For example, there is about 25% overlap between the human genome and that of grapes. (And we have fewer genes than grapes!) So some caution should be exercised before reading too much into percentages of genomic correspondence across species. I doubt, after all that you consider yourself one-quarter grape. … canine and bovine species generally exhibit about an 85% rate of genomic correspondence with humans. … small changes in genetic makeup can, among other influences, lead to large changes in brain size.
On the development of numbers:
After all, for the vast majority of our species’ existence, we lived as hunters and gatherers in Africa … A reasonable interpretation of the contemporary distribution of cultural and number-system types, then, is that humans did not rely on complex number system for the bulk of their history. We can also reasonably conclude that transitions to larger, more sedentary, and more trade-based cultures helped pressure various groups to develop more involved numerical technologies. … Written numerals, and writing more generally, were developed first in the Fertile Crescent after the agricultural revolution began there. … These pressures ultimately resulted in numerals and other written symbols, such as the clay-token based numerals … The numerals then enabled new forms of agriculture and trade that required the exact discrimination and representation of quantities. The ancient Mesopotamian case is suggestive, then, of the motivation for the present-day correlation between subsistence and number types: larger agricultural and trade-based economies require numerical elaboration to function. …
Intriguingly, though, the same maybe true of Chinese writing, the earliest samples of which date to the Shang Dynasty and are 3,000 years old. The most ancient of these samples are oracle bones. These bones were inscribed with nuemerals quantifying such items as enemy prisoners, birds and animals hunted, and sacrificed animals. … Ancient writing around the world is numerically focused.
Changes in the Jungle as population growth makes competition for resources more intense and forces people out of their traditional livelihoods:
Consider the case of one of my good friends, a member of an indigenous group known as the Karitiana. … Paulo spent the majority of his childhood, in the 1980s and 1990s in the largest village of his people’s reservation. … While some Karitiana sought to make a living in nearby Porto Velho, many strived to maintain their traditional way of life on their reservation. At the time this was feasible, and their traditional subsistence strategies of hunting, gathering, and horticulture could be realistically practiced. Recently, however, maintaining their conventional way of life has become a less tenable proposition. … many Karitiana feel they have little choice but to seek employment in the local Brazilian economy… This is certainly true of Paulo. He has been enrolled in Brazilian schools for some time, has received some higher education, and is currently employed by a governmental organization. To do these things, of course, Paulo had to learn Portuguese grammar and writing. And he had to learn numbers and math, also. In short, the socioeconomic pressures he has felt to acquire the numbers of another culture are intense.
Everett cites a statistic that >90% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages are endangered.
They are endangered primarily because people like Paulo are being conscripted into larger nation-states, gaining fluency in more economically viable languages. … From New Guinea to Australia to Amazonia and elsewhere, the mathematizing of people is happening.
On the advantages of different number systems:
Recent research also suggests that the complexity of some non-linguistic number systems have been under appreciated. Many counting boards and abaci that have been used, and are still in use across the world’s culture, present clear advantages to those using them … the abacus presents some cognitive advantages. That is because, research now suggests, children who are raised using the abacus develop a “mental abacus” with time. … According to recent cross-cultural findings, practitioners of abacus-based mathematical strategies outperform those unfamiliar with such strategies,a t least in some mathematical tasks. The use of the Soroban abacus has, not coincidentally, now been adopted in many schools throughout Asia.
I suspect these higher math scores are more due to the mental abilities of the people using the abacus than the abacus itself. I have also just ordered an abacus.
… in 2015 the world’s oldest known unambiguous inscription of a circular zero was rediscovered in Cambodia. The zero in question, really a large dot, serves as a placeholder in the ancient Khmer numeral for 605. It is inscribed on a stone tablet, dating to 683 CE, that was found only kilometers from the faces of Bayon and other ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. … the Maya also developed a written form for zero, and the Inca encoded the concept in their Quipu.
In 1202, Fibonacci wrote the Book of Calculation, which promoted the use of the superior Arabic (yes Hindu) numerals (zero included) over the old Roman ones. Just as the introduction of writing jump-started the Cherokee publishing industry, so the introduction of superior numerals probably helped jump-start the Renaissance.
Cities and the rise of organized religion:
…although creation myths, animistic practices, and other forms of spiritualism are universal or nearly universal, large-scale hierarchical religions are restricted to relatively few cultural lineages. Furthermore, these religions… developed only after people began living in larger groups and settlements because of their agricultural lifestyles. … A phalanx of scholars has recently suggested that the development of major hierarchical religions, like the development of hierarchical governments, resulted from the agglomeration of people in such places. …
Organized religious beliefs, with moral-enforcing deities and priest case, were a by-product of the need for large groups of people to cooperate via shared morals and altruism. As the populations of cultures grew after the advent of agricultural centers… individuals were forced to rely on shared trust with many more individuals, including non-kin, than was or is the case in smaller groups like bands or tribes. … Since natural selection is predicated on the protection of one’s genes, in-group altruism and sacrifice are easier to make sense of in bands and tribes. But why would humans in much larger populations–humans who have no discernible genetic relationship… cooperate with these other individuals in their own culture? … some social mechanism had to evolve so that larger cultures would not disintegrate due to competition among individuals and so that many people would not freeload off the work of others. One social mechanism that foster prosocial and cooperative behavior is an organized religion based on shared morals and omniscient deities capable of keeping track of the violation of such morals. …
When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with his stone tablets, they were inscribed with ten divine moral imperatives. … Why ten? … Here is an eleventh commandment that could likely be uncontroversially adopted by many people: “thou shalt not torture.” … But then the list would appear to lose some of its rhetorical heft. “eleven commandments’ almost hints of a satirical deity.
Technically there are 613 commandments, but that’s not nearly as catchy as the Ten Commandments–inadvertently proving Everett’s point.
Overall, I found this book frustrating and repetitive, but there were some good parts. I’ve left out most of the discussion of the Piraha and similar cultures, and the rather fascinating case of Nicaraguan homesigners (“homesigners” are deaf people who were never taught a formal sign language but made up their own.) If you’d like to learn more about them, you might want to look up the book at your local library.
I was really excited about this book when I picked it up at the library. It has the word “numbers” on the cover and a subtitle that implies a story about human cultural and cognitive evolution.
Regrettably, what could have been a great books has turned out to be kind of annoying. There’s some fascinating information in here–for example, there’s a really interesting part on pages 249-252–but you have to get through pages 1-248 to get there. (Unfortunately, sometimes authors put their most interesting bits at the end so that people looking to make trouble have gotten bored and wandered off by then.)
I shall try to discuss/quote some of the book’s more interesting bits, and leave aside my differences with the author (who keeps reiterating his position that mathematical ability is entirely dependent on the culture you’re raised in.) Everett nonetheless has a fascinating perspective, having actually spent much of his childhood in a remote Amazonian village belonging to the Piraha, who have no real words for numbers. (His parents were missionaries.)
Which languages contain number words? Which don’t? Everett gives a broad survey:
“…we can reach a few broad conclusions about numbers in speech. First, they are common to nearly all of the world’s languages. … this discussion has shown that number words, across unrelated language, tend to exhibit striking parallels, since most languages employ a biologically based body-part model evident in their number bases.”
That is, many languages have words that translate essentially to “One, Two, Three, Four, Hand, … Two hands, (10)… Two Feet, (20),” etc., and reflect this in their higher counting systems, which can end up containing a mix of base five, 10, and 20. (The Romans, for example, used both base five and ten in their written system.)
“Third, the linguistic evidence suggests not only that this body-part model has motivated the innovation of numebers throughout the world, but also that this body-part basis of number words stretches back historically as far as the linguistic data can take us. It is evident in reconstruction of ancestral languages, including Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Autronesian, and Proto-Indo-European, the languages whose descendant tongues are best represented in the world today.”
Note, though, that linguistics does not actually give us a very long time horizon. Proto-Indo-European was spoken about 4-6,000 years ago. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is not as well studied yet as PIE, but also appears to be at most 6,000 years old. Proto-Niger-Congo is probably about 5-6,000 years old. Proto-Austronesian (which, despite its name, is not associated with Australia,) is about 5,000 years old.
These ranges are not a coincidence: languages change as they age, and once they have changed too much, they become impossible to classify into language families. Older languages, like Basque or Ainu, are often simply described as isolates, because we can’t link them to their relatives. Since humanity itself is 200,000-300,000 years old, comparative linguistics only opens a very short window into the past. Various groups–like the Amazonian tribes Everett studies–split off from other groups of humans thousands 0r hundreds of thousands of years before anyone started speaking Proto-Indo-European. Even agriculture, which began about 10,000-15,000 years ago, is older than these proto-languages (and agriculture seems to have prompted the real development of math.)
