Lawrence Grandpre is also the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle wherein he provides the research needed to facilitate effective political awareness campaigns, organized civil demonstrations, community education events and legislative advocacy efforts for policy reforms that impact Black people in Baltimore. Lawrence was a Maxy award recipient at Whitman College, where he competed on the school’s debate team. Thereafter, he coached college debate national champions as a Research Assistant at Towson University and high school debate national champions as a Debate Coach at his alma mater, Baltimore City College High School.
Latest posts by Lawrence Grandpre (see all)
- ‘Movin On Up’: A Guide to Us’s Critique of Black Elitism - April 17, 2019
- Hardcore Black History – Part 2 – Slouching Towards Baltimore: Dreams of a Ghetto Utopia and the History Behind the #BaltimoreUprising - April 15, 2019
- Hardcore Black History – Part 1 – Utopia and Apocalypse on the Patapsco: The Story of the“Other” Baltimore Riots - April 15, 2019
“The Wire” say,
We speak in rounds
Say, we all double barrels, caution tape, in vacants
Say, we know death and our heartbeat equally
Say, we see the war on drugs and don’t fight back.
We say it like that. They’ve been telling a
twisted narrative and the world swallow this
story, like bodies and a graveyard. I think it’s
time we had a dialogue, tell “The Wire” exactly
what it got wrong. This is what it sounds like
when black voices
LG: Hello, you’re listening to “In Search of Black Power,” I’m Lawrence Grandpre.
LB: I’m Lady Brion. “In Search of Black Power” is a podcast which challenges conventional narratives around black policy, black movements, and black life.
LG: We’re coming to you from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank in Baltimore, Maryland, with an extended platform, New Timbuktu. I’m the director of research here at LBS, so I use research to create an intellectual foundation for the activism, policy advocacy, and youth work we do here in Baltimore.
LB: And I’m the cultural curator here at LBS, so I use arts and culture to mobilize on behalf of Baltimore’s art community, in addition to producing creative content, making our ideas more accessible to a wider audience.
LG: The New Timbuktu project is an attempt to use the advocacy, teaching, and research work of LBS to create a learning community, which centers on reinvigorating the black radical tradition through autonomous intellectual innovations. You can find out more at www.newtimbuktu.com
LG (cont.): So, if you’re listening and wondering, “what this podcast all about?”—maybe the title intrigued you, or maybe you saw LBS and that recent HBO documentary, or saw we got donations from folks like Colin Kaepernick and J. Cole, and wondered “what’s up with these folks?” First, thank you, we are very excited to be sharing our perspective with you, and second, this podcasts is design to address what we see as a missing space in the black podcast universe. If I had to describe the two poles of this universe, one would be the pop culture and politics pole, the other would be the scholarly lecture pole.
LB: Right. There are a lot of pop culture and politics shows, which are funny and interesting, but not really a platform for deep reflection.
LG: And a few great, like, ultra-woke podcasts with really good content, but maybe not the best presentation.
LB: So we thought, there has to be a way to combine some of the best elements of both of these styles—an accessible, but still challenging look at the issues facing black folks today.
LG: A podcast not trying to give you ALL the answers, but presenting you with new stories, or a fresh take on the stories you thought you already knew, in hopes that, by us posing new and interesting questions, we can help you find your own answers.
LB: That’s the goal. We want to take you on a journey and hopefully, you’ll learn something along the way.
LG: And that makes me think about how we might be different than other podcasts. We’re not saying here at LBS that we have ALL the answers to black empowerment
LB: Nope! That’s why it’s called “In SEARCH of Black Power.” And, like we stated before, we’re asking the audience to come on a journey with us.
LG: So, you ready, Lady B?
LG: Okay, let’s go.[Drums]
LB: So, Lawrence.
LB: We’re here in Baltimore. What would you say comes to mind when people think of our city?
LG: Um, the so-called “riots,” maybe? What we call the Baltimore uprising.
LB: Ok yeah, but before that.
LG: Uh, crabs and football.
LB: Okay, think less ballgame and more drug game.
LG: Oh, you mean [“The Wire” theme song] “The Wire”
Barack Obama: At the front end, I gotta tell ya, I’m a huge fan of “The Wire.” I think it’s one of the greatest…not just television shows, but pieces of art…in the last…couple of decades. I was a huge fan of it.[Voice Clip by Unknown #1]: I have come here today to share something wonderful…My favorite television series ever made—I think, without a doubt, the greatest television series of all-time—“The Wire” is un-fucking-believable. It is such a classic, amazing series. [Voice Clip by Unknown #2]: I suggest you watch “The Wire.” [singing] The Wire! [speaking] People—Some people don’t even know about “The Wire.” I’m like, where you been?
LB: So, since lots of folks think “The Wire” when they think Baltimore, I figured this could be the first destination for our episode.
LG: I think that makes sense. Since we know not everyone has seen the show, here’s an explanation of the show in brief: For five seasons, we follow an assortment of cops, robbers, and drug dealers in a fury of arrests, shootouts, and stick-ups. It’s a show noted for blurring moral lines between good and bad, great acting, but, most notoriously, for its realism. It’s seen as one of the most accurate portrayals of street life ever made.
LB: Yeah, that’s interesting because, for me, after I watched “The Wire,” I felt like my Baltimore was missing. I’ve lived here all my life and it didn’t quite reflect my personal experience at all.
LG: And that’s the thing: Here, we have this fictional account of black life in Baltimore, one endorsed by Presidents and famous philosophers and all types of people—with the focus on the violence and drugs; and here we are, the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a black think tank in Baltimore, made of native Baltimoreans, which works on issues related to violence and drugs. And personally, I have to say I don’t think “The Wire” gets it exactly right and, in some instances, I think it gets it dangerously wrong.[record scratch]
LB: Lawrence. How you gonna get in trouble with the audience before we even have an audience?
LG: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, I know. “The Wire” is beloved by a lot of people. In fact, many folks who will follow us here in Baltimore are huge fans of the show. But, well, this isn’t the first time I’ve made the criticism of “The Wire”—I’ve published two op-eds on this and even given a whole talk on this a few years ago. And yeah, it feels like a risky choice for our first episode. Some folks are listening and love the show, some haven’t seen it, and we risk losing them. But, in many ways, this is the perfect place for us to begin our podcast. Here at LBS, we’re all about challenging orthodoxy—not in, like a “hot take”-y sort of way, but really challenging people to think deeper. “The Wire” isn’t just a show, it represents a way of thinking about Baltimore and the way of thinking about what changes need to be made for black folks. And from that perspective, I think it’s really important to talk about.
LB: Okay, so, a critique of “The Wire” can be more than a critique of the show itself, but rather a critique of our entire way of thinking about politics.
LG: Yeah, that’s the idea. I mean, honestly, it’s a bit personal for me: My father was not only a police officer in Baltimore for 20 years, but specifically an undercover narcotics officer, the exact same folks portrayed in “The Wire,” at the exact same time period “The Wire” was portraying.
LG: And some stuff they get right, like the drinking and the frustration with bureaucracy. And I think also, they turn cops into these romanticized tragic heroes/victims and I always felt that was really out of context.
LB: How? How so?
