1 February 2012
Donnie Andrews has lived The Wire. At 32, carrying out a hit for a drug lord, he shot and killed a man. As the victim lay dying, he looked his assailant in the eye and asked “Why?” Twenty-six years later, and eight since he was released from prison, Andrews still can’t get that question out of his head. “That was the shock I needed,” says Andrews, who grew up tough in one of those destitute and desperate neighbourhoods depicted on The Wire, a gritty HBO crime drama that many critics have rated as one of the best television shows ever made. By Hamish McKenzie.
The Wire, which ran for five seasons between 2003 and 2008, transcended standard cop dramas by contextualising the drugs trade-driven crime in Baltimore – a stand-in for any troubled American city – and allowing viewers to empathise with characters at all points on the crime spectrum, from enforcers to victims and even to violent perpetrators. People like Donnie Andrews.
Andrews, who refers to himself as “the real Omar”, was a ‘stick-up’ guy who robbed drug dealers – just like The Wire’s famous Omar Little character. The Wire’s creator David Simon has said that Andrews is one of the real-life figures on which Omar was based.
“This community creates warriors, because you have to be the toughest guy on the block,” says Andrews, sitting in the tidy living room of his two-storey row-house in Baltimore’s suburbs. He’s dressed in a pin-striped shirt, a black vest, stylish thin-rimmed spectacles and a pair of Air Jordans. On a fish tank in the corner of the room sits a photo of him with his wife Fran Boyd and Simon, all posing with an Emmy Award that the writer won for the mini-series The Corner. That show focused on the life of Boyd, who was a long-time heroin addict before she started communicating with Andrews by phone while he was in prison.
Andrews wasn’t supposed to be locked away for so long. Before his conviction, he had worn a wire and gone undercover to help bust the drug lord’s organisation. As a result, prosecutors agreed to limit his sentence to 10 years. When it came time for sentencing, however, they reneged.
After intense lobbying and legal efforts led by Simon and a couple of friendly lawyers, Andrews was finally released in 2005. He married Boyd and went to work as a consultant on The Wire, even taking up an acting role – he played Omar’s jailhouse protector and accomplice in seasons four and five. Now he has started a non-profit organisation called Why Murder?, aimed at helping kids who are struggling to survive on Baltimore’s mean streets – the ones who, without intervention, might turn to murder.
“You have to shock them back to reality and hope that it’s sooner rather than later, before it’s too late,” says Andrews, who says the problems they face are deeply ingrained in society. “Look at the actions of the children – the actions of the children are the actions of the community from which they came.” Through Why Murder?, Andrews will offer mentoring programmes, summer camps and jobs training to give youth a chance to avoid some of the mistakes to which he fell prey. He has been inspired by New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides support for poverty stricken children and their families.
“Until we come together as a people and say enough is enough, everything that’s happening is going to continue.”
He’ll have a struggle on his hands. As The Wire showed, Baltimore – and especially its underserved inner-city neighbourhoods – has serious problems. Unemployment is rife. In some parts of the city – for example, East Baltimore, Proposition Joe’s turf in The Wire – unemployment is above 20 percent, and many of the jobs that do exist pay close to minimum wage: US$7.25 an hour. A quarter of the population lives in poverty, 10 percent more than the national average, and the number of heroin addicts is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
You can trace that back to the loss of industry. Baltimore’s once-thriving steel and shipping industries attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the city in the first half of the 20th century. But as the country began to look overseas for steel, those jobs started disappearing. Between 1950 and 1995, 100,000 industrial jobs left Baltimore, and the city lost a third of its population, which now sits at about 635,000.
Then came the 1968 race riots, provoked by the assassination of civil rights hero Martin Luther King. Baltimore, in which African-Americans make up about 65 percent of the population, was further wounded. The arsons, lootings and killings that came with the riots destroyed large parts of the inner city, causing residents to flee. It still hasn’t fully recovered. Baltimore is home to 16,000 vacant buildings.
To say that the economic opportunities in the poorest neighbourhoods are limited is a joke. For many, the only way to survive is to turn to the decades-old drugs trade – ‘The Game’ – which has a history of providing for its workers. Three years ago, the Mayor estimated that one city street brought in US$10 million of drug money a year.