I also note these language families are the world’s biggest because they successfully conquered speakers of the world’s other languages. Spanish, Portuguese, and English are now widely spoken in the Americas instead of Cherokee, Mayan, and Nheengatu because Indo-European language speakers conquered the speakers of those languages.
The guy with the better numbers doesn’t always conquer the guy with the worse numbers–the Mongol conquest of China is an obvious counter. But in these cases, the superior number system sticks around, because no one wants to replace good numbers with bad ones.
In general, though, better tech–which requires numbers–tends to conquer worse tech.
Which means that even though our most successful language families all have number words that appear to be about 4-6,000 years old, we shouldn’t assume this was the norm for most people throughout most of history. Current human numeracy may be a very recent phenomenon.
“The invention of number is attainable by the human mind but is attained through our fingers. Linguistic data, both historical and current, suggest that numbers in disparate cultures have arisen independently, on an indeterminate range of occasions, through the realization that hands can be used to name quantities like 5 and 10. … Words, our ultimate implements for abstract symbolization, can thankfully be enlisted to denote quantities. But they are usually enlisted only after people establish a more concrete embodied correspondence between their finger sand quantities.”
Some more on numbers in different languages:
“Rare number bases have been observed, for instance, in the quaternary (base-4) systems of Lainana languages of California, or in the senary (base-6) systems that are found in southern New Guinea. …
Several languages in Melanesia and Polynesia have or once had number system that vary in accordance with the type of object being counted. In the case of Old High Fijian, for instance, the word for 100 was Bola when people were counting canoes, but Kora when they were counting coconuts. …
some languages in northwest Amazonia base their numbers on kinship relationships. This is true of Daw and Hup two related language in the region. Speakers of the former languages use fingers complemented with words when counting from 4 to 10. The fingers signify the quantity of items being counted, but words are used to denote whether the quantity is odd or even. If the quantity is even, speakers say it “has a brother,” if it is odd they state it “has no brother.”
What about languages with no or very few words for numbers?
In one recent survey of limited number system, it was found that more than a dozen languages lack bases altogether, and several do not have words for exact quantities beyond 2 and, in some cases, beyond 1. Of course, such cases represent a miniscule fraction of the world’s languages, the bulk of which have number bases reflecting the body-part model. Furthermore, most of the extreme cases in question are restricted geographically to Amazonia. …
All of the extremely restricted languages, I believe, are used by people who are hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists, eg, the Munduruku. Hunter gatherers typically don’t have a lot of goods to keep track of or trade, fields to measure or taxes to pay, and so don’t need to use a lot of numbers. (Note, however, that the Inuit/Eskimo have a perfectly normal base-20 counting system. Their particularly harsh environment appears to have inspired both technological and cultural adaptations.) But why are Amazonian languages even less numeric than those of other hunter-gatherers from similar environments, like central African?
Famously, most of the languages of Australia have somewhat limited number system, and some linguists previously claimed that most Australian language slack precise terms for quantities beyond 2…. [however] many languages on that continent actually have native means of describing various quantities in precise ways, and their number words for small quantities can sometimes be combined to represent larger quantities via the additive and even multiplicative usage of bases. …
Of the nearly 200 Australian languages considered in the survey, all have words to denote 1 and 2. In about three-quarters of the languages, however, the highest number is 3 or 4. Still, may of the languages use a word for “two” as a base for other numbers. Several of the languages use a word for “five” as a base, an eight of the languages top out at a word for “ten.”
Everett then digresses into what initially seems like a tangent about grammatical number, but luckily I enjoy comparative linguistics.
In an incredibly comprehensive survey of 1,066 languages, linguist Matthew Dryer recently found that 98 of them are like Karitiana and lack a grammatical means of marking nouns of being plural. So it is not particularly rare to find languages in which numbers do not show plurality. … about 90% of them, have a grammatical means through which speakers can convey whether they are talking about one or more than one thing.
Mandarin is a major language that has limited expression of plurals. According to Wikipedia:
Some languages, such as modern Arabic and Proto-Indo-European also have a “dual” category distinct from singular or plural; an extremely small set of languages have a trial category.
Many languages also change their verbs depending on how many nouns are involved; in English we say “He runs; they run;” languages like Latin or Spanish have far more extensive systems.
In sum: the vast majority of languages distinguish between 1 and more than one; a few distinguish between one, two, and many, and a very few distinguish between one, two, three, and many.
From the endnotes:
… some controversial claims of quadral markers, used in restricted contexts, have been made for the Austronesian languages Tangga, Marshallese, and Sursurunga. .. As Corbett notes in his comprehensive survey, the forms are probably best considered quadral markers. In fact, his impressive survey did not uncover any cases of quadral marking in the world’s languages.
Everett tends to bury his point; his intention in this chapter is to marshal support for the idea that humans have an “innate number sense” that allows them to pretty much instantly realize if they are looking at 1, 2, or 3 objects, but does not allow for instant recognition of larger numbers, like 4. He posits a second, much vaguer number sense that lets us distinguish between “big” and “small” amounts of things, eg, 10 looks smaller than 100, even if you can’t count.
He does cite actual neuroscience on this point–he’s not just making it up. Even newborn humans appear to be able to distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 of something, but not larger numbers. They also seem to distinguish between some and a bunch of something. Anumeric peoples, like the Piraha, also appear to only distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 items with good accuracy, though they can tell “a little” “some” and “a lot” apart. Everett also cites data from animal studies that find, similarly, that animals can distinguish 1, 2, and 3, as well as “a little” and “a lot”. (I had been hoping for a discussion of cephalopod intelligence, but unfortunately, no.)
How then, Everett asks, do we wed our specific number sense (1, 2, and 3) with our general number sense (“some” vs “a lot”) to produce ideas like 6, 7, and a googol? He proposes that we have no innate idea of 6, nor ability to count to 10. Rather, we can count because we were taught to (just as some highly trained parrots and chimps can.) It is only the presence of number words in our languages that allows us to count past 3–after all, anumeric people cannot.
But I feel like Everett is railroading us to a particular conclusion. For example, he sites neurology studies that found one part of the brain does math–the intraparietal suclus (IPS)–but only one part? Surely there’s more than one part of the brain involved in math.
The IPS turns out to be part of the extensive network of brain areas that support human arithmetic (Figure 1). Like all networks it is distributed, and it is clear that numerical cognition engages perceptual, motor, spatial and mnemonic functions, but the hub areas are the parietal lobes …
(By contrast, I’ve spent over half an hour searching and failing to figure out how high octopuses can count.)
Moreover, I question the idea that the specific and general number senses are actually separate. Rather, I suspect there is only one sense, but it is essentially logarithmic. For example, hearing is logarithmic (or perhaps exponential,) which is why decibels are also logarithmic. Vision is also logarithmic:
The eye senses brightness approximately logarithmically over a moderate range (but more like a power law over a wider range), and stellar magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale. This magnitude scale was invented by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 150 B.C. He ranked the stars he could see in terms of their brightness, with 1 representing the brightest down to 6 representing the faintest, though now the scale has been extended beyond these limits; an increase in 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of 100. Modern researchers have attempted to incorporate such perceptual effects into mathematical models of vision.
So many experiments have revealed logarithmic responses to stimuli that someone has formulated a mathematical “law” on the matter:
Fechner’s law states that the subjective sensation is proportional to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity. According to this law, human perceptions of sight and sound work as follows: Perceived loudness/brightness is proportional to logarithm of the actual intensity measured with an accurate nonhuman instrument.
p = k ln S S 0
The relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic. This logarithmic relationship means that if a stimulus varies as a geometric progression (i.e., multiplied by a fixed factor), the corresponding perception is altered in an arithmetic progression (i.e., in additive constant amounts). For example, if a stimulus is tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 1), the corresponding perception may be two times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1). If the stimulus is again tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 3 x 3), the corresponding perception will be three times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1 + 1). Hence, for multiplications in stimulus strength, the strength of perception only adds. The mathematical derivations of the torques on a simple beam balance produce a description that is strictly compatible with Weber’s law.
In any logarithmic scale, small quantities–like 1, 2, and 3–are easy to distinguish, while medium quantities–like 101, 102, and 103–get lumped together as “approximately the same.”
Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how people develop the ability to count past 3, but this is getting long, so we’ll continue our discussion next week.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.
One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:
At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …
The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.
Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …
The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.
The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.
