Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The end of the Outfit?

In the end it was a little anticlimactic. There were headlines, but they were overshadowed by remembrance of much bigger events on the same date, six years before. When it came, the decapitation of the Outfit came quietly. On Monday five top Chicago organized crime figures were found guilty of a smorgasbord of federal charges, racketeering conspiracy at the head of the list. Seventeen citizens in an uncomfortably warm room in the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago decided that a handful of old men were guilty of the crimes the U.S. government had charged them with. They made a fairly short job of it—after ten weeks of testimony and arguments, with mounds of evidence to wade through, they took only a few days to agree on the verdict. In the course of deliberations they asked the judge for a fan and a dictionary. The word was, they wanted to make sure they understood what usorious meant.
The federal government is about to put the top leadership of the Chicago Outfit in jail, for a long time. If you know anything about the history of Chicago, this is a big deal. For fifty years the Outfit acted more or less with impunity in this city. Prohibition had undermined the rule of law so thoroughly that the city’s political structure, court system and police were all deeply compromised by ties to the gangsters. Prohibition made the Capone gang rich and entrenched it in the city’s power structure. A nexus of crooked politicians, crooked cops, crooked judges and just plain crooks of all stripes insured that the hoods got their cut of just about every significant economic activity in the city. Reformers came and went, but nothing seemed to change. Mob hits went unpunished, payoffs went up the line.
Meanwhile, books and movies glamorized organized crime. We followed the Corleones and the Sopranos and cared about them. They became part of our historical narrative, immigrants scrapping for their share of the pie. Top Outfit guys in Chicago had celebrity status. They gave to the community; their neighborhoods were safe. Too often we forgot that gangsters are bullies, cheats, thugs, killers. They wouldn’t be gangsters if they weren’t.
It took the power of the federal government in the form of the R.I.C.O. statue and the Greylord investigation to start chipping away at Outfit power. Outfit guys saw the handwriting on the wall. They started keeping their sons out of the business. They sent them to college and watched them become lawyers, bankers, doctors. In the meantime, the world changed. The Next Big Thing in crime passed the Outfit by as the money shifted to drugs. The blacks and Latins assumed the role the Italians had played in the 1920’s: outsiders on the make. In a sense the decline of the Chicago Outfit reflects the rise of the Italian-American community as a whole and the changing demographics of the country. In the twenties it was the Italians who were poor, alien, excluded. Their criminals exploited Prohibition to gain wealth and power. Today it’s somebody else, but the story is the same. Smart thugs exploit opportunities.
Is the Outfit dead? Organized crime experts say we’d be fools to think so. As long as there’s vice, we’ll have organized crime. The Outfit isn’t going away. Somebody else will step up to take James Marcello’s place as boss, because there’s just too much money to be made off vice. But we can hope he'll inherit a lesser organization. We can hope that the days when the Outfit was a shadowy but real pillar of the Chicago power structure are over. We can hope it will never again have significant veto power in the courts, the police department, the state legislature. We can hope that the Outfit is just another gang now, and an aging one. And we can hope as we struggle with new gangs and new rackets and the eternal temptation to corruption that we won’t be fooled again.

Sam Reaves

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