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.


mrgoonga

Joe goes down by episode 4 for sure, marlo stops the meeting and takes over. Blindman gets taken down omar nearly gets killed but is wounded on the streets and is out to get marlo and his muscle. Barksdale is runs the prison and "boris" gives the connect to marlo.. marlo on the rise but is scared like hell... omar is fearsome.. but we fear for him .. hope he makes it.. bubbles is having a existenial crisis because he thinks he should be hiv+ .. I can see bunk getting it though, but like the way mcnulty has constructed his own serial killer to fund the wire on marlo.. last three episodes are going to be awesome ... game goes on people are just pawns but I reckon we have two major queens on the set (omar being one and whats the police officer's name spotted in the gay bar?) .. michael destined to take over marlo's patch too .. me thinks ..

kph

if mcnulty is throwing out the rule book, then why doesn't he just stop marlo on a quiet street and shoot him? it's not as if chris and snoop would call the cops.

kim

KPH you might have something there. Marlo will probably meet his demise by the hands of McNulty. He's always felt somewhat responsible for Bodie's death which is why he's so gunning for Marlo anyway.

mg

As exciting as this show is, why are the comments focusing on the predictions and not focusing on the complete ridiculousness of venkatesh's narrative. "pork rinds, apparently the favorites of the american thug?" are u serious? indeed, venkatesh is a master at exoticizing poverty and perpetuating stereotypes. we need to begin to start criticizing this man for his racist, highly sensational totally fictionalized analysis of poor people or the message of the wire will be entirely lost upon society.

Brian Tunney

Just watched episode 54; turns out Shine was right about Marlo and Prop Joe. Prop Joe is gunned down in the last scene....

nancyanne

HBO on Demand has some extra shorts on "The Wire". In one of them writer Joe Klein expresses shock that the show's received no Emmys (I don't even think it's ever been nominated). He said something like "are you kidding, it should receive the Nobel Prize for literature". "It's like a Dicken's novel". I thought it was obvious, too. No more awards shows for me, ever. This is the best material and the best acting I've ever seen on screen and I'm pretty old. Re: David's comments about Gene Roberts, I can only say the Phila. Inquirer was a great paper when he ran it.
Thanks David.

Misty

Stop posting spoilers you idiots. Don't ruin it for those of us who don't have On Demand.

Please, please remove any comments with spoilers.

N.C.

One thing I'm curious about: are Shine & co. long-time fans who have seen the previous seasons, or was this their first exposure to the show?

Josh

I disagree with #4. The FBI doesn't care about innercity crack use. They're much more concerned with terrorism at the moment.

As McNulty's brother said in a previous season, unless Osama's in East Baltimore, the feds couldn't care less.

AA

That wasn't his brother. McNulty doesn't have a brother in the show. It was his friend.

Tim

Stringer Bell, the moneyman for the Barksdale drug gang in Season One, is taking a Microeconomics course during Season One. (I believe he got an A.)

In the third season, the drug gang's heroin product is less robust, and the junkies start buying from the competition and business suffers. At a meeting of his drug sellers, Stringer uses the themes he learned in Microeconomics: "What you're thinking is that we have an inelastic product here. But what we have here is an elastic product." He later asks his professor what the best recourse is when attempting to sell an inferior product. Stringer employs the professor's advice: he changes the name of the product a la Altria.

More economics principles found in the series can be found at this web site:

http://notsneaky.blogspot.com/2007/05/economics-of-wire.html

Rasmus

When he talk about that elastic product shit, isn't that about his printing store. He tells his clerks that he want it to run as a real business and not as a cover up.
I might be wrong here but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Lexi

I'd be curious about what they have to say about the t.v. show Dexter.

Donny

Levitt and Dubner, do you watch this show? Last winter, after an Economics of Crime class, I asked Prof. Levitt if he had seen it, and he hadn't. I begged him to give it a shot...after all, it involves drugs, gangs, inner-city schools, all with (by all accounts, at least) great accuracy. Did I have any luck?

Al

Hey Mr. Venkatesh,

Where can I read about your experience watching Season 2? I want to!

p.s. I enjoyed Freakonomics. I took it on a weekend trip with a bunch of friends where we were drunk the whole time; drunk people kept stealing it and hiding so they could read it. That's either a great compliment, or drunks like pictures of apples.

katie

Definitely need to keep these weekly updates coming.

I second the idea of having a few ex-cops in the mix. Maybe not always, but for a few episodes.

Awesome! I also would be amused to hear what these guys think of other HBO/Showtime shows. You know there are some closet Carrie Bradshaw fans in that room...

mmmays

They're already wrong on all four (having seen ep #2 already). It's McNulty that's likely going to jail. Marlo is sure to be double crossed by Barksdale (whether or not he survives the attempt). Carcetti isn't focused on being a good crime stopping mayor, he's focused on being a good candidate for governor, and the major crimes task force was in service of his ends (these cats know the streets but they don't know politics). The Commissioner thought he could help out Davis by cutting major crimes from the budget, it's just that the Davis investigation survived.

X-THUG X-5-0

Being an ex-gang member and ex-cop in a major city and a lover of "The Wire" from season one, I think I got some cred. First, I didn't like the infusion (I didn't say I was a stupid gang member)of the Baltimore Sun into the storyline. Second, season five's premire was lacking the hardcore street element that was present during previous seasons. And finally, Marlo is without a doubt going to get smoked, simply because HBO is NOT going to send the message that the most ruthless banger is going to is going to come out on top. Just ask Stringer Bell! Oh yeah, he's dead...my bad!

Mark

The young Marlo is evil incarnate. Prop Joe may not off him, but gruesome ending awaits that young brother. Holla if you hear me!

cryptblade

Interesting article, but your sample size of real thugs (ex) means very little. It is all their own opinions and clearly, they have not watched the other seasons otherwise they would be familiar with how Prop Joe is, how McNulty and Bunk are, and how Marlo is.

But ultimately, this is still fiction. The only thing to be concerned about is is The Wire BELIEVABLE? I mean - what's your thugs' take on gay Omar? They might not believe it or whatever - but Omar is one of the BEST characters on The Wire if not on TV.

As for the Baltimore Sun - remember that The Wire is looking at the microcosm of an urban American city through different lenses. The protagonist is the drug underworld but viewed through the lenses of cops, of criminals, of the schools, of city politics, and now of journalists.

While interesting, it is NOT fair to ask what cops and thugs think of the show - and speculate on the show - purely by looking at the characters in a linear manner.

I don't know about you, but I did NOT expect Stringer to be killed at the beginning of Season 3. I did NOT expect to see Bodie killed at the end of Season 4. How heartbreaking was it to see Wallace executed by his own friends? Or D'angelo just killed like that? If the story worked, Kima would've been killed to in Season 1.

The Wire is a show that is merciless to the characters. That is one of the beauties of the show.

I love the Wire. I marvel at the beauty of the story telling, the characters, everything.

Read more...

scarlett

I highly recommend watching the show from the first episode of the first season as season 5 proceeds. It can get confusing but it's fun--for example, re #4 in these comments, the first time Stringer uses the elastic/inelastic product example is in his copy shop. His guys could care less. The Wire remains the finest show on television, even though there's hardly any competition worth mentioning.

Jro

I wonder what the "thugs" think of Baltimore in general. I've spent time in both East New York and West Baltimore, and westside takes it....although east new york got those meat pies!