Article — From the June 1929 issue

What’s Wrong With the Right People?

Jack Black retired from crime to become a librarian and advocate for prison reform; in 1926 he published You Can’t Win, a narrative of his life as a thief that became a favorite of, and strong influence upon, William S. Burroughs (Black also wrote Jamboree, a poorly-reviewed play based upon his experiences). During the Depression he vanished, presumably drowning himself. He has a MySpace page.

The author of this article was for twenty-five years a criminal and served several prison terms; what he says about the criminal’s state of mind and the effect on him of society’s present method of combating crime is, therefore based upon direct personal knowledge.—The Editors.

“There’s a lot of law at the end of a rope.” That was the gospel of the California Vigilantes when they set out to clean up the crime wave of ‘Forty-nine. In the name of law and order they were going to take a short cut, kill a few killers and horse thieves, and make San Francisco safe for business. They were the “right” people of their time, noble gentlemen upon a noble mission bent; but like noble gentlemen turned reformers, all down the ages, they got drunk on blood-power. As long as they kept the rope for horse thieves the populace looked the other way, but when they succumbed to the inevitable temptation to hang business rivals and political enemies, this same populace made short shrift of them.

That was a world of ox carts and covered wagons. Ours is a world of automobiles and airplanes. Most things have moved along, but eighty years has made little difference in the methods with which the right people deal with the “wrong” ones. In the main they are facing the crime wave of 1929 with the mental attitude of the Vigilante.

“There’s enough law at the end of a night-stick.” This has the Vigilante ring to it, but it was spoken by New York’s most recent police commissioner at the outset of the clean-up campaign with which he began his regime. The only result apparent so far is a lot of indiscriminate clubbing and shooting by the police and a corresponding increase in murders and crimes of violence.

These are violent days. We are all agreed on that. The question is, who is responsible? Are the wrong people making the right people violent or are the right people making the wrong people violent? Or is it fifty-fifty?

From my seat on the side-lines it looks as though society were trying to out-gang the gangster, out-slug the slugger, and out-shoot the shooter, without pausing to ask whether it won’t result in simply pyramiding violence.

The right people all over America in press and pulpit are writing and preaching about the wrong ones. Crime commissions and individuals high and low, from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the smallest small-town reformer, are surveying and recommending, and resolving and whereas-ing them. Legislators are legislating, and the police are pistoling and night-sticking. All are preaching and practicing more violence as a cure for crime.

Is there any justification anywhere, in any time, for believing this method will work? I don’t find it. I do not pose as an authority on crime and criminals. My testimony is that of a bystander — a guilty bystander, if you like, for I have survived four penitentiaries and numerous county jails….What happened to me as an individual is unimportant. I am useful only as an exhibit in the case; but if the laws which the right people are making to-day had been in effect fifteen years ago, I should never have had a chance to stop stealing and learn working. I should probably have been stopped by the rope, the chair, or a policeman’s bullet. Had I escaped these I should be a life-timer in some such prison as Dannemora or Charlestown, spitting my lungs out against a whitewashed wall and, like other life-timers, preaching to young offenders the doctrine of “shoot, and shoot first.”

Besides being wrong myself, I have known intimately, in and out of prison, almost five thousand wrong ones. This may seem a wide acquaintance, but in jail one has ample time for social intercourse. These five thousand constitute a cross-section of the underworld from which the crime wave bubbles up. They ranged from the petty thief who “snares” a door-mat with “Welcome” on it, to that prison patrician, the bank burglar. The door-mat thief was just as interesting to me as the bank burglar. It wasn’t what they did that interested me but why they did it. Some were mental cases, pathological, with bow-legged minds: in prison parlance, “a kink in the noodle.” Some were in prison because they had too little money and some because they had too much. Some because of ignorance and some because of over-education. Some were there because they were sent into overcrowded professions, when they should have had trades. Booze, “hop,” jealousy, avarice; all furnished their quota. A few appeared to be there from perversity — just downright cussedness.

The majority were guilty as charged, or of kindred offenses, though here and there one was innocent. Except for those convicted of crimes of passion, none had leaped into a criminal career overnight. Most had arrived by slow and gradual stages, the result of action and reaction. One was there because of a boyhood feud with the neighborhood cop. One because he lost his job in a strike. One because his wife got sick and his children were hungry.

We’ll assume that most of them were the initial offenders. They wronged society, and society, not understanding, wronged them back — with interest. The vicious circle that leads from one penitentiary to another had begun. All their stories could be hooked together on one thread: hatred of the police, contempt of the law, and fear and mistrust of the whole legal machine.

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