ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES
Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption
A few years ago, a friend of mine informed me that a young activist and writer had struck up a relationship with James McElroy, a feared hit man for the Westies. Having devoted a number of years to researching and writing a book about the Westies, I was curious.
McElroy was one of the most notorious members of that violent crew. He was not known for his brains; he was the gang’s muscle. Jimmy Mac, as he was known to his friends and criminal associates, probably had administered more beatings and killed more people than he could remember. In the universe of would-be, could-be and wanna-be gangsters, McElroy was OG through and through.
For those who might not know, the Westies were a hyper-violent Irish American gang that existed in Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Manhattan, from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s, until they were put out of business in a big federal racketeering trial. While writing the book The Westies, which was published in 1990, I had attempted to interview Jimmy Mac. I knew it was highly unlikely that he or his lawyer would give their consent. McElroy was incarcerated at the time and in the midst of the Westies trial, which lasted six months from September 1988 and into 1989. Eventually, McElroy, along with eight other defendants, was convicted. He was given a sentence of 75 years to life in prison, with no opportunity of parole.
Much of what I knew about Jimmy Mac came from courtroom testimony (gang member Billy Beattie, in particular, had a lot to say about McElroy on the witness stand, as did an old-time neighborhood loanshark turned witness named Tony Lucich). But most of what I knew came from extensive interviews with Mickey Featherstone, the No. 2 man in the gang, who admired Jimmy Mac but also realized that he was a very dangerous and capable killer.
Most of what I knew about McElroy was second hand, which is why I was so intrigued to hear that a writer had spent time visiting him in prison and was planning to write about it. And there were a couple other things that added to the intrigue – the writer in question was a woman, and she was African American.
From what I knew of McElroy, he was likely an old school misogynist and possibly a racist as well.
Walidah Imarisha is the writer’s name, and the project she was working on is now a book called Angels With Dirty Faces, published last month by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies (the title of the book comes from the iconic Jimmy Cagney movie, first released in 1938).
I met Walidah about a year and a half before the book was officially published. In October 2014, we were both invited to speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair held in San Francisco and organized by the esteemed activist and author James Tracy.
When Walidah first walked into the bookstore where the Zinn event organizers were holding an opening-day reception, I did a double take. She had a prodigious Angela Davis-style Afro and a big warm smile, and she was wearing a dress patterned with Star Wars characters. The idea of this woman sitting down with McElroy of the Westies was causing the synapses in the brain to snap, crackle and pop.
That night, Walidah gave me a copy of her collected poems, published as a book entitled Scars/Stars. I read the poems. They were very good, filled with pain, passion and insight.
A few months later, Walidah sent me a rough copy of her unfinished manuscript for Angels With Dirty Faces. I read about her relationship with McElroy, someone I thought I knew a fair amount about. But there was so much more about the man that Walidah was able to get not only by spending time with Jimmy Mac, but also by placing his life of crime in a larger context of incarceration, the street, and the vicious cycle at the heart of criminal justice in the U.S.A.
Over numerous prison visits, Walidah was able to get things out of this hardened criminal that I likely never would have. Her being a woman and African American no doubt cast their encounters in a particular light. I’m not saying this gave Walidah any particular advantage or disadvantage, but it would have altered McElroy’s need to size up his inquisitor according to the dictates of male competitiveness, or male insecurity, and perhaps let down his guard. Walidah was able to get beneath the hitman’s misogyny and racial tribalism. After all, it was Sundiata Acoli, a former member of The Black Liberation Army, who first introduced Walidah to Jimmy Mac in the prison visiting room. While incarcerated, the veteran black liberationist and the Irish American gangster had become close friends.
Anyone who has read The Westies, or taken an interest in the crazy, self-destructive trajectory of the gang’s legend needs to pick up a copy of Angels With Dirty Faces. Walidah’s portrait of McElroy fills in a lot of blanks and fleshes out aspects of the gang’s psychosis in ways that will deepen your general understanding of crime and punishment in America.
The sections of Walidah’s book that deal with Jimmy Mac are fascinating, but I would be doing the book a disservice if I left it there. Angels With Dirty Faces actually intertwines three separate narratives that all relate to the subject of incarceration and criminal justice. There is the story of Walidah’s own adopted brother, Kakamia, who is serving an extended sentence on murder charges. And then there’s Walidah’s own highly personal story of her experiences with sexual assault by someone she knew and trusted. In various ways, all three of these narratives reflect aspects of compulsive criminality, personal responsibility, societal accountability, and the concept of redemption.
- To learn more about the remarkable career of Walidah Imarisha and her tireless efforts as an educator, activist, poet, author, Afro-futurist, and all-around badass, visit her website at: www.walidah.com
- For an account of the death and Hell’s Kitchen funeral service for Jimmy McElroy, who passed away before Angels With Dirty Faces was published, read this evocative New York Times piece by the great Jim Dwyer: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/nyregion/a-farewell-to-jimmy-mcelroy-gangster-of-a-lost-era.html