Last summer when I was planning my move to Chicago, a friend who grew up on the West Side of the city gave me some tips about avoiding car break-ins: always lock my car, avoid driving in certain neighborhoods, only park in well-lit areas, and don’t leave belongings out in the open.
He also recommended I pay for a parking garage. I scoffed at such an idea. I am a New Yorker: we park on the street. But my resolve was tested just in the first month of living in the Windy City. Someone stole my catalytic converter in Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood I considered bougie by Bronx standards. When I relayed the story to Frank, the tow truck driver that my insurance company dispatched to pick up my car, he smiled and winked: Welcome to Chicago!
Overnight this experience transformed me into an expert on this vital but inconspicuous (until it disappears!) car part. The catalytic converter is a part of your car’s exhaust system, basically a device to clean the pollution out of your engine and improve the air quality. Catalytic converters were made mandatory in the United States in the 1970s, starting in California to address growing concerns about air pollution. It is true that some car owners remove the catalytic converter to increase the car’s horse power. However, this is illegal. Not only will you be unable to pass your car inspection and be fined for driving without one, it is also loud and obnoxious, since essentially your catalytic converter acts as a muffler to drown out the engine’s roar. While all cars have catalytic converters, only some models are at risk of being stolen simply due to how they are built. My 2004 Honda Accord was one of the unlucky ones.
And so Frank and I rode for about half an hour in his truck navigating the twists and turns of Lake Shore Drive to take my car to my mechanic in Rogers Park, on the far north side of the city. We talked about a few things, including how Chicago compared to New York (it doesn’t!) and which city had the best rappers. We couldn’t agree on the latter but quickly our conversation centered around crime.
“You are lucky it wasn’t much worse–like a carjacking,” he told me, offering a bag of chips as a condolence. Without waiting for me to reply, he continued. “It’s these kids, they have nothing else to do. Most of them are stealing cars for joy rides.” I shook my head in agreement. Frank grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the largest and most infamous of the public housing projects in America. The 4300 unit Bronzeville complex was named after the first Black member of the Chicago Housing Authority. Yet despite the hopes it held for many low-income Black Chicagoans, the Robert Taylor Homes remained habitually underfunded and overcrowded, not unlike what was happening to housing projects across other cities. Public housing was initially a federal response to the squalid conditions of the densely packed neighborhoods or “slums.” Roosevelt’s New Deal included federal funding for public housing. But in just a few decades, the federal government withdrew its support for public housing construction. For example, in 1973, then-president Nixon declared public housing a federal failure, leaving maintenance and upkeep up to local housing authorities. Two years after Nixon’s speech, the Robert Taylor Homes and many other others like it across the nation had become a symbol of public housing failure. In 2005, the last of the towers were demolished and Frank, along with thousands of members of other families, was displaced to other parts of the city.
Frank talked at length about how the destruction of large public housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and the Cabrini-Green complex played a big part in the rising violence in the city. Former residents often moved to rival gang territory, or other areas that they had no familial ties in, putting them at risk for further victimization, and reinforcing the need to collectively protect themselves that is often at the root of gang formation. Since leaving Robert Taylor, Frank has lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the West Side. He’s looking to move out because his neighborhood is “very high crime,” as he put it.
Frank is not the only Chicagoan consumed by the topic of crime, which here is on par with talking about the weather. A few weeks prior, my gym buddy, a lifelong Chicagoan in his early 30s, told me that he was held up at gunpoint in the South Loop area for his Dodge muscle car. He pursued the men and miraculously got his car back. I wanted to ask more questions but something told me that this feat was not achieved just by men simply talking it out amongst each other. These stories and many others I have heard in the past eight months of living in Chicago reflect a growing sense of insecurity about everyday life that has been heightened by the Covid pandemic.
When I finally made it to my mechanic, he told me he had a used catalytic converter “lying around” and could install it in under two hours for only $1000. I laughed and asked him if he was reselling me my own stolen one. He reassured me that was not the case, and quickly began a long elaborate story about how thieves had recently targeted a Honda dealership and swiped all their catalytic converters. “It happens all the time, even in Rogers Park,” he told me. This sentiment was confirmed by the police officer I filed a report with, a necessity for insurance purposes, who told me with wide eyes that she has not seen such high cases of auto theft in the ten years she has worked as a cop.
Auto theft has risen during the pandemic but, besides tweeting for people to be careful, the Chicago Police Department has proven totally incapable of responding to it. The National Insurance Crime Bureau, which represents car insurance companies, has reported that an estimated 880,595 vehicles were stolen in the US in 2020, up by 10.9% since the previous year. There are several explanations that could make sense of these numbers. Desperate people have responded to the COVID restrictions by seizing an opportunity where it presented itself–cars parked indefinitely during the pandemic. But interestingly enough, cars are not just being smashed and broken into as I had been accustomed to growing up in New York City in the 1990s. Car thieves have smartened up and have begun to target car parts like catalytic converters, that are relatively easy to steal and sell.
I have watched countless videos on YouTube of people sliding under a car and removing the catalytic converter in just under two minutes in broad daylight. All you need is a battery powered angle grinder and sometimes a jack to get easier access to lower clearance vehicles. Depending on the clearance rate of the car, which means the space between its undercarriage and the ground, this may not even be necessary for a slim thief.
When the catalytic converter has been removed, there is no obvious evidence which one would find in other types of car break-ins, like the smash and grabs that are popular in places like San Francisco. The owner of the car is not aware of it until he or she starts the car and hears that God- awful sound—like a bad motorcycle. The parts are then sold to scrap yards and metal recycling plants, or to auto part stores that will pay anywhere between $50-$250 per catalytic converter and resell it to suckers like me for $1000.