LG: Well, I don’t think The Wire, for example, could be made today, or at least if it were made today, it wouldn’t be felt the same way. Like, “The Wire” of course, was made in a pre-Black Lives Matter world and there’s just so many justified suspicions of pop cultural portrayals of cops. I can say confidently, for example, that the show underestimates the degree of intentional corruption within the Baltimore Police Department. There’s a scandal around the so-called “Gun Trace Task Force,” which shows units within the force systemically robbing people and selling drugs and carrying guns to plant on unarmed victims in case they run them over or shoot them. And obviously, you have everything around Freddie Gray, and that just doesn’t fit the narrative of “The Wire.”
LB: Right. And let’s not forget the experiences we had with the police during the Baltimore uprising, right? You had cops who are ready to G.I. Joe roll in and arrest you and all your friends at every protest. It’s hard to have that reality, juxtaposed with the tragic heroic depictions of cops from “The Wire.”
LG: Yeah. I don’t want to focus too much on this point because I think we should do a whole episode on policing soon, I wanna focus specifically on “The Wire”s depictions of street life: the guns and the drugs.
LB: These are the depictions that “The Wire” it gets so much credit for in terms of realism and it’s here I think we should drill down and investigate whether it’s actually getting Baltimore as right as people say.
LG: Yeah, the show banks everything on its claim of realism. It supposed to mirror the hidden side of these characters’ lives, so if the frame is off, then what the audience takes for the reality of drugs and violence in Baltimore, is itself skewed. So, for example, the show’s very first scene revolves around a clash between the cops and drug dealers. The cop character, the lovable Irish drunkard Jimmy McNulty, sounds like this.
McNulty: You see, that’s the problem guys. You see, Barksdale’s never been arrested as an adult, so we don’t really have a B of I photo. His juvenile record he had expunged, so there’s no photo there either.
LB: Okay. I can hear some Baltimore there. What some might call “Bal-murr,” a little [Dun dalk?] up in there.
LG: Okay, but what if I told you that the actor who plays McNulty—his real name is Dominic West—actually sounds like this?
Dominic West: [British accent] No, it certainly wasn’t no, no, no, God, no. I was trading backwards and forwards for five years, and everyone was going, “What are you doing? Where you going? Why are you going to Baltimore?”…None more than me, going, “Why am I doing this? This is insane, no one’s watching this show. It’s a great show but who cares, ones watching it.”
LG: Take another example. Here’s one of the main characters in the show, Stringer Bell, the role that was the big breakthrough for the now-famous Idris Elba. Here’s how he sounds in the show:
Bell: What, you think a nigga’s gonna get a job? You think…you think it’s gonna be like, “Fuck it, let me quit this game here and go to college”? No, they’re gonna buck a little, but they ain’t gonna walk. And in the end, you gonna get respect.
LG: And, of course, Idris’s actual voice sounds like this:
Idris Elba: And, you know, people didn’t know I was in “The Wire,” two years later, everyone is on “The Wire” in London and in France. That’s like—in France, I was a huge in France for Stringer Bell.
LB: Yeah…but Idris is fine so I’m not comfortable talking bad about him, Lawrence. It is interesting though that he was chosen to portray the drug dealer in Baltimore… but it’s just a role, right? So, accents can be learned.
LG: Of course, but to me it represents a larger issue about “The Wire”’s claim of realism. And, if you can bear with me, here is an exercise, I think might demonstrate my point.
LG: So, take a moment in your mind to imagine Paris, France—the sounds, the sights, just whatever comes to mind.
LG: You have something?
LG: Okay, so, I think I can guess some of the stuff which may have come to your mind. So, let’s start off: So, the Eiffel Tower.
LB: Okay, that’s obvious.
LG: Maybe there’s a guy with a turtleneck.
LB: There might be.
LG: Okay, maybe there’s a guy on a scooter with a black turtleneck. Maybe he’s got like, a baguette in the basket on the back of his scooter.
LB: These are all possible.
LG: Okay, well, maybe he’s driving to a coffee shop—tiny coffee shop on a cobblestone-lined street. Maybe there’s some music in the background, some accordion music. Maybe he’s having a conversation about existentialist philosophy and—just for you, Brion—in your mind, maybe later that night, he’s going to a James Baldwin talk or Josephine Baker show.
LB: Mmm, yes. I can see it so clear. It feels like an image of Paris.
LG: And I think many people would see an image like this on TV, and all these tropes are present, and they would say, “oh wow, that feels so real!”
LB: Maybe. I mean, these are stereotypes. They have been normalized, and may be based on reality, but I mean there are lots of broody philosophers from France. But most educated folks would say, “I would never think France is exactly like that.”
LG: Well, I would say that most folks want to THINK they are the types of people who are not susceptible to stereotypes, but I think it’s actually more insidious. And I used the example of France on purpose: there is a bevy of knowledge around the complexities of European societies that it that makes the fact that these are stereotypes more obvious. BUT, when it comes to black folk, I think that we are more susceptible to accept stereotypes as reality.
LB: I mean, maybe, but people don’t have as much knowledge about the complexities of BLACK life, especially when it comes to like, the working class and poor black folks.
LG: Yeah, and what happens when we do the exact same exercise for the city of Baltimore? What do you say?
LB: Okay, first, I see vacant houses.
LB: I see dope boys making drug calls.
LB: And maybe some white boys near like Canton, down by the docks.
LG: “The Wire” gives us everything you just said. And we see it and we think, “oh wow, that feels so real,” and these assumptions we make about Baltimore get played out in our politics. So, here’s a quote about Baltimore and I want you to guess who said it.
Voice Clip: I mean, Baltimore is a [bleep] ghetto. It’s worse than inner city Washington DC. It is [bleep]… um, I hope you’re not gonna play this on tape. [laughs] I mean it is, it is a war zone. I mean, it’s crack, I mean, you know these dime bags of PCP. I mean…we’ve got one-quarter of every kid is not in school each today, 50 percent of the kids start off in school, don’t graduate.
LG: So, you have any idea who may have said this?
LB: Um, yeah, no.
LG: His name is Mike Miller, and he’s the leader of the Maryland state Senate majority, which means, of course, he’s a Democrat. He’s been in the Senate majority for almost 30 years and he’s considered the most powerful politician in the state of Maryland. He’s actually consistently been one of our primary adversaries in Annapolis, our state capitol, when we go to push for legislative change. So now, this quote is before “The Wire” was a thing, but if you watch the show and you come away with these kinds of ideas, what I’m saying is that has serious impacts, even on real life policy.
LB: So, that’s wild, and I feel, like art, is supposed to imitate reality, but this makes me think there is also a possibility of art SHAPING reality.
LG: Exactly. I think as hard as “The Wire” tries to avoid this trap, I think it’s a monumental task to compensate for this cultural tendency.
LG (cont.): Fortunately for us, we have access to folk in Baltimore who can help us fill in these gaps.
LB: So, who do you have in mind?
LG: Well, “The Wire” wants to give the audience a realistic portrayal of black street life in Baltimore. How about we actually TALK to folks who have experience with black street life in Baltimore?[drums]
JJ: My name is Jamal Jones. I am a 26-year-old Baltimore—East Baltimore—resident, and I am co-executive director of a nonprofit called the Baltimore Algebra Project
LG: Based upon your experience living in East Baltimore, just speak to this idea that the kingpins that drive to violence and young people are striving to be kingpins, they want to be the king.
