Stonewall, New York City, USA. Photo: Riccardo Venturi.
How the mafia provided places of inclusion for groups who could not obtain them through legal channels
You may not typically think of Italian organized crime when you think of the history of civil and gay rights in the United States, but it actually played a seminal role in their evolution, if only inadvertently and unintentionally. The problem was discrimination against members of the black and gay communities based on race and sexual orientation, and the solution was the provision of places where members of these communities could gather safely and effectively. Since racial miscegenation and homosexual expressions and practices were often illegal, and in fact segregation and suppression were the social and cultural norms through most of the post World War II period, let’s say from 1945 and onwards through the 1970s, only an organization that operated outside of the law would and could effectively own and operate venues that hosted a gathering of black and white musicians, for example, or a gay dance club. The mafia avidly stepped in to fill this void.
The mafia did not do this out of a sense of social justice, or as a prescient move to be on the right side of history, of course; their motive was purely profit. As the mafia always did, it provided protection and support for groups of people who could not go to the police for help, or to a bank to get a loan. The mafia saw a market in these excluded populations and immediately exploited it.
It is worth examining the term ‘exploit’ here for a moment. It arrived to English from the French for ‘to unfold’. What the mafia has always been so proficient at — I don’t want to use the word ‘good’ lest I come across as being in any way approving of their abusive and lethal practices — is examining a dynamic, or a relationship, and pulling it apart — so, unfolding it — to see how it works and then to find more effective and efficient ways to reproduce or replace it. Computer hackers are a good example from another field of activity that operates in the same way. You may not approve of their goals and practices, but you have to acknowledge, on some level, the efficacy of skills they develop and execute to achieve them.
Again, there is no reason to think that the various mafia syndicates that owned and operated nightclubs, dance halls and other entertainment venues, from New York to California, including cities such as Providence, Miami and Las Vegas, had anyone’s welfare and best interests in mind, most of all those of marginalized communities. But an essential aspect of good historical research is the examination of unintended as well as intended consequences of any given agent, agency or agenda. Acting only to increase the profit of their real estate holdings, members of organized crime families, of the era, provided places of inclusion and support for groups who could not obtain them through legal and legitimate channels, and who in fact were actively and violently suppressed by local, state and federal forces when they did try to gather.
Perhaps the most famous example of such a place was the Stonewall Tavern in New York City, a club for gay men that was the locus of an uprising after being routinely raided by the New York City Police Department in 1969. Certainly being the tenants of a building that was known to be owned by the mafia did not offer them any legal protection, and in fact only exacerbated their marginalized condition, at least in the eyes of local authorities, but such a tenancy did allow them to gather as a community, and therefore develop the nascent cultural and social identities and collective structures that would only later, after prolonged civil protest and political activism, achieve legitimacy under the eyes of the law.
Another example involves the evolution of mixed-race jazz clubs. Historically, white and black performers were not allowed to play together on the same stage, or in the same venue, because of laws that mandated racial segregation. Given the central and fundamental role that black musicians played in the development of jazz, their exclusion from clubs and halls that catered to white audiences, whose members were more numerous and wealthier than those of black audiences, disrupted the market for nightclubs, whose patrons increasingly ignored racial segregation laws in favor of finding the best music that was available. Frank Sinatra, no stranger to the mafia, was a central figure in this evolution. As in the cases of the gay bars and dance venues, the mafia groups were more than willing to open and operate venues that catered to these populations, valuing economic profit over social, cultural and legal censure.
Now, certainly the relationship between the mafia and the gay community, and the mafia and the black community, at least as far as its entertainment venues were concerned, was exploitive. Having no where else to turn, members of the gay and black communities who wanted to establish or frequent places of entertainment were at the risk of suffering from exorbitant rents and hazardous conditions. And yet, there is no denying that the intervention by the mafia into a relationship between the state and the legitimate business community on the one hand, and excluded and marginalized groups on the other, played a key role in the evolution of gay and civil rights in the United States.
This does not mean that the horrendous crimes committed by members of the mafia should be in anyway excused or seen in a new light. It does, however, point to the need to effectively tease apart — to ‘exploit’ in other words — the intricate set of relations that formed the structures that were essential to the development and evolution of gay and black communities in the United States during the postwar period, and to the later development of more mainstream community building and political activism, and the eventual achievement of social and cultural liberation and legal legitimacy of these communities, in the decades that followed.
Those of you who, from reading this column, have gleaned an understanding of serial parasitism and its implication in the evolution of human social and political organization, can easily use its core theoretical concepts — analysis, paralysis and catalysis, or selection, elimination and transformation — to illuminate the particular sets of relations that are evident in the historical details of the evolution of these groups.
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