Gang Leader for a Day
The book Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh presents the experience of the author and documents his research for the Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago in the 1990s. There is no doubt that his research can illustrate the real life of the given period and contemporary social environment. These data can help one feel the spirit of the criminal life in the city. The task of this paper is to review the abovementioned book and discuss its plot in details.
The author gathered rather detailed information on the topic that concerns the life of thousands of poor and unemployed African Americans, who chose the criminal lifestyle. He spent six years in order to collect all the data on the subject and analyze it in his Ph.D. dissertation while studying at the University of Chicago. The book provides a detailed information about different social characters: hustlers, police, and prostitutes, etc.
Criminology uses various theories in explaining the reasons for why people commit crimes. There is no doubt that these reasons vary and depend on the specific situation. The information presented in the book determines the lifestyle of criminals, who choose such a way of life. Criminology provides a rational explanation for such behavior; the social disorganization theory can be implemented in the research of the mentioned gang. The environment is responsible for the behavioral choices that the person makes. (Cullen, Agnew, and Wilcox 2013). Therefore, a poor and unemployed African American community has a high level of crime commitment. The author stated that the area he researched was full of bad schools, vandalized buildings, and mixed property.
Venkatesh (2008) provided specific details got from a college-educated gang leader, J.T., who truly believed that Venkatesh would write his biography. That was the first step toward the new world and role of a gang leader for the author. However, soon, the man got to know about the borders and limits existing in this new criminal reality and decided to broaden his contacts in the housing project. The next stage of his life was connected with the research on the social organization and the underground economy in the areas full of poor people. Moreover, his deep research also covered the local political situation, relationships with police, social structure, governmental organizations, and Chicago housing authority.
True to the book’s title, Venkatesh had really run the gang for one day, performing simple tasks together with J.T. and searching for the additional information about a common day of the drug lord. One more important element of criminal life, which was studied by the author during his research, dealt with the role of female members in the drug groups’ activity.
The book Gang Leader for a Day was written for the ordinary readers and provided both general and detailed data. Therefore, it neither used jargon nor described the scenes that happened in the real life while the author was working on his book. In such a manner, Gang Leader for a Day is an easy-to-read book as it is written like a novel or autobiography.
The better analysis could be done by researching the book itself. For example, on the seventh page of the book, Venkatesh (2008) declared, “We live in a city without the city.” The idea that can be traced through the whole book focuses on the issue of the relationships between the whites and blacks, as well as the possibility of their peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the future. However, the author underlined the fact that he had changed the real names of all the characters and even changed the name of the street where he had lived for the time of his research.
In fact, the author mentioned that the Black Kings, the gang of J.T. was quite different from the other street gangs, because of the way they behaved and the principles they followed. It is interesting to underline that J.T. was not likely to be a lawbreaker himself, but rather was considered a lawmaker. In such a manner, the better life was the priority of his gang. Usually, they behaved as the true rulers of the neighborhood, and partially it was so. The Black Kings policed the territory more aggressively that the Chicago police did.
The book also outlines the racist rules that severely targeted the people of the street, as most of them were the African Americans. The author focused his research on the political activity of the area and determining the mechanism of the cooperation and communication between the Chicago politicians and local street gangs. Venkatesh underlined the essence of such gangs and the way people joined these specific social groups; moreover he pointed out the fact that usually, such people lived the same way, which was shaped by the family relationships and environment. Nevertheless, the author seemed to be proud of some unlawful activity. According to him, Chicago gangs were much more dangerous than the Italian or Jewish mafia.
On the other hand, the abovementioned book contains rather critical comments on the activities and value of the Chicago Police Department.
Venkatesh paid much attention to researching the family values in such a criminal environment. The essence of a family and connections with relatives are considered one of the greatest values for the housing development. The book provided an example of a young girl, whose mother was sent to prison. In this situation, all the residents of the housing environment demonstrated care and patience in order to protect this girl from being send to the foster care.
Additionally, Ms. Bailey, who was the resident of the housing organization, was trying to behave as the mother of all the gang members. She was open and ready to care about those who really needed her care and help. One of the examples from the book highlights the moment when she declared that nobody would stay hungry in her home. She was always ready to demonstrate her open heart and clear mind. Therefore, taking children to her home and sharing the meals together is a symbol of the fact that everyone was considered a part of the family.
The members of the Robert Taylor’s gang were used to being isolated from other society, and they got used to the idea that they were different, and no one would help them in need. This idea creates their understanding of life with its main principles, priorities, and values. The obvious things that the ordinary people took for granted were unusual for the members of this gang.
Religion is not considered a part of the gang’s culture. At the least, Venkatesh did not pay attention to this sphere of life and any information about religious beliefs was absent in his book. Probably, the religious interests were not so valued by the gang, and only some members believed in God (Venkatesh 2008).
One more sphere of the common social life was not researched enough in the book, Gang Leader for a Day. The education was a matter of concern in such a criminal environment. The individuals that were interviewed during the research did not demonstrate a high level of intellectual development; moreover, analytical thinking was not considered a characteristic feature of an average representative of the examined gang. Moreover, most members did not graduate from the high school. J.T. was one of those few members of the gang who had graduated from the college while some of the main leaders of his gang had also got the college education. Nevertheless, it does not mean that they were uneducated or had less knowledge and skills. Their skills were of more specific nature and were part of their criminal life (Venkatesh 2008).
To conclude, one should admit that a lot of essential information concerning the life of the gang was presented in the book Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. He made a six-year research in order to find out the most significant features of the gang. Moreover, he even had lived this life for a day in order to practice the knowledge gathered during the research. There is a need to point out the fact that the structure of the researched gang had much in common with the ordinary family relations. All the members cared about each other and made everything possible in order to protect them from the danger that could appear in their criminal life. Nevertheless, the J.T. gang seemed to be worth the research, but not a discussion only. According to the disorganization theory of criminology, the social environment is responsible for the actions of its members. The areas with bad schools usually report a higher level of the criminal activity. J.T.’s gang lived in such an area of high criminal risk, but they tended to change the law in their favor rather than break it. The language used in the book is easy to understand, and there is no need to have any specific knowledge on the subject in order to read this book.