For Shani Robinson, an activist and former educator in Atlanta, the ongoing racketeering trial against the rapper Young Thug and his record label YSL has occasioned a strong sense of déjà vu. Robinson has been ensnared in her own RICO — Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — case for a decade now. Along the way, she has become a reluctant expert on the statute, but back when she was first charged in 2013, she remembers marveling: What, like Sons of Anarchy? “That was the only thing I knew about RICO,” she told me. “I was thinking, I know they don’t think I was part of some cartel.”
You could be forgiven for wondering what exactly Robinson, an idealistic first-grade teacher who had been at the job just three years when she was indicted for allegedly changing answers on standardized tests, has in common with Young Thug, a famous rapper and fashion maven who stands accused of participating in a criminal street gang. A comparison of the two indictments yields few answers. The alleged conspiracies: the Atlanta public school system is, well, a school system, but Fulton County prosecutors painted it as a criminal enterprise involved in the systematic manipulation of students’ test scores in order to garner bonuses from the state; YSL is a rap label, but prosecutors say it is also a gang involved in drug distribution, theft, and occasionally murder. The leaders: Superintendent Beverly Hall, alleged orchestrator of the cheating scheme, who created “unreasonable pressure” to hit testing targets that caused her employees to resort to fixing exams; Young Thug, born Jeffery Williams, who cofounded YSL and elevated its profile through his music. The charges: Robinson was accused of violating Georgia’s RICO Act, while Young Thug is merely charged with conspiracy to violate it; each possesses one count on top of that. Most striking, however, is what they have not been charged with: the indictments associate Robinson and Young Thug with a laundry list of other crimes allegedly committed by their respective “organizations,” of which neither has been directly accused. By the logic of the teacher case, “anyone who receives a paycheck from Atlanta public schools can be classified as a racketeer,” Robinson said. “A lot of people don’t realize how easily anyone could have been involved in this.”
RICO seems to be everywhere in the news lately, and if you are a fan of rap, HBO, or the films of Martin Scorsese, you’ll likely notice it everywhere in pop culture, too. Most people associate RICO with the Mob, for good reason: the statute is best known as the silver bullet that finally took down the New York Cosa Nostra in the 1980s, allowing federal prosecutors to connect crimes committed by its low-level henchmen to its uppermost echelon. And though the law’s exact scope and intent has always been contested, RICO’s principal author, the legal scholar G. Robert Blakey, maintains that it wasn’t crafted purely to target the Mafia, but rather a wide array of crimes that would otherwise slip beyond the reach of the state. In the half century since RICO became law, that aim has been realized beyond his wildest dreams.
Besides the aforementioned targets, the statute has been applied variously to labor unions, tobacco companies, MS-13, abortion protestors, the Hells Angels, corrupt politicians, white-collar criminals, R. Kelly, FIFA, NXIVM, and Major League Baseball. Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, who led the case against the Atlanta teachers and is currently prosecuting YSL, may be RICO’s number-one fan; in March, CNN reported that she was considering using the the statute against Donald Trump. As of this writing, there are whisperings that RICO may be deployed against the protesters opposing a police training facility known as Cop City in Atlanta as well.
It is hard to imagine that Blakey intended his act to apply to someone like Shani Robinson. He’s 88 years old now; when I emailed him, he responded from a smartphone inviting me to send a list of questions, then never replied, so we can’t know for sure. But many of his thoughts are a matter of public record. Blakey has said that he designed RICO as a score settler, “the slingshot the Davids of this world can use to have a fair fight with the Goliaths.” To him, the Cosa Nostra, which was siphoning money and resources off from practically every industry in New York City and could neutralize powerful enemies without repercussion, looked an awful lot like a Goliath. But because the legal system was so exclusively focused on individuals, whenever mobsters did get their day in court it was always the little guys, the ones who actually did the dirty work, who ended up taking the fall. The people with real power could afford to keep their hands clean. And Blakey wanted RICO to be marshaled against corporate bigwigs, too. “We don’t want one set of rules for people whose collars are blue or whose names end in vowels, and another set for those whose collars are white and have Ivy League diplomas,” he told Time in 1989.