“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”
Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…
Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.
I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.
Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:
“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …
“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …
“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”
As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:
[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.
I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.
And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.
I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.
With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:
Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.
My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.
Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)
With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.
For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.
I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.
Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:
I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….
And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.
Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…
I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …
While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …
During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”
The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao, or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it. This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.
Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.
After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.
Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:
As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.
“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …
I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.
Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.
At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:
In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …
Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.
And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.
Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?
And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?
Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)
To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:
I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.
*Not a good idea.
I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.
I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.
I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.
On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.
For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …
I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.
Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:
People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …
Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.
Back to Lucas:
I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.
Glib and superficial charm
Cunning and manipulativeness
Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity
Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:
I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.
Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)
I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:
Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.
According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.
In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.
“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”
Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.
“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”
A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):
I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …
I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …
From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.
There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)
I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:
After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.
Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.
After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.
Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.
Let’s return to Lucas’s account:
If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…
I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…
years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …
Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.
The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.
(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)
Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?
I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!
Welcome to the final volume in our exploration of the anthropology of crime, Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster. Unlike the other book in this series, this one is actually (co)authored by the criminal himself. This provides a unique perspective, but also introduces the question of whether the author is entirely honest–but since I have no way to independently verify his story, I’ll just be reporting matters as he tells them.
It’s been a month since I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s an interesting read, for sure, but I am ambivalent about giving criminals more attention–on the other hand, the book has already been made into a movie, so what’s one more reader?
Lucas’s story begins in 1936, when, at the age of six, he witnesses his cousin’s head blown off by the KKK. He soon began stealing food to help feed his impoverished family, and left home at the age of 14. I forget why, exactly, he decided to set off on his own, but he quickly ran into trouble, was arrested and put into a chain gang. With a little help he managed to escape and made his way to New York City, where a helpful bus driver got him to his final destination:
“Right here! Go. Get off! This is Harlem.”
I stood on 114th Street and 8th Avenue and looked to my right and to my left. There was nothing but black people as far as I cold see. And there were all kinds of black folks: men and women of all ages and sizes, some who looked dirt poor (but not as poor as me) and some who looked straight-up rich.
I threw out my hands and screamed out as loud as I could, “Hello, Harlem USA!”
Harlem has an interesting history of its own. The British burned down the small, Dutch town during the Revolutionary War. New York City expanded into Harlem, and after the Civil War, the area became heavily Jewish and Italian. By the 30s, the Jews had been replaced by Puerto Ricans (the Italians lingered a little longer.)
In 1904, black real estate entrepreneur Phillip Payton, Jr., of the Afro-American Realty Company, began encouraging blacks to move from other New York neighborhoods to Harlem (which had particularly low rents then because of a housing crash.) According to Wikipedia:
The early 20th-century Great Migration of blacks to northern industrial cities was fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South, seek better jobs and education for their children, and escape a culture of lynching violence. During World War I, expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs, thinly staffed after the draft began to take young men. … In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1920, central Harlem was 32.43% black. The 1930 census showed 70.18% of Central Harlem’s residents as black… As blacks moved in, white residents left. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 white people left the neighborhood and 87,417 blacks arrived.
Between 1907 and 1915 some white residents of Harlem resisted the neighborhood’s change, especially once the swelling black population pressed west of Lenox Avenue, which served as an informal color line until the early 1920s. Some made pacts not to sell to or rent to black Others tried to buy property and evict black tenants, but the Afro-American Realty Company retaliated by buying other property and evicting whites. …
Soon after blacks began to move into Harlem, the community became known as “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement.” … The NAACP chapter there soon grew to be the largest in the country. Activist A. Philip Randolph lived in Harlem and published the radical magazine The Messenger starting in 1917. … W. E. B. Du Bois lived and published in Harlem in the 1920s, as did James Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey.
You know, some books are written in a way that lends themselves quoting, and some are not. This book had a great deal of interesting material about crime and particularly Lucas’s development as a criminal, but most of it went into too much depth to easily quote. (I do longer quotes for books out of copyright.) This passage works, though:
I never even thought about getting a regular job. That just wasn’t me. From the moment I saw my cousin’s head blown away in front of me by the Klan, I had no faith in doing things the “right” way. … I watched my parents break their backs for next to nothing because they tried to play by the unfair rule of the sharecropping system. Just seemed like trying to do things the so-called right way got you nowhere…
There were two Harlems back then. There were the high-society folks, the people who lived in the fancy brownstones overlooking Central Park or up on Mount Morris. … I didn’t notice these people. I knew they were there, but it was like they were in black and white. …Those people up on Mount Morris had solid educations, which gave them a hell of a lot more options than I had. …
The underworld was in full, living color. The prostitute and their pimps, the number runners and their clients, the drug dealers and, most especially, the gamblers, who always had lots of money. They spoke a language I could read, write, and understand fluently.
Just to recap, our author showed up in Harlem at the age of 14 or so with the clothes on his back and not enough money to ride the bus. He found a warm place to sleep with the other homeless and began stealing food. This progressed to stealing money, and as the author puts it:
A few months after I started stealing anything not nailed down in Harlem, I was introduced to the heroin trade.
Hoffmann, working at Bayer pharmaceutical company in Elberfeld, Germany, was instructed by his supervisor Heinrich Dreser to acetylate morphine with the objective of producing codeine, a constituent of the opium poppy… Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department reputedly coined the drug’s new name, “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong” (from the ancient Greek word “heros, ήρως”). …
In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trademark name Heroin. It was developed chiefly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Morphine at the time was a popular recreational drug, and Bayer wished to find a similar but non-addictive substitute to market. However, contrary to Bayer’s advertising as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” heroin would soon have one of the highest rates of addiction among its users.
Like Frisbees and Kleenex, Heroin was once a brand name that has become synonymous with the product.
Lucas isn’t out to take heroin. He wants to sell it–probably a less risky and more profitable venture than robbing people at gunpoint. But by now he’s attracted some unwanted attention.
In the underworld environment, cops are the natural enemy of a drug dealer. It was my job to just stay out of their way, but that rule only applies to cops trying to do their job. Crooked cops have no rules and no ethics. And some of them get a badge just so they can have a license to beat people up and rob them.
If I ever turned a corner and saw Diggs and his partner, Pappo, my stomach sank and my temper jumped a few degrees. …
“You got a reason to have your hands on me?” I’d say.
“We can make one up if you don’t shut the fuck up,” they’d say.
Diggs and Pappo beat him up a lot, until one day Lucas went a little crazy and threatened to kill them, after which they left him alone.
If I recall correctly, Lucas was only about 17 at this time, so this was around 1947, maybe into the early 50s.
Obviously Lucas has interacted with a lot of police officers, since he’s been arrested a few times and spent many years in prison. He doesn’t have much negative to say about honest cops, but crooked cops–who not only beat him, like Diggs and Pappo, but also extorted money from him–earn his ire.
Of course, Lucas was actually a criminal, but why did he attract so much attention from police officers who were content to beat him up a bit and then let him back out on the streets? If the crooked cops knew he was dealing, why didn’t he attract the attention of honest police officers before becoming a multi-millionaire drug lord? Were the crooked cops just more attuned to criminal activity (being, essentially, criminals themselves)? Was there just not enough solid evidence to convict Lucas in a court of law, but more than plenty to randomly harass him? Does arresting people require a lot of paperwork?
Lucas was eventually arrested and sent to prison (in 1975, though his 70 year sentence was eventually reduced to 5 plus parole.) Throughout the period Lucas was operating–primarily the 1960s and early 70s–heroin, crack, and crime hit NYC like a sledgehammer. How much was Lucas’s fault is debatable (though it was surely a lot.) But the attitude of “let’s just beat up the criminals a bit and then put them back on the streets” couldn’t have helped.
It’s getting late, so let’s continue this next Friday.
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?)
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:
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.
Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re looking at Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy. In case you missed the movie, Pistone was an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia (particularly the Bonnano family) from 1976-1981. The Way of the Wiseguy is not Pistone’s most famous work, but a collection of anecdotes from his years undercover, perfectly suited to a study of the culture of crime.
But enough from me. Let’s let Pistone speak:
The Mafia could not exist without its rules and codes of conduct, which are rigidly enforced and never open to question. In life, you break the social contract–such as speeding… you get a fine. … But when you’re a wiseguy facing wiseguy justice, there is no lawyer to defend you, no procedure in place to protect your rights. … Wiseguys wake up every day, aware that this may be the day that they get killed… It is a simple fact of life in the wiseguy world.
In November 2007, Sicilian police reported discovery of a list of “Ten Commandments” in the hideout of mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, thought to be guidelines on good, respectful, and honourable conduct for a mafioso.
