Monday, July 20, 2020

Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia

Even though he recently lost his mind, it is important to remember Rudy Giuliani saved New York not once, but twice. He restored law & order and economic vitality as mayor, but before that, he liberated the City from the tentacles of organized crime. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he spearheaded an unprecedented prosecution of New York’s “Five Families,” all at once. The FBI agents and prosecutors explain how they did it in the three-part documentary series Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia, directed by Sam Hobkinson, which premieres this Wednesday on Netflix.

The FBI had been trying for years to take down the Mafia, but to little avail, until an Ivy League law professor offered the FBI a free seminar on applying the relatively new RICO statute. For the special agents reluctantly attending, it was a revelation. RICO provided a legal framework to tie the bosses to the crimes of their captains and soldiers. This would be a game-changer when paired with greater wiretapping latitude and technology.

Fear City
is largely told from the perspective of the FBI and prosecutors, which is actually a nice change from most Mafia-centric mob programming. As a result, there is no phony sentimentalizing the Mafia as some sort of “family”-style organization. Instead, they make it clear what predatory parasites they were. John Savarese, a young prosecutor Giuliani assigned to the case, explains he was particularly outraged by the Mafia’s crimes as an Italian-American, because the Mafia preyed on newly arrived Italian immigrants, forcing their way into their neighborhood businesses.

It will probably be particularly galling for the old thugs to see their longtime critic, Curtis Sliwa, making similar points in the opening (but nobody can deny he adds color). In addition to Savarese, we also hear from Giuliani himself, as well as his lead prosecutor, future Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and many of the FBI Agents assigned to the Five Family-specific task forces. However, some of the wildest talking-head interviews and recreation-sequences feature the mysterious technician who placed their bugs, often literally under the bosses’ noses.

There are a number of funny moments in
Fear City, but the enormous scale and cost of the Mafia’s corrupt enterprise is the real takeaway. There is still organized crime in New York, but thanks to Giuliani’s prosecutors and the FBI, it no longer controls New York institutions like the Javits Center and the Fulton Fish Market (now relocated to the Bronx). Even the government did not understand the extent of their reach until the wiretaps provided two revelations: the existence of the so-called “Mafia Commission,” acting as a governing body for the rest of the nation’s mobs and the ”Concrete Club,” which steered all construction jobs valued over $2 million to companies owned by the Five Families.

Fear City
is a totally bingeable as a history or true crime series, but it also serves as a timely reminder of just how bad things were in New York. It is hard to believe we would want to go back to those dangerous days of rampant crime in the streets and the Mafia extorting the City’s businesses with impunity less than forty years later, yet here we are, defunding the police. Of course, it will be the most vulnerable New Yorkers who suffer most as a result. If you want some New York TV, Fear City is as New York a you can get. Highly recommended, it starts streaming on Netflix this Wednesday (7/22).