The American Mafia Has Become an Unhinged Reality Show
The link between the killing of a Gambino mob boss and an apparently MAGA-loving QAnon suspect is part of a descent into postmodern chaos.
Anthony Comello in court Monday. Photo by Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock. Left split in social image: Frank Cali via Police Press Office/EPA, via Shutterstock
Last Wednesday, the same day someone gunned down a reputed mob boss in front of his Staten Island home, two other men walked out of a federal courtroom after successfully arguing to a jury that the Mafia basically didn't exist anymore. Hours before the murder of Francesco "Frank" Cali, assumed leader of the Gambino crime family, Joseph Cammarano Jr. and John "Porky" Zancocchio—the apparent boss and consigliere of the Bonanno crime family, respectively—were acquitted of racketeering and conspiracy to commit extortion charges when their rather unusual defense seemed to work: Their lawyers claimed they had been wrongly profiled because of their Italian heritage, and that the criminal enterprise they were alleged to be involved with had fallen apart.
That last part has at least some truth to it. The mob certainly doesn't have the sway it possessed in decades past. But the high-profile killing of Cali that night was actually just the latest episode suggesting the mob was resurgent as a force in American culture, if not politics or business. In that case, the reemergence of organized crime less as a public menace and more as a sort of macabre postmodern spectacle was only heightened when a 24-year-old who may have had a romantic interest in Cali's niece was arrested in connection with the murder.
"Mob underbosses don't get killed very often, but the media hype artists went into overdrive last week," Jerry Capeci, who publishes a weekly column on Gangland News, wrote me in an email. "The Cali killing," he noted, "did not feel like a mob hit."
Still, the Mafia had been making headlines in the months preceding the Cali ordeal, and a mini-onslaught of trials, murders, and not-so-violent deaths put a new spotlight on an organization that has, at least in the 21st century, largely tried to avoid it. On Wednesday, the story of Cali's killing and the not-guilty decision handed down to Cammarano and Zancocchio eerily graced the same page of the New York Times, a spread that felt like it belonged more in a 1980s edition of the paper than today's.
"Its ranks have been decimated by RICO prosecutions, but old-school crime families are still active in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Chicago," Geoff Schumacher, the senior director of content at Las Vegas's Mob Museum, explained in an email. "They try to keep a much lower profile today than they did in, say, the John Gotti era."
In other words, as Ali Watkins wrote in the Times last summer, sometimes these events just serve as "a reminder that those organizations, though weakened, are still here."
If there's any takeaway, that's it: The Mafia may have changed, but despite what Cammarano and Zancocchio would have you believe, it never really went anywhere. Certainly, America's collective fasciation with the characters hasn't waned. The developing tale around Cali, in particular, contains many of the elements of old-school tabloid sensation: Anthony Comello, the suspected culprit in his death who may have been fixated on a relative; a leafy and lavish neighborhood, one reminiscent of Europe and situated high above the rest of the city, an area that was literally a set on The Godfather; and unsubstantiated blame and leading questions launched at the family of Gotti, Cali's predecessor, about whether or not an internal war was brewing.
But as if in a nod to the changing times, when there was an arrest—of Comello—it didn't take place in Staten Island or Newark. It was on the Jersey Shore.
"This case, as I suspected, is getting more bizarre by the hour," Christian Cipollini, who has written numerous books on the mob and runs the website Gangland Legends, wrote me this week. "And guaranteed this isn't even scratching the surface of what other surprises are likely lurking. Mob history is possibly the strangest, proven time and time again."
In court on Monday, Comello seemed to prove Cipollini's point: The defendant, probably already with a target on his back, dramatically held up his hand. On his palm, Comello had scribbled "MAGA forever… UNITED WE STAND… Patriots in charge," as well as what appeared to be the QAnon symbol, a reference to a conspiracy theory formulated on the idea (among others) that Donald Trump is actually in cahoots with the Mueller investigation, whose real targets may include Hillary Clinton, among others. It wasn't immediately clear if there was any more substantial connection between Comello's apparent invocation of the conspiracy-fixated far right and Cali's shooting—in other words, whether a Staten Island Redditor had decided to get off his couch and, driven by a nonsensical worldview, take out a known crime lord. Certainly, mental illness could not be ruled out.
Leaving the Cali saga aside for a moment, events since last fall have been piling on top of one another, teasing journalists and the public at-large to muse if anything stranger than usual might be going on. Last September, 71-year-old Gene Gotti, the younger brother of the notorious "Dapper Don," was released from prison after serving 29 years for dealing heroin. Meanwhile, a father-and-son pair with ties to the Bonanno family, Sylvester and Salvatore Zottola, respectively, were reportedly hunted throughout the Bronx for the better part of a year—culminating with Salvatore barely escaping an attempt on his life in August, Sylvester getting murdered outside a McDonald's in October, and a high-ranking Blood being arrested after reportedly being paid for the hit. (According to the New York Post, the suspect, Bushawn "Shelz" Shelton, and four others could face the death penalty.) And so far in March alone, the bosses of three of the so-called Five Families have made a splash: There were the Gambinos, with the Cali slaying; the Bonannos, with Cammarano's verdict of innocence; and the Colombos, with the passing away in prison of Carmine Persico, who was said to have ruled from behind bars for much of his adulthood. (The Lucchese and Genovese factions have managed to cause far less of a ripple.)
"People love the mythology of the Five Families—but that's fading," David Shapiro, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former FBI agent, told me over the phone. "I don't think we can ever have a renaissance of the Five Families, but we certainly can have a more realistic picture emerging of organized crimes and gangs, as we speak. There's an expectation problem. If people expect it's what it used to be, they're going to have to watch The Godfather or something."
What we really need to grapple with, then, is how our perception of mobsters is shifting—and what acts, precisely, we still believe they're willing (or capable) of committing. The American Mafia has become more realistic—and with that transformation, its reality, at times, has been exaggerated. It's evolved alongside us, even as it's had to, say, adjust its grip on the ports of Newark, adopt to legalized sports gambling, and learn to keep quiet.
At the same time, the mob's place in popular culture has veered more and more toward the absurd. If the Mafia and the people in proximity to it have embraced anything, one might argue, it's ultimately America's taste in entertainment. Fresh off 20 nonstop years of Sopranos nostalgia, this decade has seen the mob squarely leave therapy and enter a new phase: reality TV. In addition to actual reality TV shows (including one on Staten Island) about the mob, the internet age—and the Mafia's fading real-life power—seem to have combined to foment some kind of bizarro new era of self-referential mayhem.
The mob provides us with spectacle after spectacle we may not even realize we've demanded—it forever recognizes our boundaries, our pleasures, our conceptions and misconceptions. We're excited to rip open the vault even if there's nothing inside. To speculate without clear evidence, to wonder with almost no knowledge. Is QAnon and the mob potentially the most ambitious crossover event in history? I'm not sure.
But if it is, pretty soon it won't be—we're already making Twitter jokes about it.
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