JJ: Um, false?
JJ: That’s the quickest way to answer that. Um, before I get into details about that, it reminds the way people see Baltimore—and very clearly the people who produced “The Wire”—it is the same way a lot of people imagine Africa, in that it is frozen in time?
JJ: There was a time period during the ‘70s and ‘80s when like, crack started jumpin’ and when the heroin game actually started like, moving here, that there were kingpins, but early ‘90s, a lot of them ended up arrested which is how “The Wire” ended up being like, created, right? Folks—like that story came to an end in the same way Frank Lucas’s story came to an end and they did the story on that, or just any of the other kingpins of that time, the ‘70s/’80s/’90s time. And what happened from there is that you had a bunch of like, street, kind of corner guys—”block boys,” if you will—who…ultimately, there is no “kingpin” that people were responding to. Like, there’s my plug, who I’m getti’ my stuff from, but outside of that, it’s much more entrepreneurial. Back then, it was more like,n you were much more reflective of a corporate structure: there’s a kingpin at the top and you’re working to make the kingpin and his friends rich, as opposed to right now, it’s really like, “Yo, I was tryna eat. Who got it, so I can get it, so I can serve it, so I can eat?” ‘Cause the other, the other alternative is, “I’m just not gon’ eat.” And so, there isn’t even a kingpin in the thought process about entering into that space, so much as, there’s a need and there’s space and there’s opportunity. But the idea that there is a kingpin that you have to go and interview with and like, they’ll cut your finger off if you do wrong?
JJ: Absolutely wrong. Most people not carrying around wallets of cash even if they got it and they was reluctant to give you…change, quite frankly because, like, people rob people. And that’s the thing, right? All the, like, all of this stems from this impetus to survive. The violence—
LG: And it’s not like…an organized hit—
LG: From one mob to another. It’s not Marlo Stanfield strategically choosing to attack Barksdale dealers.
LG: It is people.
JJ: Right, it’s me and my niggas standin’ on this corner and I walk down the block, I hit a sale on they block, the niggas bank me. Now, we beefing back and forth because I’m not a safe trying to make money, and for me to like, do stuff, as opposed to my boss, some crime lord somewhere was like, “yo, I’m gonna need to go and make a hit on the Italians.” No, there’s no one sitting anywhere doing that. What actually happens is like, your particular group that you trappin’ with and that you eatin’ with will need to protect one another. So like, a basketball team getting into a team fight or like, police officers, all swarming to fight one suspect, or like, even down to the neighborhood beefs, “yo, you hit my daughter” or something, and then like the whole family, come out—That’s no different, that’s not “violence,” that’s protection, that’s your family doing that. And I think that the problem is, the narrative is “it’s drugs, therefore it’s violence,” and it’s like, no, actually, this is like defense, or like stretching out to make sure that you cover your people. And the other thing is like, how would you feel if you was… uh, I don’t know, a teacher? And you was on your way to go teach at a school, ‘cause you got a job in the regular economy, and then, somebody just punches you in the mouth for teaching in the classrooms? Someone walks in and punches you and says, “yo, you’re teaching in this classroom, I’m mad, get out”? At that point, it would be likely that there will be a fight or some kind of struggle—
LG: Even if you’re a pacifist—
LG: You would be in the environment where you could have no security, no assurance that you would not need to be able to protect yourself.
LG: And the uncertainty is one thing I realized is…what people don’t understand. Like, people understand it when you’re talking about nations attacking nations—it’s like, “I don’t know if the Russians want to nuke me today, so I have to be prepared to nuke the Russians in case they feel like nuking me”—but in a street environment, both sides are scared that the other side is ready to deploy violence.
LG: So that means that they feel—even if they don’t want to—they must be ready to deploy violence.
JJ: Mmhmm. And that’s—and, I mean, that’s what a lot of the gun violence is, that actually ends up happening because, literally, it’s just a wild wild west where everybody is carrying they gun and one situation escalates a little bit too high. Like my role at the Algebra Project is only made possible because of who I am—
LG: Yeah, please describe what your role is, some of the things you do, and what the Algebra Project is.
JJ: Okay, so the Algebra Project, as an organization is a nonprofit, organization based in Baltimore that does two things: it does student-lead organizing, so youth development in one arm, and the other piece is math literacy work, so, hiring high school students to actually teach math. My role there in co-directorship has a lot to do with fundraising, a lot to do with organizational culture, organizational development, kinda guiding and moving and molding stuff. But mostly what I do is play support. I am functionally Ella Baker to SNCC, right? I sit in rooms, I give a little bit of guidance, I help facilitate, but I actually just create space for young people to hold their own dialogues about things to come to their own conclusions with the right information.
JJ (cont.): I’ve had students come to me, right, sixteen and pregnant, and they’ll talk to me before they talk to their mother. Solely because, like—not because they don’t like their mother, but I know that my initial thought is, there are several barriers to them talking to they mother. There might be like, uh, an issue of “I’m afraid,” but part of it might be, my mom—I ain’t see, my mother in two days ‘cause she worked all three of her jobs.[drums] [piano]
“In Search of Black Power” podcast is made possible by LBS community sustainers. We’re in the tradition of people like Ella Baker in the cooperative movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ‘50s, who used funding from the community as the basis for supporting independent black political work; on the tradition of people like Marcus Garvey of the United Negro Improvement Association, that used resources from the community from the organized media as the basis for the power of that organization.
Become a community sustainer by investing $15, $20, or $50 each month. Simply visit LBSBaltimore.com/sustained to sign up.[piano] [song lyrics: “Bible on the Dash” – Gunplay]
Is a full-time gig, trying to keep this Glock cold
I got the work, water in the pot, need a hot stove
And a down ass bitch, and a squad down to roll
I got a problem and a plan, revolver in my hand
Trying to keep it cold, but y’all won’t understand
That’s why I roll with the Bible on the dash
That’s why I roll with the Bible on the dash
I got a problem and a plan, revolver in my hand
Trying to keep it cold, but y’all won’t understand
That’s why I roll with the Bible on the dash
That’s why I roll with the Bible on the dash
LG: So life on the Street in Baltimore contains an agency and complexity beyond the “wanna do good, but just can’t” tragedy shown in “The Wire.” Like, listen to some good in-the-street rapper and the discussion of street life largely reflects what Jamal’s talking about. Often, they turn to the game out of necessity and they usually don’t wanna leave it, because it’s how they feed their kids, but they want rules and their own sense of fairness in the game.
LB: And while there may be some characters in “The Wire” who share this view, spoiler alert: they kinda end up dead. This isn’t to say we at LBS support selling drugs, but for a show trying to be “real,” it doesn’t affirm the entrepreneurial impulses and skills which bring folks to the corner, or help them to hone their skills which are somewhat transferable, as our interview with Jamal Jones, co-executive director of the Baltimore Algebra Project, suggests. Still, the question remains: Does the story “The Wire” tells about street life ACTUALLY reflect reality? I mean, as you said, Lawrence, we’re trying to ask better questions and I think this is a question “The Wire” presents that we needed to talk about.
