New Whitey Bulger Book Reveals Intricate Web of Decades of Public Corruption in Boston and Inside FBI
When was the last time you read a book that pulls back the curtain to expose the dark ways America’s most notorious criminals, police agencies and political elites share far too many of the same values—and indeed, collaborate—to serve their own agendas while ruining the lives of innocents? Where the Bodies were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him does that. It is one of the scariest and most compelling books I have recently read.
I lived in Boston during much of the time of the reign of the notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and it was as if we were in two entirely different worlds. Then I saw that was no accident. The Boston of the 1970s and much of the '80s felt, at least to an African American, more akin to the ethnic battlefields of the former Yugoslavia than a modern, quaint and touristy city. There were entire segments of the city where travel involved great risk to a black person. One of those areas was South Boston, the heart of the Bulger story that T.J. English tells.
What transpired in and around South Boston, as well as other white enclaves such as Charlestown, existed almost in the realm of myth for many people of color. If we had friends from those areas, those friendships did not translate into home visits, walking down the street together or a day at the beach. Such relationships were hidden. As a result, knowledge of the criminal activities of those such as Whitey Bulger was very indirect and to a great extent necessitated reliance on Boston newspapers and word of mouth. Though the atmosphere began to change in the aftermath of the 1983 mayoral campaign of former State Representative Mel King, the chasm between the communities remained vast.
The characters in English’s book are almost entirely white, with the notable exception of the judge in Bulger’s trial. This, along with the fact that people of color are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the book does not betray racism on the author’s part, but speaks to the reality of the two different and separate worlds that existed in Boston.
The book centers on Bulger’s trial, and in so doing reveals the corruption in Boston that not only made Whitey Bulger, but ensured the length of his reign. This corruption, sometimes done in the name of the FBI, was not restricted to relationships between authorities and Bulger, but was a system that nurtured a nest of criminals who were able to carry out their work not only under the eye of the government, but in some cases with its direct cooperation.
Bulger’s Boston was highly segregated. The author provides no indication that the operations carried out by the authorities were done on this scale when targeting criminals of color. Yet what is perhaps more striking is that the criminal activity carried out by the likes of Bulger was never described in the Boston mainstream media—or any other media to my knowledge—as indicators of pathological behaviors of entire communities or peoples. Even during the bloodiest of moments in Boston, there was never a discussion of a phenomenon of white-on-white crime, even during the moments of intense gang wars. At worst they might have been labeled clan conflicts, but generally this heinous behavior, which English graphically describes, was simply chalked up to the activities of organized crime, be it Irish American or Italian American.
While the discussion of the extent of the cooperation between the FBI and Bulger’s criminal operation may seem unbelievable to many readers, when I read it the first thing that came to mind was another FBI operation—COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO was originally designed to destroy the U.S. Communist party, but it evolved into a major mechanism for disrupting a variety of progressive social movements in the 1960s and '70s, including the American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican independence movement organizations, the Black Freedom Movement (including the Black Panthers), and the anti-Vietnam War movement. The operation was not restricted to collecting information, which would have been bad enough, but was aimed at destabilizing entire movements, allegedly due to the radicalism of their messages and actions. This destabilization included provoking factional battles, carrying out arrests, conducting assassinations, and malicious rumor-mongering. This work frequently turned friend against friend, and organization against organization.
When reading Where the Bodies Were Buried one gets the sense that projects such as COINTELPRO did not appear out of the air, but were very much a part of the culture and psychology of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Bulger made an alliance with the FBI, providing tips about the Mafia, and in return receiving protection. In some cases he was provided with information that resulted in the murder of criminal rivals or threats. In the minds of many of the law enforcement officials involved in this web of intrigue, it was not only a matter of their own personal enrichment, but how they understood their jobs.
Consider Joe Salvati, who we meet early in the book. Salvati was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. The FBI knew he was innocent, but Salvati was a chess piece in the efforts to go after larger criminal targets. To admit he was innocent would have called into question the FBI's entire operation, and therefore the bureau was steadfast in denying his innocence until the court brought about Salvati’s freedom.
In reading about the case of Salvati, which hangs above the entire story like an apparition, it is striking that the FBI was prepared to sacrifice this man’s life and had no compunction about doing so. One only needs to consider the operations that have taken place against progressive social movements and organizations in which innocent individuals have been locked up—or worse—for the supposed greater good. When such cases are revealed, progressives are frequently judged as paranoid and anti-American when they suggest that law enforcement agencies regularly hold to no code of honor that recognizes "innocent till proven guilty," or for that matter, the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. Instead, when the established order perceives a potential threat, it is prepared to undertake whatever operation, regardless of scale, scope or morality, in order to protect and advance its own interests.
Where the Bodies Were Buried shakes the reader out of any sense of naivetÃ©. Reading this book takes one well beyond the horror of the crimes committed by Bulger and his associates, as unbelievably psychopathic as they were. It takes the reader into the world and minds of those who permitted and in some cases encouraged this criminal activity because they could justify it to themselves.
Bulger’s handlers saw in him a means to an end—the taking down of supposedly more dangerous criminal organizations. But in doing so, the circle of law enforcement lost all touch with morality and the Constitution. This was far from an isolated incident conducted by a small crew of corrupt officials, but represents something akin to a modus operandi that was and is not limited to fighting organized crime.