In reality, RICO has for the most part exacerbated these imbalances, rather than rectifying them — more atom bomb than silver bullet. Its passage into law in 1970, just as Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on crime” gave way to Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” coincided with the start of a vast evolution in the criminal legal system. Over the past 50 years, that system has grown far more sophisticated, interconnected, and well-resourced. It reaches farther into people’s lives than ever before: not just within the thousands of prisons and jails and detention centers that span the country, but in predictive policing technology, court-ordered electronic supervision, social-media surveillance, and increasingly complex charges and cases. RICO has been both a metaphor for that transformation and an engine of it.
Like that of many well-educated strivers of his time, Blakey’s involvement in the major flashpoints of latter twentieth-century American history can appear almost Gumpian. He cut his teeth in Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice and later served on the House assassinations committee that retrod the Warren Commission’s steps, eventually writing two books arguing that JFK was killed by the Mob.
In the mid-1960s, Blakey’s growing interest in the Mafia dovetailed with a Democratic Party desperate not to appear soft on crime. He was hired to consult on LBJ’s organized crime taskforce, and on the job met a sociologist he credits with the insight that inspired RICO: that the organizing principle of modern life — and thus of crime — was the group, not the individual. Another task force colleague observed that Mob operations increasingly resembled legitimate enterprise: the families were set up like businesses, with clear hierarchies, titled positions, and set roles and responsibilities.
As Mob chronicler Selwyn Raab tells it in his book Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, this insight hit Blakey with the force of a religious awakening: the Cosa Nostra, he realized, was “the mirror image of American capitalism.” But the Mob’s corrupt practices engendered waste and inefficiencies in the industries they meddled with — an invisible fist messing with the invisible hand. And they were also running circles around law enforcement, which was still totally balkanized. Blakey thought this was a problem. So did someone else: Arkansas Senator John McClellan, who in 1965 had drafted a bill that, while never adopted, aimed to destroy the Mafia. McClellan was a devout segregationist and xenophobe: during a committee hearing on the Mob’s incursions into the labor movement, he thundered, “They do not belong to our land, and they ought to be sent somewhere else.” His somewhat selective theory of governmental “overreach” included the enforcement of integration efforts, but not electronic surveillance, which he and Blakey worked to legalize and regulate, culminating in Title III of the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, a critical precursor to RICO. Wiretapping would prove invaluable in allowing agents to amass the evidence they needed and had hitherto lacked to bring strong cases against Mafia families. But to one senator who bitterly opposed the crime bill, calling Title III the “end of privacy act,” it also portended “a nation in fear — a police state.”
Next up: the Organized Crime Control Act, which McClellan introduced during the 1969 legislative session. RICO, its centerpiece, included the threat of draconian sentences; to attack the Mob’s considerable financial resources, the new law’s civil remedies added the possibility of treble damages, meaning that, if convicted, defendants in RICO cases would have to pay three times the losses they had caused. Another section of the act created the federal witness-protection program, a vital tool in helping to convince mobsters to flip and inform on their comrades. You might end up stuck in some podunk subdivision, but at least you wouldn’t be at the bottom of a lake.
Most critically, RICO allowed prosecutors to bring a single case against everyone in an “enterprise,” provided they could demonstrate that members of that enterprise had engaged in two or more “predicate acts” — meaning eligible instances of previous illegal conduct — within ten years of each other. (RICO articulated over 30 predicates, including a number of financial crimes plus things like murder, blackmail, and offenses “relating to interstate transportation of wagering paraphernalia.”) The enterprise could be a legal entity, but it could also be any group of people who associate together.