Of course, The Game is also deadly. In a giant, profitable industry that doesn’t enjoy the protection of law, disputes are often settled with violence. With close to 35 homicides per 100,000 people, Baltimore has the fourth-highest murder rate in the US. But those killings are selective. Of the 234 murders in 2010, 82 percent of the victims had criminal records, and 70 percent had at some point been arrested for drug offences. Last year brought slightly positive news – the number of murders fell below 200 for the first time since the 1970s.
The War on Drugs, which continues today, has to carry some of the blame. Aggressive policing of strict and punitive drug laws has put thousands of urban males behind bars, removing them from communities that could use the breadwinners, and consigning generations of children to grow up in single-parent households. Police continue to use aggressive tactics to enforce drug laws, but the trade is as strong as ever.
In The Wire, the Baltimore City Police Department is portrayed as prone to corruption but under-resourced; sometimes incompetent and brash, but in other parts, smart and effective. Statistic-altering bullies in management are contrasted with well-meaning officers who want to serve their community.
When Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H Bealefeld III last year said that The Wire was a “smear that would take decades to overcome”, David Simon responded with a letter to The Baltimore Sun (his former employer) saying the cop boss was focusing on the wrong issue.
“A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility,” Simon wrote. “That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors.”
Leigh Maddox is one person with split sympathies. A former captain in the Maryland State Police who retired from the force in 2007 and is now a lawyer who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, she’s uniquely placed to offer insight into the way drug laws are enforced by the police. She’s also a spokesperson for drug legalisation advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Maddox, who says the drug trade in Baltimore is “alive and thriving”, characterises today’s era of policing as “frustration policing”.
“Everybody’s frustrated because nothing seems to be working and things aren’t getting better and poor people are getting poorer and rich people are getting richer and the middle class is shrinking,” she says. “It’s pretty much a mess.”
There are many good cops who mean well, but the system is set up to encourage drug arrests, which are often conducted in ways that exacerbate already fraught tensions between police and poor communities. And while drug arrests aren’t linked to police pay in Baltimore, they are incentivised in other ways. As a captain on the force, Maddox would hand out employee awards and assign better cars, better schedules and better training to those officers who made the most arrests. More socially conscious approaches went unrecognised. “I never gave anyone ‘top trooper’ for referring people to treatment.”
One also has to consider the types of officers involved in drug policing. “The vast majority of officers that are making street-level drug arrests are probably between the ages of 21 and 26, and they’re not being taught anything about collateral consequences of arrest, what an arrest does to someone’s life,” explains Maddox. “They’re just being told, ‘Go out and get ’em’.”
She believes police should act as peace officers who have a role in the community that reaches beyond law enforcement. She also thinks federal government should allow the state to “thoughtfully regulate and control” drugs, starting with marijuana. “We’ve got to figure out a way to move drugs from the criminal justice framework into a health framework.”
The Wire’s depiction of the depressed communities was “spot on”, she says. It got a lot of things right, including its depiction of the importance of the underground economy, the level of violence, how addiction destroys lives and how lack of addiction treatment kills. Ultimately, the show has set the city up for a renaissance, she reckons. “Because the community in Baltimore and the United States got an early education in the devastating consequences of our drug laws, it makes us as a community more open to reform.”
Not everyone shares that optimism. For Dr Susan Sherman, an epidemiologist at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University who specialises in the health of marginalised populations, The Wire “showed the complexities of how somebody becomes a Stringer Bell and why certain people have to die”. It also showed the intractable problems of gang life and how difficult it is to escape those situations. Drug addicts fare no better. “It’s easier to go into jail than drug treatment,” says Sherman, before adding, with a fair degree of understatement: “That’s mildly flawed.”
Even though she has used The Wire as a teaching tool in seminars, she doubts it has had much impact on the city’s wellbeing. While there have been some advances in the city since the show went off air – some changes in the police ranks; a new, more progressive head of schools; and a new needle exchange programme – the socio-economic and public health problems are as bad as ever. “Where are the schools?” Sherman asks. “Why aren’t there health clinics in schools? Where is the job training?”