McNulty: See, that’s what I don’t get about the drug thing. Why can’t you sell the shit and walk the fuck away? You know what I mean? Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other behind it. In the Terrace, it’s one body after another.
LG: Hm, yeah, that is the big question. Could the drug game ever exist without the violence that, in Baltimore, seems so inevitable? I mean, there’s a whole season in “The Wire” where the Baltimore police Department tries to create essentially a drug user’s utopia, where there is no law enforcement and, in the fictional world, that doesn’t turn out too well.
LB: That’s interesting, because there is a story about a real-life version of what “The Wire” tries to get at—a time when people wonder, “why can’t this stuff get sold like everything else?”—and, just like “The Wire”, there are some tragic impacts to this well-intentioned act.
LG: Oh, I’d love to hear this.
LB: This story is taken from a book entitled “Dreamland,” written by investigative journalist Sam Quinones. The story is about two sides of the same coin known as the opiate epidemic. It starts in the 1980s, with a few families out of Xalisco, a small town in the province of Mexico near the Pacific Coast, in a place called Nayarit.
LB (cont.): Families from this town began to migrate north to southern California and had mastered the art of cooking what is known as “black tar heroin,” which grows pretty heavily in that region of Mexico. This black tar is actually the opium goo that comes from opium poppies. It’s just as potent and “heroin-ey” as white powdered heroin; it just isn’t as processed. With this keen cooking knowledge, a few of these families started to sell black tar heroin in the local parks of California, but the cops quickly got hip to the new cartel so they had to develop a different business model—and, well, monopolize the market by killing off the competition and becoming the sole suppliers secretly selling under the police department’s nose because the competition was other families and friends from Xalisco.
LB (cont.): So they got really innovative: think GrubHub for heroin. The Xalisco boys created a system where customers would call a number, order their heroin, and a driver would be dispatched to deliver the heroin to their door. The retail dope game—and it was all about customer service. With well-intentioned marketing, they provided the cheapest, most potent heroin, on time, to your door, with a friendly face. They even had specials like, if you buy for six days of the week, you get a free one on Sunday; or, bring five new customers and get 50 small doses of dope. They gave out free samples in front of meth clinics and would make it their business to connect with recently released men and women who got clean while in jail to get them back hooked on heroin, free of charge. Domino’s would have made a killing if they thought of adding heroin as a side order on the pizza delivery menu.
LB (cont.): The Xalisco delivery boys would place the dope inside balloons and hide them in their mouths, and if ever stopped, they carry large water bottles that they would drink down to assist them with swallowing the dope-filled balloons. Some delivery boys were said to carry up to 25 uninflated balloons in their mouth at a time. With this model, the Xalisco boys were able to largely avoid police detection, expand their reach to other cities, and multiply their number of buyers and dispatch drivers exponentially. So now, they’re in San Diego, Portland, Denver, and all over southern California, and their guides were other addicts, who would consistently find new addicts in new towns and new cities so they could get more free dope—the ultimate word of mouth.
LB (cont.): This business became a lifestyle—the Xalisco boys weren’t just thugs in the eyes of their community, they were heroes. They’d come back to their small town with trunks full of Levi jeans to handout; they’d build houses from the ground up, which would normally would take years but for them, it just took six months. They became the middle class of a largely impoverished community. The guys who all the girls wanted and all the young boys admire for working so hard to bring home money to their families. The Xalisco boys’ system was thriving, and for years virtually uninterrupted, until the late ‘90s-early 2000s when the DEA sent a number of them to federal prison and found that they expanded literally across the nation, from North Carolina to Ohio, and West Virginia to Reno.[electronic music]
LB (cont.): Then, there was the other side of the opiate epidemic: painkillers. This story begins about the same time: the 1980s, when pain management became a new discipline within medicine to study. A group of pain specialists believed that America was simply not treating pain correctly. They argued that there were opiate pain pills that doctors were unwilling to use. It was first suggested the pills be used for hospice stations, which seemed logical because the alternative was folks dying in utter pain, and who cares about a person getting addicted to a pill if they’re already on their deathbed anyway?
LB (cont.): The problem is, these advocates didn’t just stop with hospice care—hey went further to suggest that the country has had thousands of years of experience with opioids, which is proof positive that these pills are not addictive when used to treat pain. They pushed and partnered with pharmaceutical companies that were producing opiate-based pills, like Purdue Pharma, not to be confused with Perdue that makes those tasty chicken nuggets. They wax poetic about us being a country in pain that needs to revolutionize the way we treat it. Then, creation of Oxycontin changed the game.
LB (cont.): Funny enough, Purdue Pharma also had a savvy marketing strategy to get doctors hooked on prescribing Oxy: they had discount rates and giveaways, much like the Xalisco boys did with the black tar heroin. They even put out a cd with swing music, encouraging folks to “swing in the way” of Oxy.[swing music]
LB (cont.): I mean, you can’t get any swaggier than to have a soundtrack for your drugs. It’s like “Freeway” Rick Ross meets rapper Rick Ross. Anyway, although these pills were absolutely highly addictive, they had convinced the medical field that they weren’t when used for pain management, because of the slow-release mechanism of the capsules. Soon, pain was thought of as the fifth vital sign, meaning it was now a clinical measurement—much like pulse rate, temperature, respiration rate, and blood pressure—that indicate the state of a patient’s essential bodily functions, and thus, it was kept under close watch and treated to consistently be at a stable level. What made matters worse, was that there was no cap on dosage. So doctors were prescribing huge doses of Oxy and Vicodin, another opiate pill for patients after surgery and etcetera. This caused a proliferation in what was known as “pill mills,” where doctors were prescribing Oxycontin for $200-300 profit.
LB (cont.): Now, it didn’t start out being so underhanded—many doctors were pressured into overprescribing Oxy, either because of fear of being sued for improper management of pain or pressure from insurance companies that benefit from the sale of pain medication. This led to a covert business of doctors that created a new supply of opiates which leaked into the black market because of its sheer excess and easy accessibility.
LB (cont.): The two sides of the opiate drug market meet in Ohio. This is where the Xalisco sales reps realized that the more expensive Oxy pills got folks addicted to opium and drove them searching for cheaper substances like black tar heroin when they can no longer afford to fill their prescriptions. This cross of markets ultimately led to a ripple of overdoses, of tragic deaths, and severe addiction across the country. Two forms of opium—one legal, the other illicit—both devastating the country at large.[drums]
LG: Wow, that’s an interesting story. It has a real sense of good intentions gone wrong on both sides, and when I compare your portrayal of this true story to the fictional portrayal of life in Baltimore, I kind of feel like it proves my point about what “The Wire” gets wrong.
LB: Okay, explain.
LG: Well, for me, it comes from the fact that, if you listen to the story told in “Dreamland,” you can understand the world that the Xalisco boys AND the pain management doctors want to see. The author is sure to point out the brutal poverty that drove the Xalisco boys to the heroin trade, and also shows the pain management doctors as empathic. The desire is really to help their patients get more pain medicine. One striking example of this is how much time they author spends in telling the audience about how the Xalisco boys spent their money on these quinceaneras, the big fifteenth birthday parties in Mexican culture held for a young woman—in this case, their sisters—how they came home with trunk loads of Levi’s jeans for all the folks in town, like you said, Brion, that’s a big part of the story. And it’s not just that they have a background story, it presents the reader with a theory of how these folks live in the world where they can flourish and control of their destinies and be fulfilled in a legitimate way.