RICO has other advantages for prosecutors, too. “You don’t do it just to get more time,” said Steve Sadow, a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta and RICO expert who represented the rapper Gunna in the YSL case. “You do it because it allows you to introduce more evidence.” Prosecutors generally can’t bring up the criminal history of a defendant as proof they’re likely to have done the thing they’re currently being accused of, but RICO’s predicate component requires the introduction of past criminal acts. Predicates can encompass offenses for which someone was already locked up, or even, incredibly, ones of which they were acquitted. Indictments might include acts committed in any jurisdiction, plus state crimes that cannot otherwise be federal offenses — upping the stakes for the defendants, and even bypassing stricter state rules on prosecutions. In a 1979 lecture on the statute, Blakey made the difference quite plain: “A case that could not be prosecuted in the state courts can now be prosecuted in federal courts.”
The Cosa Nostra was like a hydra: get rid of a few made men and more popped up to take their places. RICO’s innovation was to find a way to attack the godfathers instead. “It gives you an important tool to go after boss figures,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) who currently hosts a podcast about Mob prosecutions. RICO’s conspiracy provision, in particular, made a mere agreement to violate RICO a crime in itself, and did so more broadly than other federal conspiracy laws. It “imposes liability on somebody who was part of the enterprise and was aware, knew, and understood that two or more acts were being committed,” Honig explained, “even if that person never went to a crime scene or never pulled the trigger himself.”
It took a while for Blakey to convince anyone that RICO was worth deploying against the Mob. The statute initially seemed too new, too complex, too abstract — prosecutors didn’t know how to use it. But in 1985, the blockbuster case U.S. v. Anthony Salerno put the fabled “Commission,” the governing body of New York’s powerful Mafia families — Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese — on trial. This joint prosecution represented the realization of everything RICO had promised, and the first real test of the statute’s utility against the Mob. Its architect was Rudolph Giuliani.
Then a U.S. attorney for SDNY, Giuliani used his Italian heritage to narrativize his zeal for mob prosecutions. He saw the case as a career maker, and he became obsessed with mining the recent autobiography of a former Bonanno capo for evidence. Pulled away before the trial began by a somewhat less glamorous RICO case against the Parking Violations Bureau, Giuliani handed the prosecution off to an assistant D.A., Michael Chertoff. Voluminous wiretap evidence sealed the deal, and in January 1987, seven of the eight defendants involved were sentenced to 100 years in prison. Six would die in federal custody. (Chertoff, who seems to have developed a taste for electronic surveillance during the trial, would go on to coauthor the PATRIOT Act — which, among other things, added a long list of terroristic predicate acts to RICO.)
Meanwhile, RICO prosecutions were taking off around the country. Though the statute wouldn’t exactly eradicate the Cosa Nostra, it did allow prosecutors to put a lot of mafiosi behind bars. (Today, the Mafia is alive and well, though its power is much reduced.) At the organized crime unit of SDNY in the late aughts, Honig said he used RICO in almost every Mob case he tried. (One of his first was an attempt to bring down the legendary gangster Matty the Horse, who in the 1970s and 1980s had funded the peep shows and gay bars around Times Square — and who, as legend has it, was watching The Godfather III when agents burst through his door.) RICO allowed Honig to prosecute people for incidents that occurred outside of his jurisdiction, as well as for things like “run-of-the-mill assaults” that wouldn’t normally have been federal offenses. One case involved a series of successful and unsuccessful killings, some of which were committed in Massachusetts. “Because the enterprise, the Genovese family, had operations in New York,” he said, “we were able to charge all five of those murders, attempts, and conspiracies in one case.”
Oddly enough, one major turning point in RICO’s use against the Mafia was a summer course on organized crime for U.S. attorneys and FBI agents that took place in Ithaca, New York in 1979. Blakey, who was teaching at Cornell at the time, gave lectures on RICO and electronic surveillance, which he saw as complementary instruments in law enforcement’s effort to dismantle the Mob. Wiretapping, which also hadn’t yet been widely used in Mafia cases, could, he thought, supply the damning material — to Blakey, it was “the most productive investigative technique in the prosecutor’s kit of evidence-gathering tools.” RICO allowed you to connect the dots in court.
