Student Becomes ‘Gang Leader for a Day’

February 14, 2008 09:15 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Sudhir Venkatesh hung with a Chicago street gang for years to complete his graduate research. His tale is the latest in a history of similar undercover exploits.

30-Second Summary

While conducting a survey on the grounds of the Robert Taylor Homes, a crime-infested housing project of 27,000 residents, University of Chicago student Sudhir Venkatesh met the “Black Kings,” a local crack-dealing gang.

Venkatesh got to know the 250-person organization so well that he was invited to become “Gang Leader for a Day,” which is now the title of Venkatesh’s account of life in the criminal underworld.

“Even though I was hanging out with drug traffickers and thieves, at heart I felt like I was just being a good sociologist,” Venkatesh told the Chicago Tribune.

Venkatesh’s research made its way into the bestselling book “Freakonomics,” which applies economic theory to the workings of many phenomena, including crack gangs, likening them to corporations.

Venkatesh is among many who have broken into crime syndicates. Former FBI operative Joe Pistone spent six years living with the mafia. The alias he used, Donnie Brasco, became famous as the title of a bestselling book and movie based on his exploits.

Yves Lavigne, another former FBI agent, tells of his time in motorcycle gang the Hell’s Angels in his book “Hell’s Angels: Into the Abyss.” An undercover operative, Lavigne managed to break into the upper echelons of the group, a feat that resulted in 42 arrests.

Writer Bill Buford ran with a band of English football hooligans and describes how they operate in his book “Among the Thugs.”

Thankfully, there are limits to how far these men will go in the pursuit of an authentic cover. As Pistone said with regard to the murder contracts that were offered to him, “Of course I didn’t actually go out and kill them, because as an FBI agent I couldn’t.”

Headline Link: ‘Street Learning’

Background: Going undercover with Brasco, Lavigne and Buford

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Freakonomics’

Reference: The books


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