LG (cont.): I see this in pretty sharp distinction to “The Wire” and its portrayal of black folk. Like, there are many things depicted in “The Wire,” but one thing you don’t see is a “Soprano”-style, ethnic white mafia, because it really didn’t take root in Baltimore, and many credit “Little Willie Adams, a black numbers runner, for keeping out the white, ethnic mob and preventing a wave of violence and corruption that would come with it. But “The Wire” can’t seem to include black institutions built by black people in its frame; it can’t see street life functioning how, like it functioned for a “Little Willie,” how it produced small businesses, and even funded political candidates. Like, there’s no equivalent of the quinceaneras for the black street dealers, nor anything that gives them the positive communal impact of “Little Willie.” I think this is what happens when, like Jamal said, your frame is Greek tragedy and not black agency. And I also think that reflects our culture’s general inability to see the culture of people of African descent as a resource, even when we are able to see that possibility in Mexican culture or White culture, like “Dreamland” does.
LB: Now I see what you’re saying, but I think the fans of “The Wire” would disagree. For example, there are former drug dealers who use boxing as a way to engage the youth, and they even show some of the young people who do sell drugs taking care of their siblings. Wouldn’t these be the types of representations that would, say, expand the frame in the ways you think it should?
LG: Yeah, no doubt that’s what the folks who made “The Wire” would say. Like, David Simon, the creator of “The Wire”, was a newspaper guy in Baltimore for a long time, and he and his people talk a lot about the cameos of local Baltimore people and the consultants they brought on for the show. I think we get bogged down in specific, individual details they toss in about the characters here and there, and I wanna take a larger structural view. Like, in “The Wire”, even the nods made to collective black empowerment are set up for individual tragedy. The only mention of street life as communal empowerment is done right before the two main characters—spoiler alert—betray each other.
Bell: Yo, you remember when we used to sit on the top of 734 building, man, lookin’ at the city, used to talk about what we gonna do?
Avon Barksdale: And you was all heavy into that black pride bullshit, talkin’ like you gonna get two grocery stores, make motherfuckers proud.
Bell: Sho was, man. You was out hunting on a AK-47 talking about “I’m gonna go get warrin’.” [laughs] Man. We brothers, B.
Barksdale: Always, baby.
LG: And it’s not that tragedy is quarantined only to the black community, it’s how you read the context to the tragedy. In season two, “The Wire” focuses on workers at Baltimore’s ports and there’s a clip from the season which kind of encapsulated how “The Wire’s” frame can lead it to misfire. In season two, the leader of the dock workers union is committing crimes, in his mind, to try to save the union from globalization cutting back work for his people in the union. One thing he’s doing is he’s using the money from stolen goods to pay lobbyists to try to get the state government to invest money in expanding the port of Baltimore. He’s white. His black union workers want to replace him with a black union boss, which he is resisting. He’s of course arguing, “no, just give me a little more time. We’re really close into stretching. I just wanna hold power for a little bit longer,” and he obviously wants to hide his illegal affairs, so he justifies holding onto power in a way that most viewers, I think, would have an issue with.
Nat Coxson: Look, it’s one thing you taking a run at this dredging thing. Fucked-up as you are we can let that slide for a while, but now, man, you asking too much.
Frank Sobotka: One more year, Nat. Not for me, for the fuckin’ union.
Nat: The elections’ been scheduled. And you knew last year when we gave you the votes that this time was gonna be Ott’s turn. You knew that.
Sobotka: So Ott runs next time he’ll take that year and the next.
Nat: It’s our turn, Frank.
Sobotka: Black, white, what’s the difference, Nat? Until we get that fuckin’ canal dredged, we’re all niggers
LB: Hold up. So, this is a White character…on “The Wire”… saying HE’S being treated like a nigger?
LG: Yeah, I don’t wanna get too hung up on the language. I think it’s like, the power and the
politics that we can really like, get deep on and—
LB: Yeah [hesitates] I’mma let you finish, but I need to address what you just said, because, first of all, how is it that the black character didn’t cock back and cold smack the saliva out of his mouth in that moment? And secondly, David Simon has to know that there is more to being “a nigga” than whether you have a job or not. And third, David Simon needs to understand that he can’t say “nigga” on Twitter, and his white characters on “The Wire” can’t say it either. Okay, I’m done.
LG: Great, I can finish my thought now?
LG: Okay. Alright, so, I think one COULD argue that “The Wire,” in this moment, is acknowledging how a class-first analysis can lead you to race blindness? I think they might think that’s what they’re doing? I just think that argument’s wrong. Remember, David Simon comments consistently about how we need to focus on class, he constantly talks about the horrors of globalization and how we need to “black and white, unite and fight,” and this sort of view of class struggle. And the Union boss is seen as a sympathetic figure all the way to the end, but, to me, the fact that you can watch all five seasons of “The Wire” and never understand the human cargo which came through those Baltimore points? That Baltimore was a slave city, and that it’s the trauma of this experience, which is the crucible of collective black identity? To me, that’s a pretty damning indictment, so… instead of understanding the value of collective black identity, the show, at times, caricaturizes it. If you watch the show, politicians dressed up in kente cloth to give their campaigns a veneer of street cred, or appeal nakedly to racial solidarity to escape conviction for corruption.
LB: Yeah, and why, in what is supposed to be the most realistic portrayal of black life, are there multiple incidents of police brutality that was not portrayed as systemic AND has no reference to anything like the Black Lives Matter movement?
LG: Yeah. I don’t know if, after five seasons of what many consider the greatest depiction of black life ever on TV, I can tell you what a black “Dreamland” looks like for Baltimore, both in terms of a text which treats black Baltimoreans with that level of respect, but also a vision of Baltimore without racism. And I think that’s because the people who made the show, as hard as they may try, might not believe that space could exist—it’s just outside their frame.
Dr. Amos N. Wilson: And when you have, then, a violent society, it produces violence. When the white American society then projects criminality on black people—that is, stereotypically sees blackness as criminal—this is not a mere ego defense, where they do that JUST to justify their treatment of blacks. You must recognize, when a segment of the society is very powerful and has material and other influence over the subordinate segments of society, their projections are not mere accusations, they’re not mere stereotypes, they’re not mere projection of negative images. When they have the power that they have, these projections, presented by these powerful people, become what we call “creative efforts”; in other words, they create and bring into reality the stereotypes that they project. Because in deceiving themself and thinking themself to see the black community as a criminal community, as an inferior community; in controlling, then job opportunities, and controlling other material aspects of black life, and controlling education, and controlling health services, and so forth, they then will organize these services, they will dispense these services, these jobs, and these opportunities in line with their projections, in line with their perceptions. And therefore, they will create the material, social, and psychological conditions for driving large segments of our communities into criminal behavior. This, of course, is what we then call “the self-fulfilling prophecy.”[piano]
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LB: So, when people talk about “The Wire”, they often talk about Baltimore being not just a setting for the show, but a character IN the show, and that’s seen as a nod to how great the show is—but this conversation makes us think a lot deeper about what that could mean. When you think of it, in “Dreamland,” the Mexican town which is the heart of the heroin empire, Xalisco, or a small town in Middle America, like Portsmouth, Ohio, can be seen as a character in their own way, and, hearing you talk about it, I can really see the differences in terms of how those characters function in the text.
