Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia sociologist and author of “Gang Leader for a Day,” is back with another report after watching “The Wire” with a group of gangland acquaintances. Past posts can be found here.
Dear Freakonomics.com readers: Your comments in the last discussion regarding the respective strategies of Marlo and Omar was so inspiring to “the Thugs” that they requested a separate meeting this weekend to discuss your theories, speculations, and proud declarations of ethnic affiliation. Stay tuned for that. Now, here’s what happened during Episode Five:
“You know why [black men] don’t do serial killing?” Tony-T asked me.
“That’s not true; black Americans have actually participated in serial killings,” I began to lecture. “It’s a myth that they don’t.”
“It’s a joke, my man,” Tony-T interrupted, disappointed that I would go into professorial mode so quickly.
“Okay, why then? Why aren’t black folk serial killers?”
“Because we can’t count that high.”
Shine and Flavor laughed. Episode five of the The Wire was unfolding in front of us, and the fake serial killer of Baltimore was about to strike.
“You’re sick,” I said. “And with The Wire, anything can happen, I suppose.”
“Let me tell you that you can rule out a n—-r as the fake serial killer,” Shine cried.
Flavor shouted, “This may be the only crime that a black man can’t be rounded up for!”
The episode was a bit sluggish for the Thugs, and so the conversation drifted toward an interesting discussion of ethnicity and the labor market for drugs. We even managed to touch on the election. The political discussion began when Flavor observed that Marlo’s secret negotiation with Vondas — a key member of the Greek narcotic supply contingent — needed fresh interpretation.
“You know why [Vondas] gave Marlo that phone, right?” He referred to the sign of amity on the part of the Greeks toward the new kid in town.
“No clue,” I replied.
“See, when you deal in weight [a.k.a. large supplies of drugs], you become a coin.”
I shrugged, looking to the others for help deciphering the term “coin.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Shine. “That boy is a different generation than me! I can’t keep up with the talk these days.”
Flavor waved him off and kept talking. “A coin is when you play both sides because you have to. That Greek dude made a deal with somebody — someone higher up. Usually, it would be the feds. The foreign people, immigrants — like the Greeks, Latins, Jamaicans, Chinese — they don’t have nobody around here who can protect them. No one in the police, you dig? So they need to give the feds somebody fresh, somebody like Marlo. That gets them, what you call, immunity. They can’t be caught because they gave up a big fish.”
“A year of ‘get out of jail free?’” said Orlando.
“Right,” Flavor continued. “The Greeks get a year to make their money. And then they got to give up something else, to get another year. Last year, this Jamaican posse was selling weight in Newark, but they couldn’t pass no one on; they couldn’t give up anybody, so they lost their coin. They left the country, or were killed, I’m not sure.”
“That’s right,” joked Shine. “That’s why [black men] can’t get nowhere. Who can they give up? Nobody is lower than them!”
Orlando explained what Shine meant: some immigrant groups were uniquely positioned to act as “coins” because their countries (Mexico, Jamaica, Vietnam) lay in the crosshairs of international drug trafficking corridors. When they arrive in an American city, they tend to be too small in number to have political clout (translation: to secure hiding places, sites to launder money, etc.). So they have to play both sides and give up a few customers or compatriots now and then. This leads to high immigrant turnover, which makes the retention of the Greeks in Baltimore rather unique. Orlando then predicted that the feds would pressure the Greeks to give up Marlo.
I pointed out that the immigrant control of a city’s underworld differed by geography: in New York, where gangs are (generally) not organized as bands of youth protecting “turf,” immigrant groups can’t penetrate so deeply. All groups are fighting for control of distribution, both local and citywide. But in Chicago, L.A., and other cities, the local gangs expend more of their energy securing territory, which leaves wider distribution channels for the provenance of immigrants.
The Thugs were so bored with my explanation that they turned to politics.
Tony-T interrupted me: “Let me tell you something about a black man as president. Everyone on the streets better get ready, because the police will get fierce.”
Shine saw that I didn’t understand, so he went on: “See, a black man has to get tough on his own people, show he’s tough. That’s the only way white folk will support him. That’s why, when you got black folk leading the police, you get more [black men] getting their asses kicked.” (Economists? Criminologists? Freaks? Is there a correlation between crime and the ethnic makeup of the commander?)
Flavor laughed, “See, that’s why Marlo is going to go crazy on the streets! Because that white mayor won’t have the balls to do nothing. But a black man as president? Whoo! I’m getting out of the game if that happens. Black on black policing. That’s a b—h.”