No one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
Never look at the wives of friends.
Never be seen with cops.
Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife is about to give birth.
Appointments must absolutely be respected. (probably refers to formal rank and authority.)
Wives must be treated with respect.
When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.
Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.
Back to Pistone: Why Wiseguys Will Kill You:
Wiseguys do not like rape. If you rape someone who is a relative of a made guy or someone with some ties to the mob, you are in big trouble… Wiseguys have a pretty low threshold for what is and isn’t decent, but the crime of rape is one of the few transgressions that does not meet that threshold. …
The thing is, wiseguys do not go around killing people for no good reason. Like I said, if you read in the paper about some guy getting whacked, it’s a really good bet he was either a made guy who somehow fucked up. or some poor guy who get in over his head with wiseguys… or … a guy who did something that is not tolerated in the orbit of wiseguys. It is very unusual for people with no mob dealings or no connection to the mob to wind up dead at the hands of a mobster.
If, however, you are a wiseguy or a guy with some association to the mob, and you do certain things, you will get whacked. …
Not sharing money from illegal activities will get you killed. … If you are a wiseguy, everything you gain illegally, all your extorted monies, must be shared with our captain and your partners in your crew. …
Talking to cops will get you killed. …
Laying your hands on another wiseguy will get you killed. It’s a pretty simple rule–you never go after another wiseguy without the full and clear blessing of the bosses.
So the Mafia and Radical Feminists have something they agree on. The word “rape” originally meant “theft,” and we may suppose that the Mafia does not look kindly on the theft of their women.
There is no such thing in the Mafia world as a sluggish economy. You will never hear mobster say they had a weak fiscal quarter. This series of payment that mobsters make to their superiors is absolutely relentless and irrespective of the stat e of the legitimate economy. …
And so it goes–the money comes in, the money flows up. No Mafia boss is out there earning money and distributing it downward to his loyal subordinates. … this system keeps the hands of the higher-ups as clean as possible. …
So what is it that wiseguys do with all that cash they get to keep? Depends on the wiseguy. Some become degenerate gamblers and waste every dime betting on horses. Some are cheap bastards and save as much as they can. … Some of the younger wiseguys are drug addicts who spend a bundle getting high. Some are family men who take their kids to Disney World. …
So how do they make their money?
Of all the various scams and operations orchestrated by wiseguys, none is as profitable and as dependable as illegal gambling. … the world is full of degenerate gamblers. Absolutely crawling with guys who would bet their grandmother’s last set of dentures on the outcome of the Florida-Florida State game. … people who are addicted to gambling do it every single fucking day they can. … the gambling never, ever stops. There is always–always–something for a degenerate gambler to bet on. …
How come legal gambling establishments haven’t driven wiseguys out of the gaming business? … Sure, it’s nice to go to Atlantic City and take in a show and have a fine dinner and then play the slots… But there is a catch and a pretty big one–you got to pay taxes on whatever you win. …
You see, these sicko gamblers, in their warped and twisted minds, always believe that the next hand they play, the next game they bet on, will be the Big Score, and none of them want to pay taxes on the Big Score. …
Which brings us to another mob endeavor that is inexorably linked to gambling–the time-honored practice of loan-sharking. .. That interest–called the “vigorish, or “vig,” is not computed monthly, as with most loans. It compounds every single week. Many degenerate gamblers wind up with no option but to turn to a Mafia loan shark–better known as a shylock–to secure the cash they need to pay off gambling debts. … Gamblers end up owing thousands to their bookie and thousands more to their shylock. … You are flirting with all sorts of evil shit if you string along a bunch of bookies and shylocks for too long.
This is interesting for three reasons: 1. I don’t understand gambling. Back when I was 10 I spent a couple of dollars on lottery tickets, won dollar, spent it on another ticket, won nothing, and realized this was a waste of money. That was the beginning and end of my fascination with gambling.
2. Pistone’s “degenerate gambler”. What distinguishes a regular gambler from a degenerate? Indeed, what is degeneracy? I know people who enjoy poker, but they aren’t in debt to the mob and their lives seem pretty functional.
Degeneracy, I propose, is behavior which leaves you with less control over your life. Having a glass of wine (or beer) at supper is not degenerate; drinking until you cannot safely get home is. Eating food is obviously necessary for life, but excessive eating (or dieting!) can have terrible effects on your health. Buying the occasional lottery ticket is not degenerate; spending money you can’t afford on lottery tickets and ending up in debt to the mob is.
3. As we discussed back in Parsis, Travelers, and Economic Niches, the mob here isn’t just committing random violence and robbing people–these are shadier versions of real businesses. If people need loans or want to gamble, then chances are someone will find a way to offer those services–even if it’s illegal. (We can probably throw in prostitution.
So if you’re the government, and you’re trying to decrease the power of groups like the Mafia, perhaps even quicker and more effective than spending years on risky infiltration schemes is just legalizing whatever it is that people are trying to do. Prohibition, of course, is the textbook example of an outlawed behavior fueling mob violence and the motivation for that violence disappearing once Prohibition ended.
Back to Pistone: Wiseguys have fairly normal family lives:
Wiseguys tend to be respectful of and gentlemanly towards the women in their lives. …
wiseguys love their mothers to death. Making a crack about another wiseguy’s mother is an offense that might get you whacked. Even the most brutal wiseguy will be a teddy bear in the presence of the woman who raised him. …
Believe it or not, wiseguys also treat their wives with decency and respect. That might seem like a ridiculous statement, considering that nine out of ten wiseguys have a girlfriend on the side. … Whatever they do when they are at the club or out on the town, wiseguys make fairly decent husbands when they re at home. …
They are excellent providers. you will met very few mobsters who are deadbeat dads or husband. Father of the year, they ain’t but a wiseguy who allows his family situation to spiral out of control will not be viewed kindly by his superiors in the mob. …
I figure normal family lives are part of what makes the Mafia stable. If Mafia guys can provide for their families and raise lots of children, then they’ll end up with plenty of future mobsters. If Mafia guys were unstable and couldn’t provide for their families, then the Mafia would have to constantly recruit new members from outside its own kin networks, which could make it less stable.
So we’re sitting there having a few drinks and talking about this and that, when it occurs to me to ask Lefty what I think s a pretty good question.
“Hey, Lefty? What’s the advantage for me in being a wiseguy?”
Lefty looks at me like I’m the world’s biggest moron. He gets excited and jumps out of his chair and starts yelling and waving his arms. “What are you, fucking crazy?” he says. “Are you fucking nuts?” When you’re a wiseguy, you can steal, you can cheat, you can lie, you can kill people–and it’s all legitimate.”
Pistone’s The Way of the Wiseguy was exactly what I was looking for: an ethnography of organized crime. Oh, sure, Pistone isn’t actually a trained anthropologist–he’s just an FBI agent who managed to learn enough about Mafia culture to infiltrate the mob without getting killed.
Reading this back-to-back with Jay Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels, several differences between the organizations stand out. First, while the point of the Hells Angels is unclear (are they a criminal organization, as the FBI believes, or just an association of people who like riding motorcycles together, as they assert?) the Mafia’s point is obvious: making money. Second, while the Hells Angels exist on the edge of society with few normal, functional familial relationships, mobsters appear to be socially normal: they love their moms, have wives and girlfriends (usually at the same time,) and provide for their kids. The Mafia and the Hells Angels have very different ideas about family responsibility and the general treatment of women. Third, ironically, the Hells Angels probably kill far fewer people and have more scruples about murder. And finally, while the Hells Angels enjoy each other’s company, the mobsters, it seems, don’t particularly like each other.
They also have things in common: both groups control territory, are obsessed with respect, and live outside normal laws and boundaries.
But let’s let Pistone talk: What makes a wiseguy?
“The wiseguy does not see himself as a criminal or even a bad person; he sees himself as a businessman, a shrewd hustler, one step ahead of ordinary suckers. … Wiseguys exist in a bizarre parallel universe, a world where avarice and violence and corruption are the norm, and where the routines that most ordinary people hold dear–working good jobs, being with family, living an honest life–are seen as the curse of the weak and the stupid. …
“And yet I was not naive enough then, nor am I now, to believe that we came anywhere near to destroying the mob and ending organized crime. … The mob and mobsters have been around for centuries, and they will almost certainly be around for many generations to come. As long as there is money to be made illicitly and with minimal investment, there will be wiseguys ready and willing to make the score. The fact is that the Mafia in particular is one of the most enduring and successful organizations in the history of the world. … What’s more, the Mafia has never had a single year out of decades when it ran in the red. The Mafia always makes a profit. There is a strong incentive for wisegys to keep things running in the black: deficits mean death.”