LB (cont.): Xalisco is not devoid of violence—there are blood feuds, long-standing family beefs, which cut across generations—but it’s not defined by that; it’s defined by the quinceaneras, the Levi’s jeans. Similarly, the book’s title comes from a story about a small, Middle American town, in Portsmouth, where there was a swimming pool called “Dreamland”—home to hundreds of kids’ first kisses and generations of summer memories—which turned into a mini mall, with one of these pill mills that the book describes. So, the characters of Portsmouth tragically fall from grace, with the author’s discussion of reforms and anti-addiction work at the end of the book, it is set up for potential redemption.
LB (cont.): Baltimore is a very different kind of character in “The Wire.” It would be too simple, maybe, to say that while Xalisco and Portsmouth are heroes, “The Wire” makes Baltimore a villain, but “The Wire” definitely makes Baltimore something very different than what “Dreamland” makes Xalisco or Portsmouth. It’s not a hero or a villain—more like a sort of cool, nihilistic antihero. Baltimore’s portrayed… well, like Omar.
Omar Little: [whistling “The Farmer in the Dell”]
LB (cont.): Omar, “The Wire”s most emblematic character, is a wise-cracking, shotgun-toting stickup man; he’s a ruthless robber who focuses his attention on drug dealers and literally doles out violence by his personal moral code. He’s part terrorist and part Robin Hood, a force of nature around which all of the characters must operate. And maybe so many love “The Wire,” not because the Baltimore character is accurate—or even good—but because the Baltimore character is just so powerful and so interesting. If that’s true, that feels voyeuristic at best, and, at worst, truly defeatist. It kind of locks in the cycle of inevitable tragedy. Like, we all love Omar, but if he’s the allegory for this city, what do you really think is the future of our city?
LG: Yeah. I mean, these representations matter. Like, in “The Wire,” the cops, they just make an arrest—some guy or gal is on the corner and the detectives roll up, slap on the cuffs, and try to get info out of ‘em. Watching the show, you might not know that, as Colombia professor Todd Clear points out, there are neighborhoods in Baltimore with over 20% of the men incarcerated. Not on parole, not on probation, but in jail. That’s…that’s not normal. It’s one of the highest percentages of any neighborhoods anywhere in America—but “The Wire” individualizes that dynamic to one dealer, one cop, one crime, one arrest, so the enormity of the scale of that mass incarceration get skewed. This slow-motion tragedy about how Baltimore is forced to become this quote-unquote “character” get swamped by the narratives of “The Wire”: the lovable Irish cop, McNulty, on a bender, or Bubbles, the addict with a heart of gold, hatching another kooky “get rich quick” scheme.
LB: We can’t conceive of a solution to the violence of Baltimore coming from black Baltimore itself because the character, which is the city of Baltimore based on what we think we know of this character, can’t be trusted to fix him or herself. It would be like asking the stickup boy, Omar, to give up the street life and go straight. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy the clip we played talks about.
LG: Yeah. The person in that clip—his name is Amos Wilson, he’s a former professor in New York—also talks about, and what I want to end the show with: a discussion of resources. How dangerous it is when our resources end up flowing by what we think of objective truth, but what might really come more from how we interact with these representations, these fictional images like “The Wire.” One of the main reasons we wanted to start our podcast here, talking about “The Wire,” is that Baltimore is run by people who love “The Wire,” or, if you haven’t seen it, they’re at least the type of people who are HBO’s target demographic: liberal, college-educated, ostensibly cosmopolitan professionals.
LB: It’s important to understand how they see Baltimore—specifically, their perceptions of black Baltimore—and, when you start looking, you see how their views are shaped by works of fiction like “The Wire.” So, examining the show is a start to dive into the racial subconscious of the policy-making class, and get some deeper insight on what we at LBS really care about: knowledge on how to understand what people really believe and how to persuade people to see things differently.
LG: And in the context, specifically of drug violence, is to understand why so many in this policy-making class—be they black or White—seem to believe this lie that the violence we see on Baltimore streets is inevitable; a tragedy produced either by the pathology of black culture, or the invisible hand of global capitalism, or redlining or whatever. And it makes the think we need some Ivy League-approved saviors to swoop in and use magical nerd voodoo to save downtrodden black Baltimore from themselves.
LB: Magical nerd voodoo…Mmhmm…Okay, so, I’mma need an example of what you’re talking about—who are these folks…these saviors…who are they?
LG: Funny, now that you mention it, I do have something I want to talk about.[Voice Clip by Unknown #3]: There are people who are living today, who are not in prison today, who don’t even know it, because of Ceasefire.
LG: The Operation Ceasefire is a program started in Boston and giving the stamp of approval by folks like Harvard. It operates on a pretty simple carrot-and-stick model: there’s a community meeting called “the call-in,” where both the police and representatives of various community groups get known gang-affiliated young people into a room. They offer them a simple bargain: either accept the help of community leaders to change their path, or expect to be targeted by police and receive extra harsh sentences.
LB: Okay, so I wanna get this straight. There are three things happening here: first, police identify gang members and get them to come to a meeting, then they say “look, the gig’s up. We know how you spend your Friday nights,” and threaten them by saying that if they reoffend, they will face harsh sentences.
LG: Yes, that’s the so-called “stick.”
LB: Okay. The second thing, is they bring people from the community, like leaders, family, friends, and prominent folks, to persuade them to get it together and change their ways.
LG: Yup, you got it
LB: Okay, and the third thing, is that, if they get “delivert” and seem reformed, they are offered, like services, job training or whatever.
LG: Exactly, this is the core of Operation Ceasefire’s “call in” model. The proponents of the program claim it’s transformative—there’s paper after paper and academic literature praising Operation Ceasefire, citing as much as a 60% decrease in youth shootings. In fact, there’s an entire season of “The Wire” which essentially uses the Ceasefire model in the fictional Baltimore.
Howard Colvin: That’s the good part. It’s what I call the carrot. Now, you move your people into any designated area I told you about, and you’ll have immunity from arrest and prosecution.
You’re free to make your drops, collect what need collectin’, won’t nobody bother you. You got my word on it.
Bodie: What do you get outta this?
Colvin: That’s a fair question. I want to salvage what’s worth salvaging in my district. I can’t do that with a bunch of young hoppers, runnin’ ‘round scarin’ the hell out of decent people.
LG: And in “The Wire,” at least for a while, it works.
LB: But wasn’t the whole point of Hamsterdam that they could continue to sell drugs in a free zone?
