Michael Patrick MacDonald

Whitey Bulger’s indirect hits

By Michael Patrick MacDonald
July 6, 2011

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IN 1995, the year James “Whitey’’ Bulger went on the lam, a small group of families in South Boston organized a solemn vigil for Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, to commemorate all those who died too young in our neighborhood. The group immediately turned into a support system for bereaved families. Named the innocuous-sounding South Boston Vigil Group, we weren’t yet saying the unspeakable: drugs, crime, and murder.

But when we printed up a list of the deceased from our own memories of constant wakes and funerals for Southie’s young, we sat and stared at more than 250 names. One mother, who’d just started attending the group after losing her son, said, “I went to nearly every one of these wakes. Until now I never realized we had a problem.’’

We all knew that a majority of the deaths on our list had everything to do with the drug trade in South Boston throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. At the vigil, the church was packed; the line of neighbors holding candles went out the back door of the Gate of Heaven Church. Mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends looked stunned as they approached the altar and said names that a lot of us had not heard mentioned in years. Who knew that we could gather in Southie to remember the names that the gangsters would rather we forget? Simply lighting a candle and naming your dead felt like an act of sedition in a town bred on silence enforced by Whitey Bulger’s organization. On that night the code of silence began to crack.

When Bulger is arraigned today for allegedly killing 19 people, the names of Southie’s young victims of the drug trade won’t be mentioned. We will not hear the names of those who died from overdoses, or the names of drug dealers who were found dead for not paying a cut to Whitey’s organization. We will not hear of the young people who got caught up in organized criminal operations, bank robberies, and truck hijackings.

People like my brother Frankie, a four-time Golden Glove champion boxer with so much promise, who died while involved in an armored car heist. Or my brother Kevin, who was found hanging in his prison cell. Nor will we hear of those maimed in a culture of drugs and silence - such as my sister Kathy, paralyzed and brain-damaged after being thrown off a roof during a fight over drugs.

We won’t hear about those who never got justice because of the code of silence we were raised on by Whitey’s organization. All of these dead shall remain nameless in the prosecution of Bulger, as they were not direct hits.

There may also be other names left out of this case. Bulger could have done none of this without extensive assistance, both on the streets and in law enforcement. It goes beyond Bulger’s relationship with John Connolly, the corrupt former FBI agent. And Bulger is the only one who can tell us these truths.

The Bulger organization and its helpers preyed upon an extremely vulnerable neighborhood; Southie’s “Lower End’’ held the country’s highest concentration of white poverty, according to US News and World Report. Seventy-five percent of our families were headed by single women.

Unfortunately, even if Bulger does go to trial for the 19 murders, the focus will not be on the extensive organization that wiped out generations of our families in Southie.

Why does this matter now, so many years later? It matters for all of us who were most affected by the drug trade and its attendant violence in Southie. But beyond Southie, it matters for the sake of kids growing up today in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Southie has been dispersed, and our dead are not coming back. But getting to the truth of extensive collusion in the drug trade that wiped us out will allow us, beyond Southie’s now-broken borders, to say never again.

Michael Patrick MacDonald is author of “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie.’’