What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire? Part Five

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.”

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  1. gp says:

    Another great post. The coin theory fits rather well. Shine’s last comment is perfect. Life will be even better under Obama.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. dj says:

    I dig the blog, and love The Wire, but the show has jumped the shark. I like how David Simon has based his story lines and characters in reality; however, the fake serial killer is too much. I get that reporters make up stuff for a better story or to get published. I also get that cops will bend (break) the rules to try and get their man. It just seems too far fetched to have this collusion between the reporter and McNulty.

    That being said, the best story line is the drama surrounding Marlo, Omar, and the Co-op. That is the only thing keeping me from going crazy with The Wire this season. I appreciate the insight that the “Thugs” bring to the blog and the show.

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  4. B K Ray says:

    Hey Sudhir, it would be nice if when the ‘Thugs’ offered up some theories, that they could be a little more specific with the back-up data. Because crime did not take a precipitous drop when Washington was Mayor in Chicago or when Leroy Martin was Chief of Police.

    And if what they say is true, then would not service for black people get a little better when a black person takes over the title position of that service as well. Again, not happening in Chicago, the no. 4 Cottage Grove bus still runs slow and in groups of three (there is something I would love to see an economist take a look at, bus bunching). Or it could be that more white people wind up with polished apples because black people are still trying to prove how well they can do their jobs to white people and not black people. (Again, look at Chicago).

    That sounds like it is one of the many uncorellated myths that run the low end, to me.

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  5. B K Ray says:

    Sorry, I meant -unsubstantiated myths-.

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  6. KM says:

    The whole serial killer thing is definitely a reach..i really wish they wouldn’t have made that a central plot line. Still the best show on TV.

    The coin theory is interesting, but im pretty sure thats not where this is going because the greeks already have a rabbi in the FBI (remember from season 2?), so they dont need to give anyone up. And besides, they were using those “phones” in season to as well to communicate with each other.

    It was great to see them pull bug’s daddy back into the picture though – when chris beat him to death in season 4 i thought for sure that was going to be what did them in, what with the trace evidence and all. Its great they took this route and even better that bunk gets it done while mcnulty is on his little “hunt”. great irony, that was always the strength of this show – the ironies and moral ambiguities. So in the sense that the serial killer feeds into that irony its worth it, but i still think they could have found a better foil than that. It definitely crosses the line from being morally ambigious to just plain wrong.

    Bringing avon back as the jailhouse don was a stroke of genius as well. If i may go out on a limb – my guess is omar takes out marlo (or they destroy each other) and avon & brianna take back over through his connect to the greeks via “boris”(why is it always boris?)…either that or everyone goes down when freeman finally cracks the code and gets to the greeks. Somehow i’d like it better if the show ended with avon taking back over…the symbolism that nothing ever really changes would be great, and in keeping with animus of the show…

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  7. Shan says:

    So I take it that these guys aren’t major contributors to the Obama campaign?

    Out of curiosity, who do they support in the election (and in past elections)?

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  8. Jeff S. says:

    I’m guessing that the Greeks taught Marlo to use his phone to encrypt his (text-based) communications with them (hence the weird sound on the wire tap at the end of the last episode). It’s what I’d do, but then again, I’m a computer scientist, not a drug smuggler.

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