Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Five
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview will be appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part FourWorthwhile Struggles
PLAYBOY: Didn't you have any compunction about consorting with -- if not actually assisting -- murderers?
ALINSKY: None at all, since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering, practically all of which was done inside the family. I was a nonparticipating observer in their professional activities, although I joined their social life of food, drink and women: Boy, I sure participated in that side of things -- it was heaven. And let me tell you something, I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing.
Another thing you've got to remember about Capone is that he didn't spring out of a vacuum. The Capone gang was actually a public utility; it supplied what the people wanted and demanded. The man in the street wanted girls: Capone gave him girls. He wanted booze during Prohibition: Capone gave him booze. He wanted to bet on a horse: Capone let him bet. It all operated according to the old laws of supply and demand, and if there weren't people who wanted the services provided by the gangsters, the gangsters wouldn't be in business. Everybody owned stock in the Capone mob; in a way, he was a public benefactor. I remember one time when he arrived at his box seat in Dyche Stadium for a Northwestern football game on Boy Scout Day and 8000 scouts got up in the stands and screamed in cadence, "Yea, yea, Big Al. Yea, yea, Big Al." Capone didn't create the corruption, he just grew fat on it, as did the political parties, the police and the overall municipal economy.
PLAYBOY: How long were you an honorary member of the mob?
ALINSKY: About two years. After I got to know about the outfit, I grew bored and decided to move on -- which is a recurring pattern in my life, by the way. I was just as bored with graduate school, so I dropped out and took a job with the Illinois State Division of Criminology, working with juvenile delinquents. This led me into another field project, investigating a gang of Italian kids who called themselves the 42 Mob. They were held responsible by the D.A. for about 80 percent of the auto thefts in Chicago at the time and they were just graduating into the outer fringes of the big-time rackets. It was even tougher to get in with them than with the Capone mob, believe me. Those kids were really suspicious and they were tough, too, with hair-trigger tempers. I finally got my chance when one of the gang's leaders, a kid named Thomas Massina, or Little Dumas, as he called himself, was shot and killed in a drugstore stick-up. The minute I heard about it, I went over to the Massina house, hoping to get in good with Dumas' friends. But they were as leery as ever.
By a stroke of luck, though, I heard Mrs. Massina, Dumas' mother, weeping and wailing, repeating the same thing over and over in Italian. I asked one of the kids what she was saying and he said she was bemoaning the fact that she didn't have any pictures of Dumas since he was a baby, nothing to remember him by. So I left right away, picked up a photographer friend of mine and rushed down to the morgue. I showed my credentials and the attendant took us in to the icebox, where Dumas was laid out on a slab. We took a photograph, opening his eyes first, then rushed back to the studio to develop it. We carefully retouched it to eliminate all the bullet holes, and then had it hand-tinted. The next morning, I went back to the wake and presented the photograph to Mrs. Massina. "Dumas gave this to me just last week," I said, "and I'd like you to have it." She cried and thanked me, and pretty soon word of the incident spread throughout the gang. "That Alinsky, he's an all-right motherfucker," the kids would say, and from that moment on they began to trust me and I was able to work with them, all because of the photograph. It was an improvised tactic and it worked.
PLAYBOY: It was also pretty cynical and manipulative.
ALINSKY: It was a simple example of good organizing. And what's wrong with it? Everybody got what they wanted. Mrs. Massina got something to hold onto in her grief and I got in good with the kids. I got to be good friends with some of them. And some of them I was able to help go straight. One of the members is now a labor organizer and every time things get hot for me somewhere, he calls me up and growls, "Hey, Saul, you want me to send up some muscle to lean on those motherfuckers?" I just thank him and say I can handle it, and then we chat about the old days. Anyway, after I finished working with the 42 Mob, I left the division of criminology and went to work as a criminologist at the state prison in Joliet, but I was already getting bored with the whole profession and looking for something new.
PLAYBOY: Why were you getting bored this time?