EvX: According to Wikipedia, the Sicilian Mafia has only been around since the late 1800s, making it younger than Twinings Tea Company (1706) and probably younger than the Pinkerton Detective Agency (1850). (The list of the World’s Oldest Companies–including Kongo Gui, founded in 578–is fascinating in itself, “According to a report published by the Bank of Korea on May 14, 2008, investigating 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 are in Japan, 837 in Germany, 222 in the Netherlands, and 196 in France.”)
But I don’t expect Pistone to be an expert in the ages of Japanese corporations nor do I necessarily believe Wikipedia on the age of the Mafia, which is a rather secretive organization that doesn’t keep a lot of official records of its activities. (This is also in contrast to the Hells Angels, who are an Official Organization with copyrighted and trademarked logos and have actually sued people for violating said intellectual property.) The fact that the Mafia has persisted for as long as it has, despite the best efforts by people like Mussolini to stamp it out, despite the enormous technological and social changes that have swept Sicily during the past century and a half, despite many mafiosi moving to the US, suggests that its roots may lie deeper than “social changes in the 1800s.”
(Wikipedia also notes that the Mafia doesn’t call itself the Mafia, which is just a Sicilian word for a “swagger,” meaning a bold or proud man. Rather, the Mafia tends to refer obliquely to itself as just “our thing,” “this thing of ours,” etc.–“Cosa Nostra” is just Italian for “our thing.”)
Modern scholars believe that the seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily’s transition out of feudalism beginning in 1812 and its later annexation by mainland Italy in 1860. Under feudalism, the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies. After 1812, the feudal barons steadily sold off or rented their lands to private citizens… After Italy annexed Sicily in 1860, it redistributed a large share of public and church land to private citizens. The result was a huge boom in landowners — from 2,000 in 1812 to 20,000 by 1861. With this increase in property owners and commerce came more disputes that needed settling, contracts that needed enforcing, transactions that needed oversight, and properties that needed protecting. The barons were releasing their private armies to let the state take over the job of enforcing the law, but the new authorities were not up to the task, largely due to their inexperience with capitalism. Lack of manpower was also a problem; there were often fewer than 350 active policemen for the entire island. … In the face of rising crime, booming commerce, and inefficient authorities, property owners turned to extralegal arbitrators and protectors. These extralegal protectors eventually organized themselves into the first Mafia clans.
Most of the world seems to have made the feudal transition without spawning mafia-like organizations, so what’s so special about Sicily?
below is a little chart i worked up of the percentages of first cousin marriages for all the regions for the first (1910-1914) and last (1960-64) of the time periods at which they looked. i included only the first cousin marriages since first-cousin-once-removed (1 1/2C) and second cousin (2C) marriages were not included for sicily and i wanted to be able to compare all the regions. note that the reason cavalli-sforza, et. al., didn’t include 1 1/2C and 2C marriages for sicily is that sicilians are exempt from having to get dispensations to marry those family members, so presumably the rates for those marriages are pretty high! …
HBD Chick has a chart that gives the exact numbers for each region in 1910-14 and 1960-64. Overall, first cousin marriage rates fell during this time, but in Sicily and Calabria in the 60s they were still very high–48.74% in Agrigento and 48.49% in Reggio Calabria.
Pistone has something interesting to say on the Mafia and genetics:
For the next several years, I did not exist except as a close associate of several members of the Bonanno crime family. … I will not deny that I became pretty close to a lot of these wiseguys, and that I felt a pang of remorse about doing things that I knew would get them killed. But it was only a pang. The truth is that I did not feel sorry for the wiseguys I helped put away. Had they discovered that I was an undercover FBI agent, they would have put two in my head and chopped me into ground beef. …
This one poor bastard, he did something to make wiseguys think he was a rat. So they stuck a meat hook up his ass and hung him from a warehouse wall. …
I tell you this to drive home the most important observation I ever made while working undercover: Wiseguys are not nice guys. … In fact, wiseguys are the meanest, cruelest, least caring people you’ll ever meet. They have zero regard for other people’s feelings, rights, and safety. …
Consider the poor bastard who ran afoul of some members of the Gambino crime family. They cut some holes in him, hung him over a bathtub, and drained all the blood out of his bodies. These are not rare occurrences or unusual crimes. Wiseguys routinely commit acts of nauseating grisliness. …
Wiseguys don’t throw up or even gag when they butcher people. They have had any decency and sense of revulsion bred right out of them.
Perhaps he did not mean this literally, in the way that I take it. But perhaps he did.
There is an ironic part in Frank Lucas’s biography, Original Gangster, in which a man who had literally tried to get a job killing people for money and had caused the deaths of thousands of people by selling them heroin opines that abortion is immoral, at least when it’s his kid being aborted (after he abandoned his wife to go have sex with other women for a week immediately after she told him she was pregnant.) Most people seem to have some kind of circle inside of which are people whom they love and do not really want to hurt, and outside of which are people who are not even human beings to them. Because the people outside this circle are not recognized as people, people deny that they are doing any violence at all to those other people. For example, Americans get quite upset when Muslims terrorists kill Americans, but we hardly pay attention when our country drops bombs on Muslims. Here’s a smattering of US military operations that haven’t gotten much press:
2000: Nigeria: Special Forces troops are sent to Nigeria to lead a training mission in the country.
2002: Philippines: OEF-Philippines, As of January, U.S. “combat-equipped and combat support forces” have been deployed to the Philippines to train with, assist and advise the Philippines’ Armed Forces in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”[RL30172]
2003: Georgia and Djibouti: “US combat equipped and support forces” had been deployed to Georgia and Djibouti to help in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”
2011–present: Uganda: U.S. Combat troops sent in as advisers to Uganda.
2015–present: In early October 2015, the US military deployed 300 troops to Cameroon, with the approval of the Cameroonian government, their primary mission was to provide intelligence support to local forces as well as conducting reconnaissance flights.
It’s nigh impossible to love everybody equally (nor do I think you should) and the vast majority of people love their own families and children far more than everyone else. How much you preference your own family over everyone else, however, varies a lot from person to person and culture to culture, and may have a lot to do with things like whether people in your culture traditionally marry people from within their own families, creating a system where you have very little contact with people on the outside or if they seek brides from neighboring villages, creating a system where people have far more contact outside their own families.
“For those who don’t know, [Ralph “Sonny” Barger] was the man–the legend, really–who molded the Hells Angels into what they are. it’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Barger is a visionary who essentially created the image of the outlaw biker as we know it. He had help, to be sure, and the names of his cohorts dating back to the late fifties through the present are legendary in the biker world… these men created the image–the leather, the hair, the grime, the hardness, the silence, the impenetrability, the bikes–everything that constitute an outlaw biker. …
“Without the Hells Angels we wouldn’t have floor-model Harleys that look like stripped-down scream machines. No ape hangers… no bitch bar, no spool wheels, no front-end extenders. … The HA were obsessed with going fast, and without this obsession bikes would be slower. They were relentless in stripping their bikes of all but the barest essentials. The formula was simple: less weight plus bigger engines equaled more speed. Every pound they shed gained them two miles per hour. Thus “choppers”–chopped-down motorcycles. What they did was mimicked by everyone who wanted to be a Hells Angel but couldn’t be.”
EvX: When you get down to it, the motorcycle is a machine. A car is also a machine, but a car is a machine with a lot of metal between you and the engine. A chopper is a machine that has minimized the amount of metal between you and the engine. The motorcycle is about the closest you can get to just riding on an engine, riding straight down the highway on pure power.
Hells Angels International:
“[Berger] saw that the Angels could go international, that though American in origin, they needn’t be limited to America’s borders. As I’ve said before, I believe that the Hells Angels, and to a lesser extent all American-style biker gangs, are this country’s only organized-crime export.”