LG: Yeah, it’s a very different carrot, but look more generally at how that part of the show plays out. In “The Wire,” the fictional police chief ends up surrounding himself with these researchers, for Hopkins when he wants to make this special zone where drug dealers can sell drugs unaccosted; they end up consulting with these Hopkins professionals about how best to implement the strategy. So my point isn’t that it’s the same, it’s that, essentially, “The Wire” believes in this public health approach to violence prevention—one which includes a punitive carrot-and-stick model—and that the real city of Baltimore ended up adopting a real program which reflects these beliefs.
LG (cont.): And what I think is really interesting: the assumptions behind both the real Ceasefire program and “The Wire’s” fictional Hamsterdam, is that there’s like, this public health model. What you’re seeing is the universally applicable understanding of human nature that can be applied across cities, across context, and, theoretically, across race and cultures; that there’s this universal understanding of cost and benefit stimulus response which can be applied to the problems of drugs and violence, and that’s where I think we have to inject skepticism and critique.
LB: So, I’m conflicted. I kinda see what you’re saying, but most folks would support public health and I believe, public health can be good or bad depending on how you apply it. It seems like this program is giving folks a choice, and assumes people can make good decisions. Like the man in the clip said, compared to the “lock ‘em all up” approach, this model would be more in line with the idea of community self-determination and empowerment.
LG: And that’s like, exactly why I wanted to talk about this—when you start to use the starting point of “violence is individual or cultural failure,” the logical solution is mass incarceration; so, by comparison, public health, it says, “this is a response to environmental conditions, we have to use the science of public health to change the incentives.” That looks compassionate or even radical, and that would be a logical conclusion of someone who watches “The Wire,” but what if that isn’t true? What if, once again, we’re asking the wrong question here, and those replicate in the exact same systemic problematic thinking about drugs the violence that we’re setting out to solve? The easiest way to frame, I think, one of the big issues with Operation Ceasefire and “The Wire’s” view of violence as public health is seen through the lens of one of the most common analogies used, not just by Operation Ceasefire, but by a lot of public health-style violence interruption programs: this idea that violence is a disease.
LB: So, I haven’t heard this idea before, I wanna make sure I’m getting it right: there are people making the argument that violence works like a disease, like the flu or or something?
LG: Yeah. There are public health experts from places like Hopkins and Harvard claiming that violence should be studied like an epidemic, and they have convinced a lot of powerful people to give them money to test this theory, like these are the architects of Operation Ceasefire—and that’s where the subtlety of the power of words come in. Think about it: if violence is a sickness, then the carrier has no agency, it’s just…sick.
LB: And then, they become a victim of this disease of violence, which is simply in the air and infectious where they live. This, I suppose, is the tragic inevitability of “The Wire,” and by proxy programs like Operation Ceasefire—this pathogen of violence seems to rise from nowhere to infect communities. But if you study black history, and the history of Baltimore, we, of course, know where much of the spikes and violence come from, and it’s not just drugs.
LG: Exactly, it’s more of a cultural trauma in violence, which starts at slavery—that traumatic relationship where violence which is normalized in slave societies. Like, “The Wire,” of course, leaves out one of the most famous people ever to live in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass, who talked about seeing these horrible scenes of violence wielded on his Maryland plantation. It’s not just a historical omission —if you ignore this reality, you begin to misread some of the social dynamics around drugs and violence and overestimate your own claims of competence and ability to succeed. For example, all of this talk about Operation Ceasefire being this objective, evidence-driven program, this vaccine for the disease of violence? The evidence that it actually worked is…not overwhelming. That 60% decline in violence they cited was nearly impossible to replicate outside of Boston, and it coincided with a general 35% nationwide decrease in murder that happened anyway. But given the credibility of these folks—from folks like the Harvard School of Public Health—it still gets held up today as the gold standard.
LG (cont.): What I really wanna focus on is this logic behind this so-called “call-in.” I want you to listen to you how this expert from this liberal think tank called the Aspen Institute describes the Operation Ceasefire model, while talking to the former mayor of Boston.[Voice Clip by Unknown #4]: It was a model for a conversation on race in the ‘90s that seem to work. It was called Operation Ceasefire and the cops and members of gang communities got together with the people they trusted most, namely their mothers, and the cops said to the…kids “you gotta stop doing this” and the moms said “you gotta stop doing this. If you offend, you’re gonna have a swift punishment, but if you don’t, the community is gonna be better,” and because trust is rebuilt, violence went down.
LG: And so, despite all the claims of objectivity, when this expert talks about Operation Ceasefire, he talks about violence essentially being an empathy deficit. These young people have somehow adopted, not a complex historical relationship to violence, we’re gonna individualize the version of discipline, which can be intervened through a mother’s love—and, of course, the threat of severe punishment. He actually calls it, quote, “a dialogue on race will be bringing folks with the credibility to change behavior.” But this is dialogue literally at gunpoint, just like the deal that “Bunny” Colvin, the fictional police commander in “The Wire,” cuts: if young people don’t accept the deal, they face arrest, enhanced sentencing, jail time. Los Angeles took the model even further when they did Operation Ceasefire: they coordinated with social service agencies to go after people for back child support and made sure, if they reoffended, they’d be kicked out of public housing. It’s actually a quite comprehensive threat to your very ability to survive, which is being branded as finding quote-unquote “levers” to incentivize behavioral shift.
LB: And so, it sounds like, to me, it’s not just the use of this carrot-and-stick punishment model, but they also cover it up with some of the verbiage they use.
LB: Like, when they choose to say the word “lever,” instead of “punishment,” or, say, “billy club to the back of the head”—they say “lever” because it makes you think of help or assistance, and it doesn’t speak to how it keeps participants accountable, which is to either put you in jail for three years, or however long, OR take away your housing arrangement.
LG: Exactly, and on the flipside, you’re giving access to potential workforce development training, given the message by community folks, “please change your ways.” And while the Aspen Institute narrates this as a compassionate, humane approach, you only have to do a little bit of deeper thinking to see this as something far more sinister. While the Aspen clip talks about the “call in,” they talk about bringing in mothers. The example most often given in literature for this “call in”? The community folks are the pastors, these sort of elder community leaders, these stereotypical black leaders. And not only have many of those folks in real life lost their credibility with street folk; historically, they’ve been in the exact same people in the community calling for these street kids to be locked up, because they are black homeowners concerned about their property value, or they want the quote-unquote elders to feel safe. Like, just assume “The Wire’s” representation of young black street kids is accurate for a second: can you imagine what they would say in the face of this so-called “call in”?
LB: I mean, it doesn’t really make sense at all when you put it like that. I work with youth and they aren’t inclined to completely change their life and leave the streets, because someone who their told might be a “community leader,” promises them an internship.
Even if “The Wire” isn’t perfect, anyone who has seen the show can kind of imagine what would happen if one of the characters was to be put through this “call in.” They would hear the message, leave, and talk afterwards about who the hell these people are or how hard and gangsta they are, and how they can never be caught. Like you said, Lawrence, to them, it’s not about making money or wanting to commit violence; it’s about loyalty and realizing authority has betrayed and targeted them their whole life. So they will backlash against this, so-called “call-in,” and I think, to them, it would feel more like selling out.
