It's hard not to gush about Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh's illuminating new book.
Readers of Freakonomics might remember Venkatesh. He was the young graduate student who stumbled into the Chicago projects and, with guts and not a little luck, befriended J.T., the leader of the Black Kings, a crack-cocaine-dealing gang. Thanks to this friendship, Venkatesh spent six years in and around the gang and the projects doing sociological fieldwork. In the course of discussing the economics of selling crack, Freakonomics' authors gave a tantalizing introduction to Venkatesh's experiences.
With Gang Leader, Venkatesh has expanded on that introduction and, in doing so, given readers a clear and nuanced picture of the lives of those in and affected by the BK gang. It is a fascinating and engrossing book, offering vivid and detailed vignettes of the lives of the people he met. The book is many things at once: an attempt to grapple with the gang's complex societal role; a biography of J.T. (and his friendship with the author); a collection of compelling, revelatory ethnographies; and a memoir.
During his time in the projects, Venkatesh talked with all kinds of people: high- and low-level gang members, police, prostitutes, tenants, and community leaders. His long experience there and relationships with such diverse people is apparent in his nuanced, thoughtful portrayal of life in the projects. His ability to speak about those he met not as research subjects, but as real people with whom he lived and interacted, enables the reader to see beyond such labels as "prostitute" or "crack addict." He treats with equal care and fascination the underage teenage gang member insisting "'I'm Black Kings!' [...] 'I can vote if I want to,'" the gang member stonily putting his hands behind his back in preparation to accept four punches as punishment, and the gang officer sitting in a diner and doing his homework on the way to becoming an accountant.
By Venkatesh's account, the BK gang was a much more complicated institution than readers may expect; indeed, the gang is best defined as the coexistence of many seemingly conflicting phenomena. Its members sold crack on the streets and it sponsored softball tournaments. It created much of the violence in the community and it provided security in a region almost devoid of police. It extorted money from local businesses and it provided food to hungry people. That is, the gang "acted as the de facto administration of [its territory]: J.T. may have been a lawbreaker, but he was very much a lawmaker as well."
Tenants and community leaders not only accepted the gang, they actively worked with it and tried to use it to their benefit. One ex-gangster gave lectures to young BK members about how to "work"