WAR ON POLICY
THE WAR ON POLICY
By Michael Theobald
In 1903, the Chicago Tribune published an article entitled “Policy Men See Writing on Wall.” Below that, in slightly smaller type, it said, “For the First Time in Its History in Chicago 150 of the Gambling Shops Shut Down.”
The (brief) shut down of policy in Chicago was the result of a campaign led by black ministers in the city, “the colored pastors’ crusade,” as the paper put it. Led by Reverend R.C. Ransom, ministers across the Black Belt railed against the game for stealing pennies from the poor. While the game had existed for some years at that point, it was mostly ignored among the general gambling and corruption of the city. Lately, though, the operators had become more open, drawing attention. In particular, the buggies that the runners raced through the streets, delivering wagers and winnings, were a source of complaint. In retaliation for his leadership in this cause, Ransom’s church was bombed, with rival policy gangs each accusing the other of the crime.
Undeterred by the bombing, Ransom helped draft an Illinois state law against the game. This didn’t stop policy, obviously, but it did drive it underground for a while.
By 1920, however, policy had come roaring back. The rise of black political power in Bronzeville had created space for the wheels to run, protected from, and sometimes by, the police.
For the next twenty years, attacking policy was mostly a political tactic. Whichever party was out of power would attack the operators for their corrupting the system with their bribes for protection, and the use of policy runners to help mobilize black votes.
Periodically, the State of Illinois would hold hearings on the subject, and the policy operators would be called in to testify. Very little ever came of these procedures though, and everyone realized they were mostly for show.
Sometimes, under pressure from one quarter or another, the police would raid policy shops. Bail bondsmen under retainer to the operators usually had the arrestees out on the streets before the police could finish their paperwork, and corrupt judges usually found ways to dismiss the charges. In many cases the police would intentionally sabotage their own arrests, neglecting to get warrants so that they could make the appearance of doing something about policy without endangering the money they were receiving from it for doing nothing.
Finally, in the 1970s, the state finally hit on a strategy to destroy policy once and for all. They created the Illinois State Lottery. In an instant they created a game that stole the same pennies from the poor that policy did, although with (very) slightly better odds. More important, they brought the whole thing into the open. No more looking around for the place to make a bet. You could buy a ticket at the corner liquor store. No more trying to find out the winning numbers—they were drawn on TV.
For a time, policy hung on in the face of the lottery, but it couldn’t last. The lottery was too convenient, too big, and too well marketed. The last illegal policy operation heard of in Chicago actually used the state lottery numbers.
The hundred-year run of policy in Chicago was over.