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New Left Review 50, March-April 2008

Alexander Cockburn on Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line. Ethnographic memoir of life and times with the dealers, hookers and struggling residents of Chicago’s South Side Projects.



Forty years ago the topic of slums was a lot hotter in the United States than it is now. The Cold War was on, and Soviet propaganda could make hay with America’s urban riots in the mid-1960s. The Black Panthers organized armed patrols, set up free schoolchildren’s breakfast programmes and formed alliances with such urban gangs as Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers. American radicals started organizing in the ghettoes. In 1966 Malcolm X—the man who really frightened America’s ruling orders—was assassinated, probably with police connivance, in New York. Amid the uprisings that followed Martin Luther King’s murder on April 4, 1968 the young Panther leader Bobby Hutton was gunned down by Oakland cops, having surrendered after a police onslaught on the house he was living in. In December of the following year the Chicago cops, with fbi assistance, murdered Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed. It was open season on the Black Panthers, many of whom were killed. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, advised a sense of distance from urban policy: ‘If you’ve seen one city slum you’ve seen them all’, he nonchalantly declared. Enlightened opinion duly looked the other way, and that is how it has been ever since.

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Alexander Cockburn, ‘Rogue Projects’, NLR 50: £3

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