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Unexamined Premises

On Civil Disobedience

January 15th, 2013 - 5:28 pm

Sometimes, the locals went one step farther and actively hindered the Treasury agents tasked with enforcing Congress’s wish to make criminals out of millions and millions of ordinary Americans just for the hell of it.  One of most famous examples occurred n the late 1920s outside the Phoenix Cereal Company plant on Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen — better known as the place where the great Irish gangster, Owney Madden, brewed his famous Madden’s No. 1 beer. But let him tell the story himself:

The Phoenix was hard to miss, an enormous pile at the corner of 26th and Tenth. It looked like a brewery, it smelled like a brewery and it was a brewery, as everybody in the Kitchen knew. More important, everybody in the Kitchen knew it was my brewery, which meant that nobody in the Kitchen knew it was my brewery. And after all them years of battlin’ the roundsmen, I began to look upon them as friends, almost,  for with the proper donations to the Benevolent Fund, they could be made to go suddenly blind whenever they were in the neighborhood. This is how you had patrolmen, lieutenants and police captains able to retire to their estates in the Catskills or the Adirondacks or the Jersey Shore without costing the taxpayers a cent over their annual salary, and what could be wrong with that?

Of course every Eden has its serpent, and in our case it was the Department of the Treasury. Federal agents were harder to bribe than city cops, not because they more honest, but because they were fewer and farther between. They didn’t have relatives or business interests in New York, not the way a copper did, and sooner or later they’d go back to Washington anyway, so it didn’t make much sense to offer ‘em a bribe, nor for them to take one. 

As soon as the first of the feds’ crummy Fords pulled up and sure enough double-parked, they were harassed on the spot by traffic patrol. Since they didn’t want to blow their cover, they pulled away, to look for a legal spot, but I’d made sure the boys had taken every available spot for blocks in every direction, so about fifteen minutes later back they come, and this time they double-parked and the hell with the cops.

No sooner were they out of their cars, though, when another group of patrolmen descended on them, demanding identification, which the feds of course refused to provide. The cops threatened ‘em with arrest for vagrancy. Voices were raised, then fists. Meanwhile, a couple of wreckers arrived and started towin’ the feds’ cars. One by one they went galumphing down the street, bouncing like bar drunks, with the feds in their suits standing on the street scratching their bums in wonder at the cheek of it all.

But that was back in the pre-FDR days when federalism and state sovereignty still meant something. Today, New York State can’t roll over fast enough for its masters in Washington. Madden would be ashamed of his old home town. I know I am.

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