correct that roughing up a business that has paid protection money to the mob is a mistake.

In our next book we’ll be reviewing, Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster, there’s a story about a man named Icepick Red. The police were after Red because he kept putting icepicks into people, killing them. Frank, then a teenager In Harlem, saw Red around the neighborhood fairly regularly and even interacted with him, but the police somehow couldn’t find him. Finally Red killed a guy who worked for “Bumpy” Johnson, a Harlem crime boss. Bumpy’s men immediately got Red, brought him in, and Bumpy had fire ants eat him alive.

Bumpy’s methods might not be Constitutional, but he did what the police, for some reason, had failed to do.

I suspect the same holds for Italian mobsters.

Wiseguys do not come into neighborhoods and make those neighborhoods worse. … Wiseguys take great pride in knowing that their street are safe and clean and filled with happy citizens walking their dogs, pushing their kids, living their live–and respecting the wiseguys.

This mutually beneficial relationship between laypeople and the mobsters that live among them is the reason it is so hard for law enforcement agencies to root out wiseguys. … If there is any police activity in a certain neighborhood, any extended surveillance by feds in parked cars or vans, the citizen of that neighborhood are going to know about it, and they are going to make sure the wiseguy know about it, too.

Sure, if your choice is between Bumpy Johnson and Icepick Red, you pick Bumpy.

So here’s a question: did mob-controlled neighborhoods actually have lower crime rates (mob-related deaths perhaps excluded) than non-mob controlled ones, and what were the effects of Pistone’s infiltration (76-81) and the Mafia Commission Trial (85-86) on local crime? Certainly the crime rate rose steadily from the 1950s onward, bounced around a bunch post 1970, and finally peaked in 1990. Did cracking down on the Mafia help crime rates go down 4 years later? Or does Stop and Frisk deserve the credit? (Or does some other factor deserve the credit?)

Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen opened by Al Capone in Chicago during the Depression, February 1931

Back to Pistone:

One of the most famous bosses of all time, for instance, was Al Capone, the notorious gangster who ruled Chicago in the ’20s and early ’30s. Capone consolidated his authority by whacking seven members of the Irish-American O’Banion gang in the fabled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. His incredible power over the gangs and illegal trades of Chicago was broken only when the feds nabbed him… He truly thought of himself as a shrewd entrepreneur who ran a sweeping and profitable empire…

In the end, mob bosses are just that–bosses. They oversee a variety of business endeavors, supervise a big team of employees, and settle disputes with other enterprises. … If this sounds pretty boring, that’s because it is.

Pistone’s description of a typical day in the Mafia sounded so boring I wondered why they don’t just give up and get regular jobs.

(I would like to have read about some of the Irish gangs like the O’Banion, but this project has already gone on long enough.)

In search of Respect:

I walked into the back of Jilly’s social club and encountered a roomful of wiseguys with grim mugs. … they we there to gill me on my identity: was I really who I said I was, Donnie Brasco? …

The wiseguys grilling me realized they wouldn’t need to put a bullet in my head. After about six hours, the meeting was over, and I walked back into the main room of the social club with three of the lower-level wiseguys who had grilled me. …

What I did, the minute we left the back and walked into the main room, was pick out the one guy out of the three who wasn’t a made man.

Then I fucking coldclocked him. …”You call me a snitch, you piece of shit?”…

You see, the worst thing you can say about a wiseguy is that he is a snitch. Once they pulled me in the back and interrogated me on the assumption I was a snitch, they left me no choice but th react the way I did. If I hadn’t been upset that I had been called a snitch… that might even have aroused more suspicion. By reacting the way I did, I gained a lot of credibility in the eyes of the members of the Colombo crime family. And the reason this is so can be explained in a single word:

Respect.

The foundation of the entire Mafia is respect. … Wiseguys talk all the time about respect, about giving it and getting it in proper measures.

