Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia': A Social and Political History
Sean Patrick Griffin
Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003
Subject, Methods, Database:
A historical study of a group of African-American criminals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who founded a crime syndicate in 1968. Data were obtained from a variety of sources, including law enforcement files, press reports, and interviews conducted with law enforcement officials, community representatives and journalists.
Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia' was a self-named, finite group of individuals who organized crime in predominantly African-American sections of the city beginning in the late 1960s. The group began as an extortion-centered organization and opted sometime in late 1970 or early 1971 to become, in essence, the extortion arm of the Black Muslims. Several spectacular crimes contributed to its growing reputation for violence. In 1971, for example, eight 'Black Mafia' affiliates robbed a furniture store and killed two employees. Two years later, a 'Black Mafia' hit squad murdered two adults and five children in Washington D.C. The slayings revolved around an ideological dispute between the Black Muslims and the Hanafi aka Sunni sect. Despite increasing media attention, several factors allowed the group to expand: (1) the intimidation and, in some cases, killing of witnesses, (2) the political power provided by influential African-American attorneys, (3) the exploitation of concerns on the part of the authorities to avoid accusations of being racist, and (4) the preoccupation of law enforcement with Italian-American organized crime.
The structure of the 'Black Mafia' remained constant from 1968 through 1974, when large-scale prosecutions of most of its hierarchy took place. The group's formal hierarchical structure was no longer maintained, nor the semi-regular meetings which had been convened for over five years. In the following years the primary figures of the 'Black Mafia' would rotate in and out of the criminal justice system and back into their 'territories'. The end of the 'Black Mafia' as a functioning organization came with another round of arrests and successful prosecutions in 1983.
In his pioneering research, conducted in the early 1970s, Francis Ianni examined African-American crime networks in New York and New Jersey in search of an emerging "Black Mafia". Now, thirty years later, Sean Griffin provides evidence that the notion of an African-American crime syndicate controlling illegal markets and enjoying political protection may not be just a figment of the imagination. He describes a group of African-American criminals which not only went by the name 'Black Mafia' but also showed many of the characteristics normally attributed to its Italian-American counterpart, the Cosa Nostra. Ironically, the 'Black Mafia' Griffin has studied, based primarily on information contained in the files of the Philadelphia Police Department's Organized Crime Unit (OCU), is a product of the same era during which Ianni conducted his field research.
Griffin argues that the group became vulnerable to law enforcement pressure after it decided to switch "from an extortion-based to a narcotics-based organization" (p. 108). While the involvement in drug trafficking may have attracted additional law enforcement attention, Griffin's repeated but unsubstantiated claim throughout the book that the 'Black Mafia' made a conscious decision to change from a power syndicate engaged in the extortion of illicit entrepreneurs to an enterprise syndicate engaged in the sale of narcotics, is little convincing and points to a major flaw in the underlying conceptual framework. Griffin himself notes that after 1974 "the remaining affiliates continued their operations and still used the group's name", but "began operating more independently" (p. 116). This sounds much more like the 'Black Mafia' as an organizational entity ceased to exist altogether. In fact, there is no indication from the evidence presented by Griffin that any kind of collective structure (formal or informal) was maintained beyond the mid 1970s. Rather, when Griffin speaks of the "actions" and "activities" of the 'Black Mafia' in the time after 1974, he appears to refer simply to individual former members. In so doing he is essentially making the same mistake Donald Cressey committed when he analyzed Cosa Nostra by indiscriminately attributing the actions of individual members to the organization as a whole. But while Cressey was dealing with an organization that continued to exist, Griffin goes a step further by treating the 'Black Mafia' as an organizational entity simply based on the fact that its (former) members continued to be involved in criminal activities. This is not to say that the analysis of the criminal activities of those who once belonged to the 'Black Mafia' was irrelevant. However, what makes Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia' an interesting object of study are not primarily its individual members but it is precisely the overarching organizational structure it provided. In this respect, much remains in the dark. For example, Griffin points to the confiscation of minutes of 'Black Mafia' meetings but tells little about their content. While it may be true - what Griffin seems to imply - that this formal side represents only a fraction of the real world of 'Black Mafia' members, it would still be interesting to know to what extent the formal structure really mattered. Such an analysis may be difficult given the lack of data, but in the first instance it is a conceptual problem. In order to account for the importance of organizations such as the 'Black Mafia' it is necessary to grasp their uniqueness and to differentiate them from other forms of collective structures. In this respect the undefined concept of "group" that Griffin uses in his study is simply not sufficient.
This caveat notwithstanding, Griffin's study is an important contribution to the study of organized crime for two reasons. It removes a white spot on the map with respect to African-American organized crime, and at the same time it adds significantly to our knowledge of the overall crime picture in Philadelphia from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, Philadelphia being one of the more extensively studied organized crime locations in the country.
"Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia'" is an important contribution to a better understanding of organized crime in the U.S., even though it tells more about the activities of individual members than about the 'Black Mafia' as a criminal organization.
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