In his speeches, Blakey grappled with the trade-offs inherent in wiretapping. They reveal a man articulating his theory of the relationship between law and crime, the government and the individual — and also justifying it, as though his audience were a bunch of skeptical civil libertarians rather than agents of the state. At one point, Blakey quoted a decision in a 1967 wiretapping case that recast the Mob as the real Orwellian nightmare: “We cannot ignore the rise of organized criminal activity and ‘families’ who promise to provide the true ‘big brothers’ of 1984.” And then, the masterstroke: “If it is used consistent with the Fourth Amendment, the statute and some sound discretion, I’m not terribly troubled that criminals have no place to go to hide from lawful police conduct.” Of course, when phrased that way, few people would object to the idea that villains like John Gotti or Fat Tony Salerno might warrant an extreme measure or two in the name of public safety. The problem is, it never stops there.
From the beginning, RICO was bound up in the war on drugs, and its scope has continued to expand with the federal legal system itself. In 1982, three years after Blakey sold the Feds on RICO in Ithaca, Reagan gave a speech asserting a continuum between organized crime and drug trafficking: “The street criminal, the drug pusher, the mobster, the corrupt policeman or public official, they form their own criminal subculture,” he said. “They contribute to and they prosper in a climate of lawlessness. They need each other.” Simultaneously, he announced a raft of initiatives to target both, together. The last item on the list was the allocation of millions of dollars to prisons and jails.
In the years since, Blakey’s wish has been borne out: 33 states now have their own “little RICO” equivalents. This furnishes local prosecutors across the country with the RICO toolkit — and many of the state laws are even broader in scope than their progenitor. RICO has also been amended by Congress many times, including throughout the war on drugs and after 9/11, and its interpretation in the courts, too, has broadened in scope. In keeping with constitutional checks on congressional authority, the statute originally applied only to enterprises involved in interstate economic activity. But in United States v. Nascimento, a 2007 case involving Cape Verdean street gangs in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the First Circuit Court of Appeals essentially did away with that requirement, ruling that RICO could be applied to criminal enterprises with little economic influence.
The Cape Verdean gang case was more reflection than harbinger. By that time, prosecutors across the country were turning to RICO in their quest to take down gangs, Babe Howell, a scholar of race and the criminal legal system who teaches at CUNY School of Law, told me. (Howell has called for establishing an interstate-commerce requirement of more than $10 million in order to preclude RICO’s use in these sorts of low-level gang prosecutions.) In 2008, two assistant U.S. attorneys argued in Gang Issues, a publication of the Department of Justice, that RICO was “perhaps the most powerful statute to combat street gangs.” And today, Howell added, prosecutors are also applying RICO to crews — unorganized groups with neither hierarchies nor rules. “This is the face of federal RICO now,” she said.
In a 2006 essay, Blakey declared the use of the statute against street gangs “wholly unanticipated by RICO’s architects and drafters, but nonetheless wholly appropriate.” But he has also expressed trepidation about some instances of its application, including a prominent case where it was used to go after abortion protesters. Of course, it’s not exactly up to him at this point. “Ultimately, it’s what the courts allow prosecutors to get away with,” said Sadow.
But while Congress, state legislatures, and the courts have gradually expanded RICO, the statute has also exerted its own influence on criminal law. Writing in 1993, the cybercrime expert Susan Brenner identified RICO as an inflection point in American jurisprudence, exploring how its “radical innovation” set the stage for both the expansion of the federal criminal legal system and the increasing complexity of criminal charges. When RICO was adopted in 1970, Brenner wrote, the notion of compound liability, where a single act can serve as the basis for multiple criminal charges, “became a major influence on federal law.” This shift would fundamentally alter our notion of crime and punishment, and inspire a host of gang laws that present troubling questions regarding double jeopardy and guilt by association.
Normally, “you can’t penalize someone just for being a gang member, or being a member of an organization, or being a drug addict,” said Fareed Nassor Hayat, a professor at CUNY School of Law and a writer on racism and constitutional violations in gang prosecutions. RICO was crafted to avoid outlawing mere membership in the Mafia, which would likely have been found unconstitutional. But in practice,“what the gang statutes do, what RICO does, is say: we’re going to take that status, and then we’re going to add a criminal act to it,” Hayat went on. “And now we can penalize you for being a gang member who sells drugs, and if you sell drugs while a gang member, we’ll penalize you for that as well. So then we get two bites at the apple of punishment.”
