What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?

Sudhir Venkatesh has become pretty well known in these parts as an authority on the inner workings of criminal street gangs. His new book is out tomorrow; but today, here’s a great post from him about watching “The Wire” with some of the kind of guys who are portrayed in it.

Ever since I began watching HBO’s The Wire, I felt that the show was fairly authentic in terms of its portrayal of modern urban life – not just the world of gangs and drugs, but the connections between gangland and City Hall, the police, the unions, and practically everything else. It certainly accorded with my own fieldwork in Chicago and New York. And it was much better than most academic and journalistic reportage in showing how the inner city weaves into the social fabric of a city.

Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control.

For the first episode, we gathered in the Harlem apartment of Shine, a 43-year-old half Dominican, half African-American man who managed a gang for fifteen years before heading to prison for a ten-year drug trafficking sentence. I invited older guys like Shine, most of whom had retired from the drug trade, because they would have greater experience with rogue cops, political toughs, and everyone else that makes The Wire so appealing. They affectionately named our gathering “Thugs and ‘Cuz.” (I was told that the “‘cuz” – short for “cousin” – was for me.)

There was plenty of popcorn, ribs, bad domestic beer, and fried pork rinds with hot sauce on hand. The pork rinds, apparently the favorite of the American thug, ran out so quickly that one of the low-ranking gang members in attendance was dispatched to acquire several more bags.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of the evening’s highlights:

1. The Bunk is on the take. Much to my chagrin (since he is my favorite character), the consensus in the room was that the Bunk was guilty. In the words of Shine, “He’s too good not to be profiting. I got nothing against him! But he’s definitely in bed with these street [thugs].” Many had known of Bunk’s prowess as a detective from past episodes. The opening scene, in which he craftily obtains a confession, reinforced their view that the Bunk is too good not to be hiding something.

2. Prediction No. 1: McNulty and the Bunk will split. The observation regarding Bunk’s detective work led to a second agreement, namely that McNulty or Bunk will be taken down – shot, arrested, or killed. This was closely tied to the view that McNulty and Bunk will come into conflict. The rationale? Everyone felt that Marlo, Proposition Joe, or another high-ranking gang leader must have close (hitherto unexplained) ties with one of these two detectives. “Otherwise,” Kool-J, an ex-drug supplier from Northern New Jersey, observed, “there ain’t no way they could be meeting in a Holiday Inn!” Orlando, a Brooklyn based ex-gang leader, believed the ambitions of Bunk and McNulty would run into each other. “One of them will be taken down. Either the white boy gets drunk and shoots some [guy] ’cause he’s so pissed, or Bunk gives him up to solve a case!”

3. The greatest uproar occurred when the upstart Marlo challenged the veteran Prop Joe in the co-op meeting. “If Prop Joe had balls, he’d be dead in 24 hours!” Orlando shouted. “But white folks [who write the series] always love to keep these uppity [characters] alive. No way he’d survive in East New York more than a minute!” A series of bets then took place. All told, roughly $8,000 was wagered on the timing of Marlo’s death. The bettors asked me – as the neutral party – to hold the money. I delicately replied that my piggy bank was filled up already.

4. Carcetti is a fool. Numerous observers commented on the Baltimore Mayor’s lack of “juice” and experience when it came to working with the feds. The federal police, in their opinion, love to come in and disrupt local police investigations by invoking the federal racketeering (“RICO”) statutes as a means of breaking up drug-trafficking rings. “When feds bring in RICO, local guys feel like they got no [power],” Tony-T explained, offering some empathy to local police who get neutered during federal busts. “White boy [a.k.a. Carcetti], if he knew what he was doing, would keep them cops on Marlo just long enough to build a case – then he would trade it to the feds to get what he wanted.” Others chimed in, saying that the writers either didn’t understand this basic fact, or they wanted to portray Carcetti as ignorant.

The evening ended with a series of additional wagers: Tony-T accepted challenges to his claim that Bunk dies by the end of the season; Shine proposed that Marlo would kill Prop Joe; the youngest attendee, the 29-year-old Flavor, placed $2,500 on Clay Davis escaping indictment and revealing his close ties with Marlo.

I felt obliged to chime in: I wagered $5 that the circulation of the Baltimore Sun will double, attracting a takeover by Warren Buffet by Episode 4. No one was interested enough to take my bet. Stay tuned.