ALINSKY: There were a lot of factors involved. For one thing, most of the people I was working with -- other criminologists, wardens, parole officers -- were all anesthetized from the neck up. God, I've never in my life come across such an assemblage of morons. I was beginning to think the whole field was some kind of huge outpatient clinic. And on a human level, I was revolted by the brutalization, the dehumanization, the institutionalized cruelty of the prison system. I saw it happening to me, too, which was another important motivation for me to get out. When I first went up to Joliet, I'd take a genuine personal interest in the prisoners I'd interview; I'd get involved with their problems, try to help them. But the trouble with working in an institution, any institution, is that you get institutionalized yourself. A couple of years and 2000 interviews later, I'd be talking to a guy and I was no longer really interested. I was growing callous and bored; he wasn't important to me as a human being anymore; he was just inmate number 1607. When I recognized that happening inside me, I knew I couldn't go on like that.
I'll tell you something, though, the three years I spent at Joliet were worth while, because I continued the education in human relationships I'd begun in the Capone mob. For one thing, I learned that the state has the same mentality about murder as Frank Nitti. You know, whenever we electrocuted an inmate, everybody on the staff would get drunk, including the warden. It's one thing for a judge and a jury to condemn a man to death; he's just a defendant, an abstraction, an impersonal face in a box for two or three weeks. But once the poor bastard has been in prison for seven or eight months -- waiting for his appeals or for a stay -- you get to know him as a human being, you get to know his wife and kids and his mother when they visit him, and he becomes real, a person. And all the time you know that pretty soon you're going to be strapping him into the chair and juicing him with 30,000 volts for the time it takes to fry him alive while his bowels void and he keeps straining against the straps.
So then you can't take it as just another day's work. If you can get out of being an official witness, you sit around killing a fifth of whiskey until the lights dim and then maybe, just maybe, you can get to sleep. That might be a good lesson for the defenders of capital punishment: Let them witness an execution. But I guess it wouldn't do much good for most of them, who are probably like one of the guards at Joliet when I was there -- a sadistic son of a bitch who I could swear had an orgasm when the switch was thrown.
PLAYBOY: Did you agitate for penal reform while you were at Joliet?
ALINSKY: There wasn't much I could do, because as a state criminologist, I wasn't directly involved in the actual prison administration. Oh, I made a lot of speeches all over the place telling well meaning people that the whole system wasn't working, that rehabilitation was a joke and our prisons wer vanguard of the 14th Century, and they all applauded enthusiastically and went home with their souls cleansed -- and did nothing. Those speeches got me a reputation as a troublemaker, too. You know, all the experts in criminology and all the textbooks agreed that the primary causes of crime were social conditions -- things like poor housing, racial discrimination, economic insecurity, unemployment -- but if you ever suggested doing something to correct the root causes instead of locking up the results, you were considered something of a kook. A number of times my superiors called me aside and said, "Look, Saul, don't sound off like that. People will think you're a Red or something." Finally, I quit Joliet and took a job with the Institute for Juvenile Research, one of those outfits that were always studying the causes of juvenile delinquency, making surveys of all the kids in cold-water tenements with rats nibbling their toes and nothing to eat -- and then discovering the solution: camping trips and some shit they called character building. Frankly, I considered that job pretty much a sinecure to free me for more important work.
PLAYBOY: Such as?
ALINSKY: The causes that meant something in those days -- fighting fascism at home and abroad and doing something to improve the life of the masses of people who were without jobs, food or hope. I'd spend all my free time raising funds for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and for Southern sharecroppers, organizing for the Newspaper Guild and other fledgling unions, fighting the eviction of slum tenants who couldn't pay their rent, agitating for public housing, when it was still considered a subversive concept. This was the time I began to work alongside the C.I.O. You know, a lot of kids today are bored when their old man tells them what he went through in the Depression, and rightly so in most cases, because it's generally used as a cop-out for doing nothing today. And God knows, too many people who were radicals in the Thirties have since finked out, from either fear of McCarthyism in the Fifties or co-optation by the system or just plain hardening of the political arteries. But there are still a lot of lessons to be learned from those days, lessons that apply explicitly and directly to what's happening today.
Next Week -- Radicals Amid the Depression
Alinsky's biography is available here
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