In 2009, Alex Sanchez, a former gang member who now runs the violence-reduction nonprofit Homies Unidos in South L.A., was hit with a RICO charge: prosecutors said he was moonlighting as a shot caller for MS-13. His arrest sparked outrage, and community members raised over $1.2 million for his bail, with New Left leader Tom Hayden even offering to put his house up as collateral. The evidence against Sanchez — a call in which authorities claimed he was directing a gang member to commit murder — had been selectively interpreted by a law enforcement official he’d previously clashed with; Sanchez maintained he’d been trying to deter his interlocutor from violence. “It’s a pretty flagrant case of someone being completely framed for something that didn’t actually happen,” said Cal State L.A. sociology professor and gang interventionist Robert Weide, “because of the work that they do as a gang-intervention worker.” In 2013, the federal government dropped the charges.
In pursuing cases like these, prosecutors have stretched the parameters of RICO to unprecedented lengths. In 2022, an older gang member-turned-community worker named Paul “Doc” Wallace had, outside the purview of law enforcement, helped broker a peace treaty between two prominent South L.A. gangs. Then, he got RICO’d. His arrest and conviction raised the hackles of other gangs who were then in the process of negotiating ceasefires, as well as Weide’s fellow intervention workers, many of whom believed the FBI saw gang unity as a threat. There certainly was something strange about the Wallace case: he was the only defendant. “That’s just unheard of,” said Weide. “It’s almost counterintuitive to what a conspiracy is. How can there be a conspiracy of one person?”
You don’t even have to be a gang member to run afoul of RICO. If you live in the wrong neighborhood, you may be guilty of something as simple as selling weed to a friend you know belongs to a gang.
In April 2016, 120 men from a single NYCHA complex in the Bronx were rounded up and hit with two mass RICO conspiracy indictments. For Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney representing SDNY (and, like Atlanta D.A. Fani Willis, a liberal hero for his opposition to Trump), the case was a coup — “the largest gang takedown in New York City.” For the residents of the Eastchester Gardens complex, where many of the men lived, and the surrounding neighborhoods, the raid had catastrophic consequences. Almost 700 officers from four different forces had burst into their homes before dawn. One young man who lived nearby and was not a target of the investigation fell to his death during a frantic attempt to get away from the police. “I’m trying to figure out what they thought they were going to accomplish,” a tenant told The Intercept. “I understand that they were trying to put down the violence, but they destroyed a lot at the same time.”
Heidi Boghosian was the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild at the time, and she recalls being inundated with phone calls as family members and advocates searched desperately for legal representation for 120 people — nearly all of them black. “How absurd the proposition was, these young people from a housing complex in New York City having to retain lawyers just because they knew each other and perhaps associated maybe on Facebook — against utterly complex charges that historically were used for organized crime,” she said. “These kids didn’t stand a chance.”
When the raid happened, one of the defendants, whom I’ll call Abel (he spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, because he is recently out of prison and trying to move on with his life), was already locked up for gun possession. The evidence for that charge was supplied entirely by a detective who had racked up eight civil rights lawsuits and two sustained complaints on the job. SDNY looped him into the RICO case and transformed his gun possession charge into a federal offense, even though everyone agreed he wasn’t a gang member. Rather, prosecutors alleged that Abel occasionally sold the actual gang members marijuana at a discount — and argued that those transactions constituted participation in an enterprise.
In an exhaustive report on the Bronx 120 case, Babe Howell and Priscilla Bustamante, her coauthor, determined that nearly half of the men weren’t even alleged to be gang members. Though violent crimes were referenced in the two mass indictments, not a single person was individually charged with a violent crime. And yet, because of how the American legal system incentivizes plea deals, nearly all of them were effectively forced to plead guilty to a felony in federal court.