1. I want to hear what they have to say about seasons 1 & 3.

2. Perhaps because they got out the game 10+ years ago, they haven't heard this, or maybe the Wire just gets it wrong (which I doubt), but according to the Wire, The Feds are interested in counter-terrorism and anti-corruption (busting up dem corrupt Democrats only, and their interest in drug-trafficking has passed.

And can we please get some follow-up commentary on their opinions as the season develops, as well as a final tally of which bets were wagered, won, and lost? This is too good not to have follow-up.


as for my wager, i'd wager that everyone on this list who predicts mcnutty cooking up a serial killer has seen at least part of eps. 2-7.


If Burns or Simon are reading this (unlikely I know, but hey): get these guys, or their B-more equivalents, to do a commentary track on the S5 DVD release. Please!


How much experience do these thugs have with the inner workings of federal versus city drug enforcement? I like the comments about marlo/prop joe, but I think your friends expertise on The Wire ends when the show gets off the streets.

Ken Gibbs Jr

I saw the shorts on HBO on Demand as totally agreed. It's also telling that The Wire has even been snubbed by black media. With the exception of BET airing re-runs, why is so-called black media not acknowledging one of the few successful black dramas in the last decade? They haven't even been given a cover by any mag, though this GIANT magazine video suggests it's finally on the way: http://www.giantmag.com/content.php?cid=514


Interesting take(s)...

My comments, as related to the numbered summary:
1. (Bunk) Well, he certainly does wear nice suits and smoke a lot of cigars for a divorced father of two on an honest homicide detective's salary. He ain't no Serpico. Just sayin'...

2. (Bunk/McNulty)Not...gonna...happen, with the exception of McNulty perhaps getting drunk and doing something foolish, like the time he was so determined to take that left turn at 40 mph, after which, he stopped at the latenight diner for a quick bite...and dessert. That looked like a fun night; I'll have to try that some time.

3. (Prop Joe)Although a possibly unrealistic character (how the hell should I know?), he prefers harmony over his own pride, which can be seen in past episodes. Also, "he got the product, Marlo got the muscle," so what happens when the next version of "Dem' New Yoke Boys" emerge? Something else to keep in mind, though: Marlo may be working on a way to get the product w/o being part of the co-op...then what can Prop Joe offer? Nothin'. Marlo isn't the one with numbered days...

4. (Carcetti)Although they seemed to demonstrate some general knowledge about RICO cases (again, I don't know any different/better myself), I agree with Tom's post in the sense that this may be outside their realm of expertise. "Juice" is not typically a requisite for mayors, or any politician for that matter, in my humble opinion. Furthermore, he's a new mayor. Isn't he supposed to be somewhat ignorant during the learning process? Regardless, I think Carcetti and the writers actually understand a good bit more than these critics believe about running a city and "basic fact(s)", respectively.

Finally, regarding Flavor's (or should I say Flava's?) prediction, I give you a simple, yet appropriate response: "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet."



On #4 in the post and related commentary: the federal government is not too preoccupied with terrorism and corruption to ignore illegal narcotics trafficking. For proof, check out the involvement of the DEA, Department of Justice, and US Department of Treasury in the recent (2006-2007) breakup of the Black Mafia Family drug organization. Odds are, in real life, the feds would happily drop a RICO case on Marlo Stanfield.

Matt Reads Newsweek

Apparently, Matt reads Newsweek and likes to take credit for it.
"I found this article to very interesting and well done. As for my predictions....
1) Look for McNulty to conjure up a fictitious character who is responsible for seriously heinous crimes, e.g. countless murders. Being none the wiser, the Sun will pick up on the fake story and pressure City Hall to act. In response, City Hall will reactivate the Major Case Squad"

Instead of saying its your prediction, give credit to the magazine writer that put this statement in his article, plagiarizer.


1) Bunk is not on the take. He is to prideful and to upright to deal with Drug Dealers.

2) Prop-Joe is in trouble. Marlo and his crew are serial killers obessed with control the entire drug trade in Baltimore. Once he finds out who the connect is, he will make his own deal and eliminate Prop-Joe.

3) Carcelli wants to get elected Govenor. Dead bodies from the hood are less a priority than City Schools.

4) Omar will probaly kill Chris before Michael kills Omar, which will secure his position as Omar's Under-Boss.

5) It is amazing to me how the kids are so similar to the adult characters. Michaels is so similar to Stringer Bell. Kinard is a young Omar/Chris. Namond is a young DeAngelo.