According to Wikipedia:
Numerous police and international intelligence agencies classify the Hells Angels as one of the “big four” motorcycle gangs, along with the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos, and contend that members carry out widespread violent crime and organized crime, including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and are involved in prostitution. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies, and that any crimes are the responsibility of the individuals who carried them out and not the club as a whole. …
The HAMC acknowledges more than one hundred chapters spread over 29 countries. The Hells Angels motorcycle club founded a chapter in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961 and has since taken over gangs in Wanganui. New Zealand had the first chapter of the Hells Angels outside the United States. Europe did not become widely home to the Hells Angels until 1969 when two London chapters were formed. The Beatles‘ George Harrison invited some members of the HAMC San Francisco to stay at Apple Records in London in 1968. … Two charters were issued on July 30, 1969; one for “South London”—the re-imagined chapter renewing the already existing 1950 South London chapter—and the other for “East London” …The London Angels provided security at a number of UK Underground festivals including Phun City in 1970 organized by Mick Farren. They awarded Farren an “approval patch” in 1970 for use on his first solo album Mona, which also featured Steve Peregrin Took (who was credited as “Shagrat the Vagrant”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major expansion of the club into Canada. The Quebec Biker war was a violent turf war that began in 1994 and continued until late 2002 in Montreal. The war began as the Hells Angels in Quebec began to make a push to establish a monopoly on street-level drug sales in the province. A number of drug dealers and crime families resisted and established groups such as the “Alliance to fight the Angels”. The war resulted in the bombings of many establishments and murders on both sides. It has claimed more than 150 lives and led to the incarceration of over 100 bikers. …
A list of acknowledged chapters can be found on the HAMC’s official website.
“These contradictions fascinate me. The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it. They’re nonconformists, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”
EvX: It sounds to me like they aren’t so much “non conformists” in the abstract as “non conformists” relative to a particular society. How many of these guys would succeed and be happy in the corporate world? People who think cars–which I regard as terrifying 2-ton death traps hurtling at 60 miles an hour down the road–as “cages” and want to take their chances with getting their flesh grounds straight onto the road do not strike me as people who’d be inclined to sit still in a cubicle all day.
Rather, the HAs and similar groups have opted out of mainstream society and formed their own, alternative society–a tribe of their own, replete with its own initiation rituals, tribal dress, symbolic brotherhood (the members of real tribes are usually quite closely related,) their own history and lore, and even their own army. By doing so, they leave the world in which they are at the bottom, and create a world where they are at the top.
But they still live in our society, and ironically, they definitely will sue you if you use their logos:
In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission. …
In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol” in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. … “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.” …
As of December 2013, the Hells Angels sells its branded merchandise at a retail store in Toronto, Canada.
Some final notes from Wikipedia on who can and can’t become a Hells Angel:
In order to become a Hells Angels prospect, candidates must have a valid driver’s license, a motorcycle over 750cc, and have the right combination of personal qualities. It is said the club excludes child molesters and individuals who have applied to become police or prison officers.
They might be outlaws, but they have standards.
To become a full member, the prospect must be voted on unanimously by the rest of the full club members. Prior to votes being cast, a prospect usually travels to every chapter in the sponsoring chapter’s geographic jurisdiction (state/province/territory) and introduces himself to every Full-Patch member. This process allows each voting member to become familiar with the subject and to ask any questions of concern prior to the vote. Some form of formal induction follows, wherein the prospect affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch (top “Hells Angels” rocker) is then awarded at this initiation ceremony. The step of attaining full membership can be referred to as “being patched”. …
The club claims not to be a racially segregated organization, although at least one chapter allegedly requires that a candidate be a white male, and Sonny Barger stated in a BBC interview in 2000 that “The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it”. At that time the club had no black members.
…Wooley [a black guy] became an associate of the Hells Angels Montreal chapter in the 1990s and later tried uniting street gangs in Quebec after Boucher was imprisoned.
In another interview with leader Sonny Barger in 2000 he remarked “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hell’s Angels. If you black, you want to join the Dragons. …We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” …Tobie Levingston who formed the black motorcycle club East Bay Dragons MC wrote in his book that he and Sonny Barger have a long-lasting friendship and that the Hells Angels and Dragons have a mutual friendship and hang out and ride together.
In a 1966 article about motorcycle rebels in the African-American community magazine Ebony, the Chosen Few MC stated that they see no racial animosity in the Hells Angels and that when they come into Chosen Few territory they all get together and just party. A Hells Angel member interviewed for the magazine insisted there was no racial prejudice in any of their clubs and stated “we don’t have any negro members” but maintained there have not been any blacks who have sought membership. At one point in the 1970s the Hells Angels were looking to consolidate the different motorcycle clubs and offered every member of the Chosen Few MC a Hells Angel badge, but the Chosen Few turned down the offer.
We should of course be skeptical about what people tell reporters–people don’t always want to admit in writing that they hate other people and might want to kill them. But we can contrast this against the HA’s attitude toward the Mongols, who are frequent subjects of ire in the book and whom the HA got in a shootout with back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Dobyns’ undercover persona is so good, the local police go after him:
“On the way home, on a dark side street deliberately taken to avoid a confrontation, we were pulled over for a traffic stop. …
Typically, when a mixed-club group of bikers is stopped, and Hells Angel are among those present, they get the most thorough attention. Everyone knows the Angels are the ones to be wary of, and that given an inch they will take it a mile. They must be attended to first.
“But they weren’t….
“An officer approached JJ and me from behind. When he got about ten feet from us, he racked a shell into the chamber of his shotgun…
“I didn’t appreciate the sound of that shotgun…
“Over the bullhorn a young, angry voice said, “Bird, [Dobyns’ undercover name] do not let go of your handlebars until ordered to do so. Do you understand?” I nodded yes. I held the bars with a death grip….
“The Angels were told to remain on their bikes. …
“I was led to the curb and told to kneel. I was led at the barrel of a loaded and charged shotgun. …
“The guys were cuffed and lined up curbside. No one but me had to kneel. No one but me had a gun drawn on them. The Angels couldn’t believe it, but as far as these cops were concerned, I was more dangerous than they were. …
“Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me. … He said, “You gotta move on, Bird, you gotta get the fuck out of my town.” “Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me.
“I said, ‘You can arrest me or lecture me, but I won’t take both, so make up your mind.’ “
EvX: Note Dobyns’s persona is demanding respect. He doesn’t get it from the police, but it was important for the observing Angels.
“He didn’t like that. He put his boot in between my shoulder blades and pushed me to the ground. Since I was cuffed I caught the pavement with my cheek. He kneeled, leaned in close, and whispered into my ear: “Motherfucker, if I ever see you in this town again I will fucking bury you in the desert where no one will ever fucking find you.”
“My recorder was going. I thought, Not good, dude. Not good for you. I knew this guy desperately wanted me out of his town and I knew he wasn’t using approved methods. I wanted to tell him what I was, but I couldn’t. It would be months until he learned how close he’d come to ruining his career that night.”
EvX: I once took a self-defense class taught by a retired police officer who claimed to have taken criminals out to the Everglades Swamp and left them for the alligators.
On the one hand, sometimes the justice system has trouble getting convictions against people who are actually violent criminals, and then you wonder if things wouldn’t be better if the police did more vigilante violence.
And then there are cases like this, where the police are dead wrong.
Respect, body language, and some interesting characters:
“On the thirty-first we waltzed into the Pioneer Saloon in Cave Creek and got a full introduction over the PA. …
“Everyone was there, and I mean everyone. Sonny, Johnny Angel, Hoover, Smitty, Joby, Bob, Fang–every guy who had any kind of influence in the state.
“Sonny came up and greeted each one of us, and in one of the greatest moments in bike investigator history, we got a group shot with him: Just Sonny Barger and Johnny Angel in the middle of a row of Sol Angeles, aka cops…
“As we left the side room I bumped into a short, roided out live wire with a shaved head. He looked like my shorter, wider twin. …
“The live wire asked, ‘What the fuck? You’re fucking Bird, aren’t you?’ He stabbed his finger at me, tapping me hard right were the bullet had come out of my chest.
“‘Yeah. that’s right.’
“‘Shit! I’m fucking Dirty Dan. And I need to talk to you. Come with me.’ … ‘I heard all about you, Bird. You’re some kind of crazy fucking cowboy, ain’t you? Shit, brother, I love that.’ …
“He asked about Mexico. I said I went to Mexico often. He said he’d heard there were Mongols down there. I said there were, but not too many. He said that as soon as his parole was up, he’d like to come with me, see if we could find some. I said great. He said find some and then kill ’em. I said awesome. He said we’d be a two-man massacre crew. I said, “Dirty Dan, you’re the kind of Hell Angel I’ve been waiting to meet.” He said that he liked the way I carried myself, that the club needed more guys like me. …
“After several minutes we parted company just as abruptly as we’d come together. We agreed to met and work out at the gym. He yelled, ‘All right! Later, Bird.’
“I yelled, ‘Later, Dirty Dan.’