If there’s barely any impact on interstate commerce, and prosecutors don’t have to prove any violence, and basically half the defendants aren’t even gang members — where’s the criminal enterprise? But if prosecutors have successfully labeled both an entire public school system and a lone defendant a RICO conspiracy, why not a public housing complex? “They said we were two rival gangs,” Abel told me. “A lot of people are family members, man. We grew up with each other, knew each others’ moms.”
Only two people exercised their right to trial in the Bronx 120 case. Abel was one of them. Because prosecutors had offered him a plea with a relatively short amount of prison time given the severity of the charges, “I felt like they was bluffing,” he told me. “I said, for you to offer someone three and a half years on a racketeering case — that right there say that you don’t got nothing.” For his troubles, he got six years in federal prison, where there is no parole. Prosecutors made sure that the jury never got to hear about the record of the detective on whose word his weapons conviction rested, arguing that his history of complaints and lawsuits didn’t affect his credibility. “Once politics got involved, they gotta make an example out of somebody,” Abel said, shrugging.
In Sadow’s view, the very structure of these mass indictments allows prosecutors to stack the deck against defendants. The Atlanta teachers’ trial lasted six months, the longest in the state’s history, and the trials of the two Bronx 120 defendants were delayed more than a year and a half after the charges were filed. “I think it’s nearly impossible for jurors to keep in mind what the evidence has been against any specific person,” Sadow said, “particularly when the prosecutors’ entire approach is: It’s a conspiracy. It’s a street gang. It’s a violent gang. They’re all part of the gang. They must all be guilty.”
Everything that made RICO useful against the Mob makes it ripe for abuse in the contexts in which it is now being applied, where the state holds all the cards, hapless defendants are painted as scheming mafiosi, and even lyrics are treated as wiretapped admissions of guilt.
“One of the articulated bases for RICO is that these organized crime organizations have so many resources that they can outwit or outspend the criminal apparatus. They can hire these great lawyers; they can influence witnesses to disappear,” said Hayat. But when applied to relatively poor defendants, he said, “the balance of why we justify allowing this character evidence and these past crimes to somehow now be used in your prosecution is really out of whack.” Only nine of the Bronx 120 were able to hire a private defense attorney. Six of the Atlanta educators who were convicted were found indigent and given the same public defender for their appeal. “We were in complete financial ruin,” Shani Robinson recalled. “My parents basically spent their entire life savings on an attorney.”
In December, Sadow was able to get Gunna a plea deal that didn’t require him to testify against the other YSL defendants. But your average public defender may not have the experience or bandwidth to effectively combat a RICO charge. “Not everyone that does criminal defense has that type of expertise,” Sadow said when I asked him what people who can’t afford his fee are supposed to do. “So I guess the bottom line is, they can get screwed pretty easily.” (Sadow declined to discuss Gunna’s case on the record.)
As Honig, the former federal prosecutor, sees it, bringing a weak RICO case renders you less likely to succeed at trial. But most of these sorts of cases don’t ever get there. Faced with the prospect of impossibly lengthy sentences, people tend to take whatever plea deal they’re offered, especially if they can’t afford a lawyer who could help them beat the charges in court. It’s an offer you essentially can’t refuse.
This leverage can also compel people who might be terrified — or actually complicit — to snitch. Mike Saavedra, the co-director of legal support at L.A.’s Dignity and Power Now, explained that someone could commit a crime alongside you, “but if they’re willing to testify against you, they get to go home and you don’t.” (As the defense attorney says to Ray Liotta’s gangster-turned-informant in the penultimate scene of Goodfellas, “People call them rats because a rat will do anything to survive — isn’t that right, Mr. Hill?”)
Because RICO was tailor-made to fit the Mafia, every case must have a godfather, or something like one. Young Thug may or may not be the “leader” of YSL, if there even is one, but he’s arguably the prosecutors’ star defendant — the most critical name on the indictment — because of his fame and the references contained within his lyrics. You can imagine Willis and her team poring over “Take It to Trial,” a bouncy, defiant 2020 hit from Gunna and Thug, much the same way Giuliani did with the Bonanno autobiography back in the ’80s. (Relevant sample: “Take it to trial, get an appeal / Take it to trial, yeah, you can whack ’em.” The song, as one astute Genius annotator noted, “did not age very well as Young Thug is currently on trial.”)