6) The nespaper angle is important because newspapers and the media in general help to shape public opinion.


The federal gov't. is increasingly involved in street level drug (and especially gun) cases. Every gun arrest in the city is screened by the ATF for federal prosecution, according to the US attorney's office here.

cadaverous MF

Agree with #45

small axe

Poster #43: You are an evil, evil, evil person. I wish lifelong guilty insomnia upon you.


can the moderator please delete comment 43 - if what he wrote is true, that is just wrong, wrong, wrong....


RE: the Baltimore Sun/ media-centric angle of Season 5 -- it's there as per The Wire Simon's wish not to produce a better cop-show, but to paint a whole, many-faceted picture of what late XX-century life in a 2nd-tier American city feels like (akin to writing a bildnungsnovel in 65 installments, like Charles Dickens). And press is an integral part of any urban setting, indeed one of the "players."

That said, Mark Bowden has recently supplied us with a plausible deconstruction of sorts of Simon's possibly true motive for his portrayal of said Baltimore Sun paper. It is well worth reading:

"The Angriest Man In Television," Jan/Feb 2008 | The Atlantic Online;

(No street-savvy thug, retired or otherwise, would be capable of getting that --if indeed it is-- right.)

Lastly, the sociologist-author Venkatesh has come up with a novel new TV-Commentariat, but let us not forget who these people really were/are: moral losers unworthy of our respect. Pray this is *NOT* the beginning of a new trend of news/ blog activity: thugs commenting on everyday events between bursts of main "creativity." Ugh [Nick Denton, stop reading this right here!]. Besides, all sociology is but pseudo-science (having produced a child with a sociologist, I feel competent to opine that).


Chris Out

One thing we learned over time is good police work cannot be done so how can bad police work be accepted or cause change--McNulty's actions may get Major Crimes working again but his transgressions will cost him his job and probably jail time.

I don't think it makes sense to kill Marlo. The theme is if one dug dealer goes, another one pops up. That was already explored so why make Marlo seem like a character that has to die because he's doing wrong. Where is the social commentary on that? I think Marlo kills Joe and survives (maybe at some point has to rebuild the empire this season or a up and comer starts to take over some territory).

Big Smoke

Interesting article. It would have been nice if the author mentioned whether or not the thugs he watched the show with had viewed the previous four seasons. As for some of their predictions... not all of them to me are going to come to play. Bunk? I don't feel that Bunk is on the take. He's (for lack of a better word) preached about how the neighbourhood has changed and his obvious disregard for drug dealers is apparent.

Marlo? Avon (in my opinion) is setting him up to fall. Whether that means Marlo gets clipped or simply catches a charge, Avon will have his revenge. Why would the Greeks work with someone they don't know and therefore won't trust? Does anyone remember the meet Marlo pressed Prop Joe to have after Omar robbed the co-op in Season 5? Vondas specifically told Marlo that he was only there "as a favor to Joe". The way Vondas' character was written in Season 2 to me, would seem that while he is a businessman, he values loyalty over all.

I could write an article myself but will refrain from going any further.


Matt Bonner

Last night I found myself wondering about street sense. It's a commonly head belief that the person who we ordinarily consider "smart", someone like Dr. Venkatesh for example, wouldn't last 5 minutes on the street for lack of street sense.

Yet for the strength of that assertion, I've never seen any efforts to try to measure street sense. Now, I'm a software guy, so this is far from my professional field. If there are well known studies, I'd love to read them. But I'm wondering if Dr. Venkatesh has any thoughts on the topic?

thanks for posting on this topic, it's fascinating,

Tim Taxter

Does anyone know if this is the same Shine who also used to rap, or is this just a bizarre coincidence? His song the "The Life" sounds a lot like the description of the guy above.

Big G

This man is a liar!
No real gang member or leader would
let this man do anything with them.
He trying to pretend that black people are stupid!
you shouldn't believe nothing he say about Robert Taylor of any of these things he saying now!!!!
I know real gang leaders and guess what he is lying big time!!!!!
Some body need to bust him out by talking to some of those people he so called know in the projects.
Some body need to check his facts or you will end up just like that man who had the million dollar book that lied to Oprah!


Called "Respected street figures?" Calling you "cuz"? Gambling with street thugs? Freakonomics has lost its edge and is beginning to sound like Vanilla Ice trying to be down. Disrespectful to the people you are writing about and your audience.