Pistone notes that he Mafia is less powerful today because the feds, from the 60s through the 80s, gained weapons to use against it, from bugs planted in home to the 1970 RICO act. In 1985, the feds arrested the bosses of all five NY crime families. Additionally, the mob’s basic culture began to change:

The new generation of mobsters just isn’t as devoted to the old Sicilian way of doing things. “Now you had wiseguys with no sense of the history of the Mafia or of its customs and traditions. The organized part of organized crime became just a shadow what it was…”

“the old-timers were involved in importing and distributing drugs. There was simply too much money at stake for them t keep their hands clean. But they did take a dismal view of drugs and people who used drugs … they mad sure to keep narcotics out of their neighborhoods, and certainly they did not use drugs themselves. There was a certain orderliness to the mob drug trade. Today, that caution is out the fucking window. The new wiseguys are far more interested in the money they can make off drugs than they are in keeping it out of their neighborhood or even their own bodies. Lots of wiseguys become addicts and get careless and sloppy. … These are guys who basically have no respect for the old ways of doing things, for the traditions and custom that had kept the Mafia in business for a century. Instead, they believe in instant gratification, making as much money as they can, plying their drug in previously nice neighborhoods and basically acting like common crooks. …

You have more wiseguys turning stool pigeon in the last ten or twenty year than in all the previous decades of the Mafia’s history. … Old wiseguys would get pinched, bite the bullet, button their lips, and do their time. Today, the fist thing a wiseguy does is sing.

You know, it almost sounds like the guy who devoted years of his life to taking down the Mafia is complaining that this new generation of mobsters isn’t keeping up the Mafia’s code to criminal success…

What we’re talking about here is a new breed of wiseguy who is neither as smart nor as forward-thinking as his predecessors. …

The Mafia has more or less lost its stranglehold on the unions. … a lot of it is because new wiseguys do not have the smarts and wherewithal to cultivate the union people like the old wiseguys did.

Wikipedia has an interesting passage within the etymology section on Mafia:

The word mafia derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means ‘swagger’, but can also be translated as ‘boldness’ or ‘bravado’. … In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’.

Large groups of Italian migrant workers, primarily from the south of the country, first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage. A result of the US Civil War, the end of slave labor, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. …

As migrant laborers from Sicily arrived for work they created their own labor system called the ‘padrone’ system based on the ‘boss’ systems which already existed during this period. … A ‘padrone’ or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Sicily who were unable to speak the language. He was in charge of the labor group including where they would work, the length of their employment, how much they were paid, and living quarters.

Labor laws were non existent during this period and the padrone system like the boss systems were not immune to corruption. … As the 19th century turned into the 20th century the migrant laborers from Sicily and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or padroni who were mafiosi became known as the American counterpart ‘mafia boss’, labor contracts became known as mafia contracts…

Modern society is complex, involving large groups of people trying to make their way in huge communities. You can’t possibly learn all of the skills necessary to build modern human cities. Almost everything necessary for human life–like food–requires networking together far more people than you could ever meet and get to know. Which means opportunities for middle men, fixers, bosses, networkers, headhunters, and all the other guys who “know a guy” stepping in to link the parts together to get things done–which, of course, can have its downsides.

 

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7 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy by Donnie Brasco, pt. 3/3

  1. I’ve seen observable street level crime drop off in neighbourhoods when an MC started a club house. My suspicion was they cleaned up some of the bullshit so the law would have less reasons to be in that area

    In general I think organized crime is preferable to what is going on now. Chicago’s body count is about turf wars. If one family ran the show there wouldn’t be the street level violence. Especially with blacks/ for blacks. It’s always been interesting to me that in Appalachia the drug trade can run rampant without the high body count.

    Any rate, the more professional the crime syndicate, the less street level violence. Not because they are nice guys but because it’s bad for businesses

    I don’t know anything about the mafia but I can tell you I much prefer the old school 1%’ers.

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  2. Thanks! As for the decline in intelligence among the Mafia, sure the smartest mobsters favor upward mobility for their children and put them into elite schools and careers, thus robbing the crime world of smart genes. Was it a quote from The Godfather – “We do it so our sons can be lawyers and our grandsons can be politicians”? As for the falling crime in the 1990s, there’s a “Cocooning” cycle on that blog that theorizes on it (and the 1930s-1950s falling crime too). Perhaps it will be of interest: http://akinokure.blogspot.ca/2016/01/violence-declining-cycling-what-do-you.html

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  3. Have you ever read the Valachi Papers? If not you should. Then you would know how and why some of the “rules” you quote came to be, if nothing else….

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