It’s not hard to understand why prosecutors would seize on lyrics to substantiate their claims. Proving “the organization and the membership and all that is just proving the culture, which is there for the taking, we all can see it,” said Hayat. “In fact, it’s in the music.” The question is whether it’s fair to use artistic expression as corroborating evidence. It would be reasonable to assume that Merle Haggard, who hardly ascribed to the Flaubertian model of creativity, did the things he describes in his autobiography, which include a stint in San Quentin for trying to rob a roadhouse; to attempt to prosecute him for singing about the life of an outlaw would betray a fundamental misunderstanding of freedom of expression. (In fact, once Haggard got famous, Reagan handed him a “full and unconditional” pardon for his past crimes.) But with rappers, the reverse is assumed. Implicit in the citation of lyrics in court documents is the ugly belief that these young black men couldn’t possibly be artists; they’re just gangsters who got famous bragging about their crimes.
In reality, many rappers embellish or invent for clout. Slain L.A. rapper Drakeo was a master of the trade: his song “Flex Freestyle” uses a rival’s beat as the basis for a spirited diss track in which he tells listeners to “disregard the yelling / R.J. tied up in the back.” As music writer Jeff Weiss — Drakeo’s chronicler and confidant (and an editor of mine) — put it: “Needless to say, none of this was a description of an actual crime; it was a hysterical and ominous slab of beef rap.” To prosecutors attempting to bring charges for a murder the rapper’s friend committed on a night they believed the crew had gone out with a plan to kill the aforementioned R.J., it was a confession. Drakeo’s lyrics were cited at trial, where the Los Angeles D.A. sought life imprisonment despite conceding that Drakeo had not been the shooter. Willis has taken a similar tack. Her RICO indictment against YSL includes Young Thug lines like, “Red just like Elmo, but I never fucking giggle” — a self-evidently playful comparison of the Bloods to the Tickle Me Elmo toy — as evidence of his involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
Prosecutors also sought to contort the facts of the Atlanta teachers’ case to fit the narrative logic of RICO. If Superintendent Beverly Hall was the Mob boss, “we were like her little minions,” said Robinson. “That was how they tried to portray us.” In reality, she noted, “cheating was happening everywhere. Not just in Atlanta, not just in Georgia, but across the country.”
It is obviously not immaterial to Robinson whether she and her colleagues did the things for which they were charged. For the rest of us, the question should not be whether they are innocent or guilty, but why RICO would be appropriate in the first place. Robinson, who was charged with one count of violating RICO and one count of “false statements and writings,” has always maintained that she was wrongly accused. But other teachers have spoken openly about their involvement in rewriting children’s tests. Damany Lewis, whose story was featured in a long New Yorker piece on the scandal by Rachel Aviv, explained that he did it because he didn’t want his students to feel like they had failed, unable to meet the harsh exigencies of No Child Left Behind — which is, of course, now widely excoriated for its grinding focus on testing above all else.
Though Hall may have been a particularly compelling ringleader because her demanding standards and high profile allowed the prosecution to present the existence of duress from the superintendent’s office and the perfidy of the teachers as a closed loop, the fact that teachers all over the U.S. have been accused of changing students’ answers suggests larger forces at work. But prosecutors don’t tackle structural change — their job is to charge people with crimes and get convictions, so the conspiracies they fashion will always be limited.
