Crime as a Family Occupation

Crime can certainly be the family business. It just depends on your family. Many people relate crime and the family business with some form of the Mafia which seriously oversimplifies the idea.

The fact is, crime as a family business that has evolved over the years, comes in many forms, and crosses many lifestyles. I’m a journalist in Baltimore, and I’ve spent most of my professional life writing on crime and criminals. Crime can, indeed, be seen as a lucrative family endeavor. It certainly pays more than stringing beads for piecework wages.

Nearly everyone in my family grew up to work for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) or General Motors. Grandfather would sit at the dinner table recounting work tales and eventually sons and daughters followed him into the workplace. As that generation grew into adults, it would continue the tradition, telling similar tales to their own children who would follow in the family business. The tales became folklore.

In my case, our family business revolved around two major corporations. In other families, the family business tends to run a more nefarious course – crime. It’s a vivid reminder that children repeat what they are taught. Whether that criminal lifestyle is grifting, drugs, or embezzlement, depends entirely on the folklore the person is handed down over the years.

Crime as the family business certainly isn’t new or novel. Many gunslingers in the old West shared the same blood. Brother backed up brother. None was more renowned than the James brothers – Jesse and Frank. These two got their bandit training during the Civil War when they fought in Confederate guerrilla bands whose hit-and-fun raids on Union troops terrorized the Kansas-Missouri border zone. Then the war ended. The very traits that made them perfect for their government/bandit job during the war, made it more than likely they would not be taking desk jobs after the war had ended. They had to do something with that particular learned life skill, so they formed bandit, outlaw gangs.

Likewise, the Cosa Nostra, or Italian Mafia, built organizations of criminals of many who were not blood, but ultimately, the primaries were related – some by blood, some by marriage. It is all about the family business. The American Mafia follows he same suit. These outfits have been romanticized over the years, adding to the allure that draws new family members in.

The modern day version of all of this would be gangs. A father or older brother dissuades his younger family member from following suit, but the odds are high that the younger generation will follow the older generation’s lead. The younger child enters high school with the typical high school job of flipping burgers. His brother, meanwhile, is driving a state-of-the art ride and wearing clothes that cost more than the younger brother will make in a year. It’s not hard to see the allure.

In Feb., 2009, a Seattle gang member was shot to death and one of his fellow members described the mentality of dealing drugs as a business like this: “He had a great heart. He was a drug dealer, yes, but he wasn’t a threat to society. He never did a rape; he never did a sick child molestation. He never mugged or robbed nobody. I mean, drugs have always been around. Dealing drugs isn’t sick. … It’s business.”

And that’s the logic behind crime as a family business. It’s all about rationalization. I may be a criminal, but I won’t do “x,” as if that “x” criminal factor is much more heinous and not acceptable. In fact, it’s often just seen as carrying on the family tradition. There is even pride attached.

An offshoot of a child taking over the family crime business has more to do with perceived necessity. Let’s say the older brother dies at age 25, a long life for a gang member. There’s no dad to speak of in the family, and mom is “sickly,” (euphemism intended), rarely able to make it out of bed. The older brother has taken on the role of caretaker of his siblings.

Even if the younger child had ambitions to “get out” and make it, he now has family obligations. He sees the hunger pangs and forlorn looks on his siblings. He believes he has no choice but to pick up where the older brother has left off.

Baltimore has spawned two famous cop shows: Homicide and The Wire. Both have caused outrage for the portrayal of the seamy sides of the city. Both are entirely accurate accounts. A Baltimore City cop told me that there are parts of the City they don’t like to go to whether they are strapped to the eyeteeth with firepower or not. It’s a losing proposition. Whole families have looped together with like-minded families to form powerful drug networks. You may clean up the area for a night, but like rats, they come back out eventually, maybe moving down a block or two. If that’s the family business, and that’s what the family depends on for a livelihood, it becomes a very resilient animal. It’s an animal that’s not easily caged, and one that spawns and continues on to the next generation.

All that said, is crime as a family business a given? No. I’ve had cops and criminals in my family. If you hear the person involved in family crime say they have no choice, that’s a flat-out lie. There’s a choice, and I’ve seen it in my family, friends and neighborhood. The problem is, the alternative doesn’t pay nearly as well, but you tend to have a longer lifespan.