“We’d been in a complete bubble. Hours after that, when were were winding down at the UC house, Gundo told me that when Dan and I started talking, all eyes turned to us. Our body language looked overly confrontational. Gundo said, ‘Man, I thought you two were gonna hit the deck. I was leaning against the bar with my hand on my gun… I thought we were about to be in the middle of an ass-beating shoot-out.’
“I laughed and said, ‘You kidding me? … I fucking loved that guy.’ …”
EvX: For the most part, the talk about killing Mongols sounds like a lot of talk, except during the 2002 River Run Riot, which occurred near the beginning of the book. Wikipedia summarizes:
The River Run Riot was a violent confrontation between the Hells Angels and the Mongols motorcycle clubs that occurred on April 27, 2002, in Laughlin, Nevada during the Laughlin River Run. The conflict began when members of the Hells Angels went to Harrah’s Laughlin to confront members of the Mongols who had allegedly harassed vendors that sold Hells Angels related merchandise. Mongol Anthony Barrera, 43, was stabbed to death, and two Hells Angels, Jeramie Bell, 27, and Robert Tumelty, 50, were shot to death.
Even by the end of the book, it was not clear what the essential nature of the Hells Angels really is. 1% clubs are ostensibly composed of criminals–that’s what the 1% means–but are they actually criminal organizations, or just organized criminals? The Angola Prison in in Louisiana, for example, publishes a newspaper, The Angolite, written by the prisoners. Obviously everyone who work on the paper is a criminal, but The Angolite isn’t a criminal organization, it’s just a newspaper. By contrast, the Mafia, while run by a set of related families from a particular ethnic background, obeying particular cultural codes, exists for the sole reason of committing crime. The Angolite is organized criminals; the Mafia is a criminal organization.
This may sound a bit existential, but for the police (and the HAs) it’s essential. If the HAs are just like-minded guys who want to ride motorcycles together, support their incarcerated brothers, hand out toys and bicycles to poor kids, and sell t-shirts, then they have every right to do that. Having once committed a crime does not preclude your right to hang out with other guys and ride motorcycles together. It doesn’t preclude your right to have a logo, copyright it, and sue Toys R Us if they violate it.
By contrast, if the HAs are actually using their organization to commit crimes, then the police can shut them down and seize their assets (logos included.)
This distinction is essential for Dobyns. The police can prove that plenty of individual people have committed crimes. He’s purchased plenty of illegal guns, for example. The River Run Riot was caught on surveillance cameras, and at least some of the perpetrators were arrested and convicted of murder. But it takes more than that to prove that an organization is actively conspiring to commit crimes.
The government tried to charge the Hells Angels under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) back in 1979, but couldn’t make it stick:
In 1979 the United States Federal Government went after Sonny Barger and several members and associates of the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels using RICO. In United States vs. Barger, the prosecution team attempted to demonstrate a pattern of behavior to convict Barger and other members of the club of RICO offenses related to guns and illegal drugs. The jury acquitted Barger on the RICO charges with a hung jury on the predicate acts: “There was no proof it was part of club policy, and as much as they tried, the government could not come up with any incriminating minutes from any of our meetings mentioning drugs and guns.“
Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the twenty-one-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.
Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols…
Reminiscent of Donnie Brasco’s uncovering of the true Mafia, this is an eye-opening portrait of the world of bikers… one that fully describes the seductive lure criminal camaraderie has for men who would otherwise be powerless outsiders. Here is all the nihilism, hate, and intimidation, but also the freedom–and, yes, brotherhood–of the only truly American form of organized crime.
So what do all of these books on criminals have to do with anthropology? Traditional anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies such as Hadza hunter-gatherers or reindeer-herding Sami. With the rapid spread of industrialization, anthropologists feared that information about our own human past and the variety of forms societies can take would soon diseappear.
After our long look at Siberia, I wanted to find something different. If people can write about Gypsies, why not the poor of our own society?
I began this project thinking of criminals as aberrations, people in whom something had gone wrong or who had decided to abandon normal social norms. Now that I am at the end (typing up my notes,) I realize that many criminals as respected, integrated members of their societies whose behavior could be, under different circumstances, not only normal but beneficial. What is the difference, after all, between a criminal who sells illegal drugs and an honest business man who sells alcohol and tobacco? Between a gang member who kills a rival gangster for invading his turf and a soldier who kills an invading enemy?
Many thieves and violent criminals are kind and loving to their own families. Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, had a devoted wife, loved his children, and gave away so much money to Colombia’s poor that 25,000 people attended his funeral. And even Mafia bosses, for all their crimes, have families and are treated with the respect in their own neighborhoods. (The fact that the locals often like or sympathize with the local criminals can interfere greatly in police efforts to track down and arrest those same criminals.)
Note: this is not all criminals. Drug dealers and serial killers have very different motives. Drug dealers want to make money. Serial killers want to kill people. Some criminals are, indeed, aberrant, psychotic people. Many are impulsive, low-IQ, or unable to succeed in life without resorting to crime. And most have a very low regard for the lives of others.
For obvious reasons, there aren’t a whole lot of ethnographies of criminals or criminal organizations, but Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels (no apostrophe) comes close.
Let’s begin with a bit of reflection about getting shot when he was a rookie cop (As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):
“If anything, the shooting proved that my job, and therefore my life, was not glamorous in any way. Pathetically, I’d imagined that undercover life would be like Miami Vice–full of cigarette boats, fast cars, expensive clothe, and perfect tens in bikinis sitting in my lap while I negotiated with drug kingpins. Instead, I confronted toothless strippers and disgruntled Vietnam vets, and did deals with jonesing tweakers in trailer parks while getting shot by a broke-dick ex-con who lived with his mom. …
“In the years between the shooting and the summer of 2001, I’d done and seen things that citizen simply don’t do or see. I’d been in another shoot-out, I’d had an inhuman number of guns shoved in my face, I’d bought and sold tons of drugs, and I’d made hundreds of solid collars. I’d worked African-American gangbangers and Italian mobsters with Chris; the Aryan Brotherhood with Special Agent Louis Quinonez, and bikers from Georgia to Colorado with a bunch of different partners, including one of my ATF mentors, Vincent Cefalu.”
On to his next assignment, in a city worth describing:
“Bullhead City is near the southern tip of Nevada, ten hours from where I lived in Tucson. It’s a broken-down town full of semi-employed mechanics who’ve shacked up with women who are–or were–“dancers.” It’s a meth capital teeming with high-school dropouts, and it’s all set down in a brown and tan valley that looks more like Mars than Earth. Across the brown Colorado River is Laughlin, Nevada, Bullhead’s dusty twin sister, with her winkling strip and brand-name outfits: Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s. …
“By the end of the following week I was holed up in Bullhead at Gretchen’s Inn, a contemptible riverside hideaway off Route 95. From the outside it looked harmless, but from the inside it was something else. A fleabag meth flophouse, busted locks on the doors and windows that wouldn’t close, people screwing all day and night. I slept with my arms folded over my chest and one of my beloved Glock 19s in my hand.”
EvX: I’ve been a bit afraid of very cheap hotels ever since reading about a horrible crime that happened in one that I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to look it up again. So far I’ve managed to structure my life so that I can avoid bad neighborhoods, pretending more or less that they aren’t there when I’m not looking at them. But of course they are there, broken-down places full of drugs and broken dreams.
According to Wikipedia’s climate data, Bullhead City’s average high temperatures (average, not record) from June through September are 107.7, 112, 110, and 103.7 degrees F.
But back to the story, where our undercover cop needs to buy some guns:
“Sugarbear’s informant, Chuck, would take me to Mohave Firearms for some introductions…
“Here’s what I said:
“What’s up? This’s a nice place you got here, looks like you know your business. Yeah, Jay’s my name, but everyone calls me Bird … Yeah, I ride. You see a patch on my back? Well, then I’m not a One Percenter*, so quit asking… But listen, I got another business, maybe you can help me out? I need guns. Small ones, big ones, fast ones, slow ones. No papers. …
“The next day he sold me two .45s, no papers, no forms. All cash. It was too easy.
“Through the years I was often amused by how quickly suspects decided to trust me.”
EvX: Note: I cut a lot from this conversation. This just gives you some of the flavor. Dobyns needs to convince these guys that he’s a genuine buyer of illegal guns, not, oh, an undercover cop. And he does.
*A 1%, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is a member of an outlaw motorcycle club such as the Hells Angels.
Back to the story: working class Americans like their guns. Some of them really like them:
“Varvil proceeded to let us into his gun vault, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room off the cluttered garage. Every wall of the room was lined with guns of every kind from damn near every decade of the twentieth century and probably two dozen countries.”