A number of states have enacted legislation to combat the theft of catalytic converters. In California, legislators are considering requiring car dealers to permanently mark a vehicle identification number on catalytic converters before selling them to potential buyers. This way when scrap yards buy catalytic converters from anonymous sellers, they can easily keep track of them and make the records available to law enforcement officials. Other states are requiring sellers to provide a copy of their driver’s license and for scrap yard owners to keep physical records of the transaction. Buyers of catalytic converters that do not keep such records can face thousands of dollars in fines. Yet no such laws currently exist in Illinois.
In 2020, Toyota, Honda and Lexus vehicles were the most sought out by thieves. According to claims data gathered by my insurance company, State Farm, in the 12-month period from the second half of 2020 through the first half of 2021 (from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021), catalytic converter thefts grew close to 293 percent nationwide. In the first 6 months of 2021 alone, State Farm paid out more than $21 million in claims for catalytic converter theft. According to this data, Illinois is fifth in the nation for catalytic converter theft. It gives me no comfort that I am in good company. Some people are so unfortunate that they have had their catalytic converter stolen more than once. A guy I went on a date with, who owned a trucking company near O’Hare Airport, had the catalytic converter stolen from his Ford pick-up truck three times in less than a year. “Now that’s called being unlucky,” my mechanic blurted out when I told him the story.
Catalytic converters are not new inventions. So why are they suddenly being stolen at such high rates? It is what’s inside the catalytic converter that matters. The three precious metals, rhodium, platinum and palladium, are worth a pretty penny. The Covid pandemic which deeply impacted supply chains, shutting down many mining and refining operations in producer countries, increased the market value of the three metals. In South Africa — which provides an estimated 80% of the global supply of rhodium, 70% of its platinum, and 30% of its palladium — Covid lockdowns halted mining.
At the same time, the demand of U.S. based auto manufacturers for the metals continued to exceed the supply, and the price of rhodium jumped from $14,250/ozt on January 4 to reach $17,500/ozt on January 11. Platinum is rarer and more expensive than gold, and can also be sold off to make jewelry. Palladium, the third metal found in catalytic converters, is today five times more expensive due to fears about supply concerns from Russia, which is the world’s largest producer of the metal. The ongoing war in Ukraine has caused its market price to spike and U.S. based car manufacturers worry that the sanctions against Russia could cause further supply interruptions.
My mechanic told me I was lucky the thief had done a good job — making a nice clean cut when he sawed off my catalytic converter. He recounted other stories that made me grateful I was only shelling out $500 (after the insurance deductible) as opposed to over $4000 worth of damages. In the process of sawing off the catalytic converters, an inexperienced car thief can damage other parts of the car, including the alternator and wiring or even fuel lines. Some cars are so badly damaged that the owner has no choice but to sell it for parts.
The catalytic theft craze has put many car owners on high alert. Companies are rushing to cash in by selling protective devices. For example, American Welding Inc, patented the CatClamp after a long-time customer complained that they had their catalytic converter stolen. The CatClamp encases the catalytic converter in a hard to cut cable cage. A standard model costs about $176 and models range in price all the way up to $748. Everyone but me seems to be profiting one way or another.
Unfortunately, the story does not end here. Most recently catalytic converters have been linked to a new drug epidemic in central Africa. In Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo, there have been reports that the powder derived from the crushing of catalytic converters is being mixed with vitamin pills, sedatives or added to tobacco. The drug is called “bombé,” which translates to “powerful” in the local Lingala language. It is snorted, putting its users in a catatonic, zombie-like state. As if things couldn’t get any weirder!
On the surface, the theft of catalytic converters seems to be just one more misfortune that working class people have to deal with in these trying times. After all, I doubt wealthier Chicagoans are parking their cars on the city’s streets or are worried about forking over thousands of dollars to car dealers. But the theft of catalytic converters also brings together local and global dynamics of late capitalism in interesting ways: the rising market value of commodities, petty theft, nihilistic drug use which ties the black market to “legitimate” businesses like metal dealers, mechanics and auto part shops. While some working-class people lose out, others who are either unable or unwilling to work for low wage jobs gain an important source of income.
Looking at the origins of capitalism in England, Marx and Engels remind us that crime is an important expression of class struggle. In the Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels explored how industrial capitalism dehumanized workers and forced them to rebel, often not as a unified force but as individuals seeking to survive another day. According to Engels crime was a direct result of the alienation and atomizing effects of capitalism which dispossessed people faster than it could absorb them as cheap wage workers. In response, as Marx recounts in Capital, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, bloody legislation against vagrancy and idleness was passed with the goal of criminalizing survival and preventing alternatives to the wage labor system. Criminals thus were created by the same processes of violence, expropriation, and class recomposition that made early capitalism possible.
Social historians following Marx have made the point that the dynamics of capitalism create informal economies that draw in workers whose jobs have been rendered obsolete by advanced forces of production. For example, in his book, The London Hanged, Peter Linebaugh profiles how early industrial capitalism rendered workers redundant and transformed them into criminals. Highway robbers, he argues, used their previous expertise as workers in the meat trades to survive the transformations engendered by industrial capitalism, when they were forced into criminality, becoming both casualties and reluctant rebels of industrial capitalism and the wage labor discipline it imposed. It seems that we need a similar social history of catalytic car theft today.
Like their 18th century counterparts, today’s car thieves are criminal versions of what their jobs would have been in the shop floors of auto manufacturers like Ford and International Harvester had deindustrialization not ripped apart cities like Chicago.
 Ozt is the abbreviation for a troy ounce which is the unit most commonly used to gauge the weight of precious metals. One troy ounce equals about 31.10 grams.
 Friedrich Engels The Conditions of the Working Class in England reissued edn (Oxford, 2009)
 See chapter 28 “The Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated” in Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (New York: 1976)
 See Peter Linebaugh The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (Verso, 2006).