LG: And if they ever did bring in their mothers? That sense of being sold out would be even worse. Like, resistance to authority has been a necessary survival strategy, not just for surviving that corner, but surviving America and its attempts to inculcate docility into black people. And this Operation Ceasefire not only pathologizes that—like, literally calls it a virus—but offers you a buffet of destructive consequences for exercising your autonomy. Like, our references from the black radical tradition called for a very different way of thinking about violence, one which sees it as, essentially, the flipside of the positive cultural adaption towards resistance and rebellion—one which should be seen through the lens, also, of internalized self-hatred being produced by an unjust society.
LB: The professor who we played earlier, Amos Wilson, gave talks on so-called “black-on-black” crime in the ‘90s, where he totally shifts the frame for this debate
Wilson: In terms of their origins and early childhood of their race, and when we looked in at the origins of this society, we must immediately recognize that it is a society founded on criminal activities. Yes, and that is its inheritance today. It is still a part of it, a society that is a criminogenic society, and a society that engages on white-on-black violence, because it is founded on the murder and theft of Indian peoples and Indian lands…This group of people cannot face their own criminality. They must engage in the psychology of denial and repression and distortion—and this denial and distortion and repression must subfuse throughout the total society, throughout its total institutions, throughout its total values, and therefore, ultimately, it must pervert its total population… Accuse this society of being a criminogenic society, of being a criminal organization, of being an organization that engages in chronic white-on-black violence when it engages in drug trafficking, when it imports the drug that poisons our neighborhoods and destroys the consciousness of our people, destroys their health. We see a criminogenic people from way back, engaging in the selling of opium to the Chinese and then engaging in opium wars. We see this drug trafficking group of people engaging in alcohol addiction when they use it to destroy Indians, when they used it to destroy African chiefs, who are under the influence of the alcohol often signed away their peoples and their nations.
LG: And it’s this that really makes me struggle with “The Wire” and Operation Ceasefire. Like, I really wanted to include Professor Wilson because his work is so foundational to LBS and a lot of folks’ understanding of the complexities of so-called “black-on-black violence.” And, if you think about it from this perspective? Operation Ceasefire is asking folks to switch from one criminal organization to another. And while I don’t think street folk would put it that way, it’s something we as a general society really SHOULD think about, but don’t. I think the work of Dr. Wilson helps us fill some of the gaps in our thinking about black men and street life. Like, black male suicide rates are extremely low, but their homicide rates are extremely high; so what if many of these black men dying of street violence are suffering from a sense of hopelessness and frustration which, in other ethnic groups, lead to suicide or, God forbid, like school shootings? That thought doesn’t just shift the frame of “The Wire’s” depiction of street life—for me, it totally breaks it. It’s an old saying, but I think in this case you, gotta think about it: it’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted in a sick society. I think that’s exactly what you produce when you use something like a traditional public health framework to address a complex cultural problem of drugs and violence.
LB: So the question still remains: if the public health model which “The Wire” leads us to doesn’t work, what does? And I think, interestingly enough. There is a perfect example that answers this question and it has a similar name to the organization out of Boston we’ve been speaking about, Lawrence: it’s called the Baltimore Ceasefire.
LB (cont.): Created in 2017 and led by two black women named Letrice Gant and Erricka Bridgeford, unlike external efforts to manage or squelsh violence in black communities through mass incarceration, an increase in reactionary police presence, or a slew of pathologizing policies that turn out to be harmful to communities of color, the Baltimore Ceasefire decided to empower the community to internally create a mechanism for violence reduction. The Ceasefire is a citywide call-to-action for Baltimore city residents to avoid murder and affirm life.[Voice Clip by Unknown #5]: After years, it just kept showing up as this big thing that there was nothing any of us could do anything about, but the thing about Baltimore is that it has never been the one to just be defeated. So the story about the Baltimore Ceasefire is that Baltimore looked the murder rate in the eye and said, “what you not gon’ do is snatch our greatness.”
LB: This movement started, again, as a citywide call, asking Baltimore residents to avoid having any murders from Friday, August 4, through Sunday, August 6, 2017. And although the ceasefire in August did not make it a full 72 hours without any reported murders, the ceasefire of February 2018 did. The Baltimore Ceasefire, or “Baltimore Peace Challenge,” has been historic for Baltimore city. There have been hundreds of events, countless residents receive resources they needed, and each ceasefire has had at least 24 hours without murders. This is monumental, at a time when statistics suggest that there is a murder every 19 hours in Baltimore. The first ceasefire went 41 continuous hours without murder and, again, February 2018 endured not just for the planned 72 hours, but for 10 whole days. This was achieved by agreeing to sacred weekends without murder, with the vision that, eventually, folks will agree to honor the sacredness of each other every day and put an end to murder. Throughout the year, this movement serves as a hub for organizations and citizens to support one another work together and share resources with the goal of seeing an end to murder in Baltimore.
LB (cont.): The ostensible difference between the two “ceasefire organizations” is the perspective and intention behind them: Ceasefire Baltimore sees the black community as capable of addressing its own needs. It was birthed in the very community it seeks to address. It does not see violence as a myopic, clear-cut problem that can be addressed like a tumor, whereas you cut out the malignant mass and the problem is solved; it understands that it is complex, that is attached to a particular mindset and worldview that needs to be whittled away and shifted over time. Ceasefire Baltimore is a movement of love, whilst Operation Ceasefire is more like a sterile procedure, theorized in a white nonprofit boardroom, that sees itself as the remedy, rather than the folks most directly affected. It is intended to heal a sick population—it does not see that population as having the potential to heal itself.
LB (cont.): Likewise, I think the writers of “The Wire” have an equally narrow perspective which is ultimately what “The Wire” got wrong. It reminds me of an essay written by Ralph Ellison, criticizing “Native Son,” called “The World and the Jug,” which Ellison posits that the author could envision and create characters that cannot, in fact, envision the author himself, because the characters were designed with an ideological proposition that what white folks think of the negroes’ reality is more important than what negroes know it to be. And that is what we see play out in the writing of “The Wire”—whereas you have characters developed in an uncontextualized, monolithic light, devoid of the complexities and nuances of the true black experience in Baltimore, so much so, that Omar and Avon Barksdale can exist in Lawrence’s and my my imagination, but there is no context where Avon or Omar could imagine an LBS. They cannot see an autonomous black institution, they have no idea of a black think tank designed to fight on their behalf, they are not written to understand the collective nature of black folks’ self-determination. They are written outside of the rich history that informs our present state. They don’t exist in a world where black folks have agency the way we do. They are two-dimensional shadows of the true black identity and reality, which is why we here at In Search of Black Power, exist to push back against these myopic narratives because these stereotypical lenses become harmful when they stand in as the dominant narrative about us.
LG: Thank you to our guest, Jamal Jones, and thank you for listening. Make sure to follow us, like, and subscribe on Twitter and Instagram at @LBSBaltimore, and on Facebook at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. You can find this podcast at www.thenewtimbuktu.com, and on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you can find podcasts. You can also support us and become a sustaining member at LBSBaltimore.com.
LB: In Search of Black Power was created by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, hosted by Lawrence Grandpre and myself, Lady Brion. Our associate producer is [name] and is Justin Gladen . Our research assistant is Aaron Brown, logistical support from Nadirah Smith, and a thanks to the whole #LBSGang. We’ll see you next time, in search of black power.