Baltimore, she says, is essentially a conservative city, and short of a revolution, she doesn’t see much hope for wide-scale change. “No one institution is going to solve the problems in the city. There’s really no one discipline that can explain or explore how solutions can come about in an academic way.”
One of The Wire’s most popular characters was Kima Greggs, a married to-the-job detective who struggles to balance her personal life with her calling as a cop. Greggs was played by Sonja Sohn, who grew up rough in Virginia and is the product of an African- American father and a Korean mother. Like many of the people depicted on the show, she struggled with drugs and sexual abuse from an early age.
While Sohn has long been social justice minded, working on The Wire prompted her to take action on the street level. Soon after the show wrapped, she set up a non-profit group called ReWired For Change with the aim of supporting at-risk young people in underserved communities. Many of The Wire’s principal actors – including Andre Royo (Bubbles), Wendell Pierce (Bunk) and Dominic West (McNulty) – are board members for the organisation, which promotes community development, crime prevention and cultural awareness.
“When I came to that town and started doing that job, I was uncomfortable shooting in those neighbourhoods,” Sohn says over a Skype call from her home in Los Angeles. “I could see the differences between my life at the present, the childhood I had living in neighbourhoods like that and then looking in at neighbourhoods at that moment – that’s when the fire rekindled and it was the show that inspired me to make this turn in my life.”
The Wire, Sohn reckons, helped shine a light on impoverished communities that were often overlooked by Baltimore’s political class. “I think that The Wire is responsible for contributing to government officials in that city paying attention to that population. There were many government officials, who did not like the portrayal of city government in that show, and as a result, there has been an effort to change that perception – and I think that any effort that goes into changing that perception can only be good.”
That’s not to say the show was perfect. The Wire has been criticised for skipping over non-governmental groups that work with under-served communities in Baltimore. “The show does an exceptional job of telling one side of the story,” Rob English, organiser for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, told Dissent magazine, “but it’s missing all the pastors, parents and teachers, principals, young people who are doing amazing work, radically trying to change and improve Baltimore.”
Sohn sympathises with that view and stresses that people have been doing social work in Baltimore since long before The Wire came into being. “There are just some really good organisations in Baltimore and great people running them that are doing some work there,” says Sohn. “That you did not see in the show. People often ask me, ‘If there was another season of The Wire, what would you have liked to have focused on?’, and I would like it to have focused on people doing social justice work in the city and in the community.”
Sohn believes, however, that change for people within these communities ultimately has to come from the individuals themselves exercising their personal power. The drug problems, meanwhile, are just a corollary of deeper-seated issues.
“People seem to think that drugs are the problem,” she says. “They’re a symptom of the problem. The problem for me is always spiritual in nature, and everything else is second. When I say spiritual, I mean how are you living, and what choices are you making because of and despite the pain in your life?”
She says people in these communities use drugs to insulate themselves from the harsh reality of their lives. “I don’t think anything that creates some space and some softness around your pain and suffering is inherently bad.”
Nearly four years since The Wire finished taping, Baltimore is left with most – if not all – of the same problems that formed the backbone of the show: a desperately poor underclass whose people have few economic opportunities to pull themselves out of their collective quandary; a powerful organised crime network that funds itself on the proceeds of selling illegal drugs; one of the highest rates of violence in the US; an under resourced police department; and treatment programmes that reach only a few of the many thousands of residents suffering from drug addiction.
According to one doctor, the city has made some positive steps in implementing harm-reduction measures in the last few years. “It’s definitely something people talk more about and look at it as a more viable way of working with people with addiction,” says Dr Chris Welsh, an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Maryland Medical Centre. “Ten years ago, people wouldn’t have thought about it.”
But even as problems are addressed in harm reduction, a new menace has sprung up. Welsh says the city has seen a dramatic surge in the number of hospital patients who need to be treated for drug overdoses. This time, however, it’s not heroin or cocaine that are the culprits. Instead, these drugs are of the legal kind – prescription painkillers, stimulants and depressants – and the problem is as acute in the richer, whiter suburbs as it is in the impoverished inner city. If David Simon ever wanted to do a sixth season of The Wire, he certainly wouldn’t lack for material.
Articles on a public health approach to drugs in Aotearoa New Zealand are regularly published here.
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