Left-Handed Form: The Stakes

“You can’t tell me this shit can’t get done without people beatin’ on each other, killin’ each other, doin’ each other like dogs — and without all that, you ain’t got Five-0 down here on our backs every five minutes, throwin’ us around and shit.  You think Five-0 care about niggas gettin’ high?  In the projects?  Man, Five-0 be down here about the bodies, yo.  That’s what they be down here about.  The bodies.”

D’Angelo Barksdale, as was all too common to his tragic character on The Wire, was right, but he was also wrong. Here, he was framing a question that’s quite familiar to anyone who has looked at crime from the outside:  why is there so much violence involved, even in crimes that can be committed without violence such as theft, fraud and the narcotics trade?  Why is it that, both in real-life crimes and the popular culture they inspire, the endgame so often involves a bloody death — more often than not at the hands of one’s own?  There is no end to the speculation:  most commonly, prior to the reform movements of the late 19th century, the answer was that criminals were simply a different breed than ‘normal’ people, a “superstitious and cowardly lot” who were prone to violence the same way that koalas are prone to eating eucalyptus leaves.

But this is an outsider’s view, and one of the reasons D’Angelo gets it wrong is because he is an outsider to the straight world just as much as people in the straight world are outsiders to his.  He speculates that every other kind of business gets done without cheating, lying, and double-dealing, but this is a mistake.  It is not that other businesses, many of which gather profits that make his uncle Avon’s drug empire look like the puny provincial enterprise that it is, do not engage in underhanded play; it is that their operations sport the imprimatur of the law, and the stakes for misbehavior are generally quite low.  In all of the shadowy business engaged in over the last few decades by bankers, realtors, financiers, and corporate mavens — business which has resulted in the theft of mega-billions, the crippling of the global economy, and, yes, plenty of bodies — you could count the number of people who have gone to jail on one hand, and have plenty of fingers left over to count the people who were subsequently pardoned or released.

It is the law that criminals fear.  In the great dichotomy of crime and punishment, the criminal fears punishment as much as the solid citizen fears crime, and perhaps even more so, because the average person may go his whole life without being the victim of a major crime, but almost every criminal will sometimes have to face the weight of the law.  It can even be said, and often has been, that the only reason there is crime is because there is punishment.   The most serious consequence of the drug war isn’t the effect of narcotics on their users; it is the ruinous consequences of the illegality of those narcotics.  Just as homosexuality would not exist without homophobia, crime would not exist without punishment, and on the endless list of ways humans have developed to ruin each other’s lives, imprisonment ranks very near the top.

So pervasive is the fear of prison that it acts as a deterrent if not a reformer.  Most of us are too paralyzed by the fear of jail to even attempt the pettiest of crimes.  The bar for entry into the criminal fraternity is staggeringly low; it needs only the willingness to overcome that fear.  People who are good at violence are usually no bigger, no stronger, no better trained than anyone else; their greatest possession is the will to fight, and to ignore the consequences.  So too with crime.  Once the decision has been made, though, the threat is always and forever there, to the extent that getting away with one’s crime is only half the accomplishment.  One can rob a bank, can deal drugs, can steal a car or loot a home, and long after the money is pocketed and spent, there is the knowledge that someone is still looking for you, someone still wants to punish you, that keeps you forever in the shadows.  Malcolm X, who knew a thing or two about the subject, said that to have been a criminal once is no disgrace; the disgrace is in remaining a criminal. But not everyone can find Brother Malcolm’s escape route, and the criminal mentality stays ingrained in every function of a man until the threat of punishment has vanished.

The portrayals of crime in popular fiction, as in reality, deal with the stakes in different ways.  In Richard Stark’s Parker novels, which largely concern themselves with the mechanical plotting of a crime and the audacious and perilous ways in which those plots are carried out, the law is almost entirely invisible; it is an omnipresent threat, but even when everything falls apart, the police are almost never seen or heard.  It is understood that the economic, physical, and psychological annihilation represented by a prison term is a fate so unthinkable that any sensible criminal would do whatever necessary to avoid it.  In The Sopranos, we see the authorities a bit more, but because we are still forced into an authorial perspective largely lensed through the criminal element, they tend to represent a potentiality rather than a reality.  We are, however, made much more keenly aware of what prison represents (no one, from Tony Blundetto to Richie Aprile, emerges unscathed), and how the high-stakes penalties for drug crimes have done to the concepts of loyalty and and the code of silence.  Here we get frighteningly close to the reality of why crime is so pervasively violent:  though the penalty for squealing can be death, the costs of decades of imprisonment are equally ruinous.  Anyone facing arrest must now roll a dangerous pair of dice, with murder, endless jail time, or a life of looking over one’s shoulder are the only outcomes.

On The Wire, we see the police constantly; freed from a narrow perspective and allowed a bird’s-eye view of the interconnectedness of the entire stable of actors, we can see it all.  We learn that the men at the top, the ones with the most to lose financially, are the ones who order death for their underlings as the price of betrayal; we learn that the law enforcement community, seeing this same betrayal as their only shot at punishing the men at the top, shamelessly manipulate the people they arrest into becoming informers with hollow threats, empty bribes, and all manner of chicanery; and we learn that for the bottom-rungers, there was never any more hope for them in the game than there was out of it.  The takings were low — just enough for new clothes and a place to stay, never the glittering prizes of the higher-ups — and the stakes were high.

Even a successful criminal enterprise is fraught with peril, with the fear of jail driving an easy casualness about death.   Two of the most lucrative robberies in American history, the Air France robbery of 1967 and the Lufthansa heist of 1978, were both carried out by the same crew (including Jimmy Burke and Henry Hill); both, as depicted with some accuracy in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, were enormously successful and dazzlingly popular.  If any crime should have resulted in exultation instead of bloodshed, it should have been the Lufthansa heist.  But its very success was the reason for its bloody aftermath; the take was so much greater than originally anticipated (it netted the equivalent of $20 million in today’s dollars), Burke immediately realized that it would draw all the more police attention, and that its perpetrators, including himself, would face all the more prison time.  Determined not to let that happen, he began systematically eliminating everyone involved who might possibly talk to the police; a robbery that went off without a single shot being fired ended with nine people murdered, all for fear of the law.

Still, for all the devastating effects of jail (which one only need look at the state of our African-American population, disproportionately punished beyond reason by the blind brutalities of the system, to see the consequences of), it is not this fear alone that can fully explain the tendency towards violence in the criminal community.  Many newer, leaner, younger manifestations of organized crime, indeed, never developed the taste for legitimacy and bourgeoisie contentment cultivated by their more mainstreamed forebears.  Black and Latino street gangs, in particular, have made prison life contiguous with their criminal activities; inside as well as out, they keep the business running, dispense judgment and issue commands, and viciously patrol their turf.  For them, crime is an atmosphere, not a means to an end, and doing a stretch does little to interrupt the course of their lives.  That this does not in any way lessen, and in fact exacerbates, their tendency towards violent punishment for going against the gang will be the subject of our next installment:  crime as a tribal institution, and the quest for ‘respect’ and its relationship to violence.

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