After the Mafia Commission case, Rudy Giuliani would go on to use RICO against such titans of finance as junk-bond proselytizer Michael Milken, whose actions triggered the savings and loan crisis, and his investment firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert. The face of RICO abolition in the ’90s thus became the Wall Street Journal editorial section, which deemed it too great a check on American free enterprise. (Here’s WSJ editor L. Gordon Crovitz, a frequent author of such epistles, in a law review article: “Despite its current use in these ways, RICO is not a law aimed at handcuffing investment bankers at their desks to force compliance with the securities laws.”) This preoccupation eventually occasioned a fascinating Firing Line-style debate between Blakey and Crovitz. Here, the father of RICO sounded like a revolutionary, decrying the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism (“The Vanderbilts of this country grew rich and the Wongs in the West and the Kellys in the East lost their arms and legs uncompensated: they paid for the railroads with their bodies”) and articulating a positively Marxist definition of violence. “Let’s not suggest that white collar crime is not violent,” he tells Crovitz. “Talk to people who are dying of cancer because of asbestos, when the industry never told us what they knew.”
RICO was enacted on the premise that there are people so powerful, with such inexhaustible resources, and whose leaders are able to maintain so many degrees of separation from their crimes, that they may merit special criminal legal circumstances. Does that description more closely resemble YSL or JPMorgan Chase? A street gang, or police departments that use their privileged position to engage in organized brutality? Educators, or the pharmaceutical industry? “They supposedly are so concerned about drug dealing — who’s responsible for the opiate epidemic in this country?” said Weide, the professor and gang-intervention worker. “The Sackler family — they’ll never be charged with a RICO.” And yet, these are the very kinds of defendants against whom RICO’s muscle would be most appropriate. They are undeniably enterprises; there is no question of their economic effect or relationship to interstate commerce. As Blakey himself suggests, they are quite literally violent, and their violence can reverberate far beyond any damage the Cosa Nostra could ever have hoped to achieve. And like Mafia families, they are strictly hierarchical, with leaders who are insulated from both the enactment of that violence and the lives that it touches.
The Mob may be the mirror image of capitalism, as Blakey came to realize all those years ago, but it’s a two-way mirror, and it’s rarely the titans of finance in the hot seat. Though the white-collar crime cases of the late ’80s made big headlines, these sorts of prosecutions have been rarer of late. Recently, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have both deployed civil RICO cases against the private bail-bonds industry. The ACLU case’s plaintiffs were a couple from Montana whose home was violently breached by armed bounty hunters after the husband accidentally missed a court date for two misdemeanor traffic charges; they ended up walking away with a decent settlement. The goal was “accountability” for the predatory bail-bonds industry, said Andrea Woods, an attorney who worked on the case. “But RICO was the way to really up the stakes and get to federal court.”
Wood said the ACLU’s bail project hasn’t had the resources to continue using RICO. And corporations — those white-collar enterprises that, in a more just system, might make perfect RICO targets — have learned how to weaponize the statute against those who dare hold them to account. Corporate law firms, for example, have filed civil RICO suits on behalf of fossil fuel companies with inexhaustible funds — witness the Dakota Access Pipeline constructor Energy Transfer Partners’s case against Greenpeace, or Chevron’s against the environmental rights lawyer Steven Donziger, after he won a massive settlement against the company on behalf of Indigenous Ecuadorians fighting to protect the Amazon from Chevron’s predations.
As far as the U.S. government goes, there appears to be an utter lack of political will to bring about any serious change in how RICO is applied. Ironically, Howell said, “when you have the kind of defendants a RICO was designed for — people who have a lot of power and a lot of money and a lot of pull — those are hard cases.” Actual enterprises engaged in organized crime — the energy conglomerates, the law enforcement gangs, the pharmaceutical companies — are indeed organized; they have teams of lawyers, bottomless coffers, and the wherewithal to cover their tracks. In other words, it’s a safer bet to stake your career on RICO-ing teachers — the same brand of prosecutorial discretion that leads district attorneys to condemn poor people who steal groceries and ignore big companies that steal wages.
The notion of using RICO as a score settler is enticing, but the reality is that it’s part and parcel of the existing order, with all its flaws and biases and overreaches. The story of RICO is the story of the American criminal legal system’s metamorphosis; the two can’t be separated from one another. So there is a way we might refashion the statute into David’s slingshot, but it would require nothing less than the complete transformation of that system. In the one we have now, Goliath has all the weapons, and he’ll keep using them against people who can’t fight back.
Piper French is a writer living in Los Angeles.