The Prison Run:
“Thousands of bikers stage up and slowly ride out to the prison complex in a massive pack of chrome, steel, leather, and denim to pay their respects to those unfortunate enough to be doing hard time. As the ragged column crawls past the yard, orange jumpsuited inmates caged behind thousands of feet of curlicued razor wire stand at parade rest while the bikers file past, saluting, hooting and hollering. To establish some semblance of order, the law comes out in a show of force. Helicopters, interpersonnel vehicles, cruisers, motorcycles, SUVs, paddy wagons–the whole fleet.”
“They talk about rehabilitation. They call it a “justice” system. But in reality this place is designed to destroy a man. The system has been designed to break, not to better a person. A man’s most valuable possession is his freedom. In this place they take that away. …
“For the last 24 years the Florence Prison Run has been a show of support by the Brothers still on the outside for all of the Brothers who are unfortunately under the care of the state on the inside. … The inspiration for the run was the incarceration of a brother. Running the prison was a way for the locked up Brother to feel and hear the presence outside and know, without a doubt, that he was remembered.”
Some background on why ATF wanted to infiltrate the Angels:
“At the time ATF had some real interest in the Angels. … This kind of case is built around existing police reports, warrants, affidavits, arrests, convictions, financial document, and public records. Slats [one of the ATF agents] sought to prove that the Angels were a criminal organization, indictable under RICO …
“the Angels had been in Arizona for a little under five years… before them the state’s top One Percenters were the Dirty Dozen. The Dozen had been violent and well-established. …
“The Angels came onto their turf when Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the iconic godfather of the Hells Angels, “retired” his forty-year presidency in Oakland, California. He’d served a prison term in the Phoenix area and had fallen in love with the climate and the state. … The Dirty Dozen were in a hard spot… They were tough, but they lacked the resources… of the Hells Angels. The Dozen’s members were given a choice: Disappear or patch over to the Angels. Most enthusiastically chose the latter. …
“These facts were significant. For a club to go from nonexistent to the main show in town in under five years proved… that the Angels were wielding their influence ably and willfully. These are the types of bricks that RICO cases are built with.”
EvX: In other words, regardless of whatever else the Hells Angels were up to, if they used violence or the threat of violence to force the Dirty Dozen out of Arizona, then they could be indicted under RICO.
That “regardless,” though, haunted me throughout the book. What were the Hells Angels up to, besides controlling territory? Selling drugs? Buying guns? I have some answers, but we’ll get to them later.
A certain curious difficulty:
some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? …
Instructions for riding with the Angels:
“We’ll be at the back, keeping up. We gotta keep up. They blow a light, we blow a light. They get traffic stopped, we get traffic stopped. Mesa rides like the Blue Angels on Memorial Day. Other charters hate riding with ’em ’cause they’re such fucking road Nazis. Stay eighteen inches off the wheel in front of you. And stay back. Never, ever cross the line of a full patch’s front wheel. You pass one of these guys and there will be hell to pay.”
Murder at the local Hells Angels clubhouse:
“There was a bar on one side with a small triangular stage wedged next to it. A twelve foot long Death Head painted on one wall, an adjacent wall covered with trophies and memorabilia. …
“At least on person had already been killed on the floor of the Mesa clubhouse. … On October 25, 2001, a forty-something woman named Cynthia Garcia was partying with the boys at Mesa. During the course of that night she had the drunken balls to insult the Angels on their home turf… she was beaten unconscious by patched members Mesa Mike and Keven Augustiniak and a prospect, Paul Eischeid…
“[They] hauled the body, which was still technically alive, into the carport and dumped it in the trunk of a car. They drove Garcia out to the desert. … They stabbed her repeatedly. They took turns trying to cut off her head, which they wanted to leave on a fencepost for the vultures. …
“Cynthia Garcia, a mother of two, had made a bad decision, and she was dead for it.”
EvX: one theme that comes up constantly in these books–here, in Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy, and eponymousy in Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is respect.
Some people say that North West Europe has a Guilt Culture, while many Asian countries have a Shame Culture. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is, but in a guilt culture, people are told that God is watching them even when they are otherwise alone and will know if they have sinned. God knows if you pick your nose. God knows if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet. And God definitely knows if you kill someone, even if no one else finds out.
By contrast, high-crime groups (including groups that hail from NW Europe) seem to have what I’m going to call Respect Cultures. In Respect Cultures, one’s social standing is of paramount importance, and disrespect can be grounds for murder.
The danger here is three-fold:
People from Respect Cultures are often at the bottom of the American totem pole–cause and effect unclear, but this seems like a bad combination either way.
People in Respect Cultures believe in rigid hierarchies in which they do not treat social inferiors as equals.
People in Respect Cultures will not hesitate to use violence to secure or increase their position.
More hierarchical societies obviously lean toward Respect Cultures, while more egalitarian societies lean toward Guilt Cultures. In atomized, egalitarian cultures, individual behavior is kept in check via internalized norms that one should not violate the “social contract.” By contrast, in hierarchical societies, your behavior is dictated by your position within the social pecking order. You have certain obligations to the people above you (often monetary) and obligations to the people below you (such as organizing economic opportunities or providing for their safety.)
For criminals, respect is absolutely vital, because respect translates into other criminals staying out of your turf. You respect a criminal because he can kill you; you disrespect him if you think you can kill him.
More on riding motorcycles:
“The Mesa boys rode like fearless banshees on crack. Jesus Christ himself could not have ridden a motorcycle better, faster, or tighter than Mesa… they kept no more than eighteen inches off the wheel in front of them–and they were often closer than that. By the time the lead riders had banked into a turn, the guy three bikes back had already leaned his shoulder into the thin air. They moved like a snake chasing a rabbit through its burrow. They blew lights and ignored traffic. The rabbits–everyone who wasn’t on a chromed-out Harley-Davidson, everyone who was ensconced in the “cage” of a car or truck, everyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian, everyone who was not a Hells Angel–ran scared. …
“Hells Angels live for their club and their brothers. One of there credos is “Step down or aside for no man, no law, no God.” They are free men unto themselves. At the root of this liberty is the experience of riding a bike. Their Harley Davidsons are the vehicles of their emancipation. Emancipation from society’s rule and expectations; from a life of work and obligations, from other men, wives, girlfriends, and family. … The things that the rest of us depend on for safety and consistency were never there for these men. They’re outcasts. The way they see it is, why should they return any favors?
“For these men it is the smallest of steps from outcast to outlaw.”
EvX: I wish the book had gone into more detail on what made these men “outcasts” in the first place.
“The irony is that while their appearance and lifestyle are clearly set up in opposition to those of us who live straight lives, they are hardly distinguishable from one another. Their individuality is confined by a rigid conformity. All wear the same kind of clothing, ride the same brand of bike, adhere to the same set of club rules. All must report once a week to “church” meetings, and all must pay monthly dues. The cuts [biker vests] forever remain the property of the club, as do the “skin patches,” the tattoos that each new member must receive. If for whatever reason a brother quits the club, then the Hells Angels are bound to go to his residence and remove every article of clothing, furniture, and memorabilia that contain ay reference to the Hells Angel–not merely to punish and divest him, but because the stuff simply is not his. … if he leaves on bad terms, then those tattoos are carved off–in some cases taken back with a cheese grater, or with a clothes iron on the linen setting. …
“the Hells Angels’ rules were legion and covered damn near everything … The Hells Angels have rules that govern their bikes, their appearance, their behavior, their old ladies, their engagement in criminal activity, their handling of rivals.”
So what’s the whole point?
“If you become a Hells Angel, everything else about you becomes moot. You’re no longer John J. Johnson–you’re a brother. A soldier. A unit of fear. … Drinks become free, and pussy is never more than a dick’s length away. … You’re suddenly capital-R Respected. If you’re done wrong by someone, the whole club is duty-bound to do wrong back to that person.”
EvX: This, right here, I think is it.
Throughout the book, I kept asking, “but what is the point?” The contrast with Brasco’s description of the Mafia is stark. The Mafia has a point: to make money. Drug lord Frank Lucas, in Original Gangster, had an obvious goal: to make money. But the Hells Angels are not obviously making much money. Perhaps they are, but are being very careful about not showing it off. Or perhaps some of them are, just not the ones Dobyns hung out with.
No, I don’t think money is the main point, though they probably make money when the opportunity presents itself. Rather, the Hells Angels and other groups like them are in it to control resources and territory. Drinks, women, bikes, and highways. That’s what they want, and by being the biggest bad-asses around (and pushing out any competing bad-asses, like the Dirty Dozen,) that’s what they get.
This is good place to wrap up for the week. See you next Friday.