Putin’s gangland politics
Russian President Vladimir Putin calls them his “brothers” — this group of burly motorcyclists who see themselves as road warriors fighting for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They’re known as the Night Wolves, and Putin himself has ridden with them on that icon of American wanderlust, a Harley-Davidson.
Even as Russia was preparing to send troops to Crimea to reclaim the peninsula from Ukraine’s new government, the Night Wolves announced that they would ride to the troubled region to whip up support for their powerful brother and Harley devotee.
Clad in leather and sporting their best squint-eyed, make-my-day defiant stares, the Night Wolves had a message for Ukraine’s anti-Russian dissidents: Protest at risk of your health.
Putin, however, is not the first political leader to appreciate the importance of physical intimidation.
Somewhere in the political hereafter, Democratic boss Richard Croker was wondering how much more effective his Tammany Hall enforcers might have been — if only they had motorcycles.
Croker ran the Tammany Hall machine in the late 19th century, a man who came to the attention of the party leaders not because of his dynamic personality or his extensive knowledge of the Constitution, but because he beat the daylights out of a legendary street fighter during a neighborhood picnic. He went on to become a gang leader — like another Tammany boss, Bill Tweed.
Putin’s relationship today with the 5,000-strong Night Wolves suggests that he is a serious student of U.S. history. Or perhaps he just is a fan of Martin Scorcese’s great film about American street politics, The Gangs of New York, which showed how intimidation was just another form of political debate before and during the Civil War.
Croker was not a character in “Gangs,” but Tweed certainly was. Like Croker, Tweed literally fought his way to power and influence in New York — and saw no reason to change his style once he became a state senator and boss of Tammany Hall. Tweed recruited an army of toughs, referred to in the press as “shoulder hitters,” to keep an eye on the polls during hotly contested elections.
One of those shoulder-hitters was the young Croker. In the early 1870s, Croker and few friends found themselves engaged in a lively political debate with a group of anti-Tammany Democrats. Shots were fired, and an anti-Tammany Democrat fell, mortally wounded. Croker was indicted for the crime but found not guilty. He returned to his work as a city coroner.
Croker, a barrel-chested man with a hard stare, was second to none in his devotion to the democratic process. During one election in the late 1860s, Croker cast his vote 17 times. Nobody dared challenge him.
Across the river in New Jersey, boss Frank Hague made a name for himself in the early 20th century when he delivered a brutal message to opponents on the Jersey City Board of Aldermen. Fearful that the aldermen were about to oust him as a custodian in City Hall, Hague dispatched his version of the Night Wolves to deal with an aide to a particularly irksome alderman. The aide was roughed up — nothing brutal, but he was more than a little shaken. The message was received. Hague retained his job and went on to become Jersey City’s mayor from 1917 to 1947.
Historians and journalists often point to machine politicians like Croker and Tweed as somehow unique in their use of muscle as a form of political power. Most recently, sportswriter Mike Lupica suggested that aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been “running some head-banging 2.0 version of Tammany Hall.” Yet Tammany’s foes were equally enthusiastic about the use of force as a gentle persuader in local politics. When voters went to the polls in New York in 1841, nativist gangs invaded the heavily Irish-Catholic Sixth Ward to engage in what political insiders now call “voter suppression.” Neighborhood residents found themselves confronted by menacing Protestant supremacists who sought to block the election of Catholic-friendly candidates for municipal office.
The great poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, sympathized with the gangs, complaining that the city’s Democrats were aligned with “filthy Irish rabble.”
Small wonder that Irish politicians aligned with Tammany responded in kind.
A more-sinister version of these tactics found its way into the South not long after Robert E. Lee renewed his acquaintance with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Faced with the prospect of freed black men participating in politics and government, men in white sheets and hoods patrolled the fields and lanes of the South in a violent campaign to make sure politics stayed a whites-only affair.
The Ku Klux Klan, under the command of the famous Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, essentially invalidated the freedoms guaranteed to African-Americans under the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. By the time the Klan was done, the notion of equal protection under the law was a cruel joke, and the right to vote regardless of race was rendered meaningless from Texas to Virginia.
The Klan murdered at least 200 people in Arkansas in the run-up to the national elections of 1868. In Georgia, the Klan countered support for Republicans — associated, of course, with the North and abolition — with a ferocious campaign of violence and murder.
The Republican vote in Georgia and throughout the South quickly disappeared. By the 1890s, the South was solidly Democratic, and blacks were thoroughly disenfranchised.
This was achieved not through politics, but through intimidation.
The contest for power in the 19th century was not always conducted in the streets and fields, and not always with brute, even homicidal, force. The poor of New York discovered that in the late 1870s when a group of civic elites proposed that voting privileges in local elections should be restricted to men of property.
This recommendation, which had the support of noted business leaders, journalists, university presidents and an up-and-coming politician named Theodore Roosevelt, came after several years of intellectual intimidation in the city’s best newspapers and private clubs.
Through the 1870s, as blacks were forcibly denied their voting rights in the South, New York’s civic elites, including journalist E. L. Godkin, noted attorney William Evarts, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce, argued that the North’s problems were the result of ignorant voters. White Southerners, argued the New York-based Commercial and Financial Chronicle, “have … an ignorant class to deal with, as we have here.”
The result was a constitutional amendment in New York state that stripped non-property owners of the franchise in municipal elections. It was never enacted, however, because Tammany rallied public support against it. The kid-glove version of voter intimidation failed — thanks to the shoulder-hitters.
Putin’s gangland tactics may strike Americans as peculiarly barbaric, but the United States is not so far removed from the days when physical force trumped the democratic process. In fact, intimidation, not elections, kept millions of African-Americans from expressing their opinions and casting their votes for a century after their rights had been secured, at least in theory.
There was a time and a place in U.S. history when the Night Wolves would have felt right at home.
PHOTO (TOP): Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides with motorcycle enthusiasts during his visit to a bike festival in the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk, August 29, 2011. REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 1):A scene from The Gangs of New York, a Martin Scorcese film starring Daniel Day-Lewis (C).
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Boss Frank Hague of Jersey City in 1920. WIKIPEDIA/Commons.
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Boss William Tweed of New York. WIKIPEDIA/Commons.
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides with enthusiasts during his visit to a bike festival in the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk, August 29, 2011. REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev/Pool