Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia sociologist and author of “Gang Leader for a Day,” is back for a sixth report after watching “The Wire” with a group of gangland acquaintances. His past reports can be found here.
I had been waiting for the self-described “Thugs” to analyze the workings of City Hall and the fictional Baltimore Sun more consistently. This week, I got what I wished for, but not in the way I had envisioned.
The members of the group all seemed to root for Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti, the wunderkind who successfully challenged the city’s black machine in season five and won the mayoralty. I was surprised that there would be so much empathy for the newbie mayor, but the Thugs love the underdog. And, much to my surprise, they are avid political junkies.
“If I was that brother, you know what I’d tell the mayor?” Kool J said, referring to Norman Wilson, Carcetti’s close confidant. “I’d tell him, ‘There’s only one way to solve a crime problem. Make it a gang thing.’”
“Yup,” said Orlando. “My uncle was a [police] commander in Florida. Always told me that if you see the police go after the gangs, that means they’re hiding the fact that they can’t catch nobody else. They can’t stop something else that’s going on.”
“So instead of hiding the 22 Marlo Stanfield murders and playing it down, the mayor should make it out to be a gang war?” I asked.
“Which it is?” yelled Kool J, frustrated that Carcetti was wasting his time trying to take down the Maryland governor. “See, you always go after the street [men]. Whenever you get in real trouble — I don’t mean just low-level [stuff], but real trouble — you always go after the local boys. But that white boy is scared. He needs to take control, or else he won’t be around much longer.”
“So, let’s say he does that,” I replied. “That doesn’t mean crime goes down, or that homeless people get off the streets, or that the city gets more money for its budget, or that the black party leaders endorse him.”
“You know why Dinkins was a fool, [an] outright stupid fool?” asked Shine, who loves to discredit former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “He let [Rudy] Giuliani get control of the streets. See, most black men, when they get in office, they start clamping down on [other black men]. But Dinkins was too soft, and when you’re soft, people get distracted, start focusing on other s–t. With Giuliani, as long as that white man was arresting the gangs, no one noticed nothing else. Those were hard days for us.”
“Hard for the working man, huh?” I said sarcastically.
“My brother,” Orlando chimed in, “you think all we know is the streets? You don’t think we know how downtown works?”
“Well, what are Carcetti’s options, then?” I asked. “And, for that matter, what about our boy Gus at the Sun? How does he solve the troubles at the paper?” The Thugs were silent, but I could see them mulling over my question.
“The mayor needs to do what I said,” Kool J reiterated. “Then, he makes sure the brother, [Senator Clay] Davis gets off. [Carcetti] has to make sure that he stays out of jail.”
“Yes, yes!” said Flavor, rising from his seat and grabbing a chicken wing. “I’d go right after Davis, tell him, ‘I can get you off, but you owe me!’ Yup, that’s what I’d do.”
Shine then explained that Clay Davis had been beholden to a number of interests — businesses, political ties, thugs in the underworlds, etc. But these ties of influence may not bail him out, and Davis has been growing desperate for a new source of help. Carcetti could take advantage of Davis’s vulnerability with an early intervention: if he bails out the senator, then he basically wins control of the State Legislature, because Davis has so much dirt on other city and state politicians that they would be forced to work for him in the long run. With this as his political base, Carcetti would effectively win the gubernatorial election.
“But to get there,” Shine said wryly, “Carcetti is going to have to turn the other way when Davis gets his bags of money. See, you can’t get nothing for free.”
“Right, see that’s why this is some interesting s–t,” said Orlando. “You got a mayor that hasn’t done any real back door deals yet. That’s why he’s in trouble. Once he makes his first move, he’ll see that you got to be in bed with all the other [guys] if you want to run the city.”
After devising Carcetti’s strategy, they turned to Gus.
“Gus is a tough [guy],” Orlando said, nodding his head. “My brother’s got some big skeletons in his closet. I think he’s going to quit. Matter of fact, I’ll tell you how it’s going to go down. First, he’s going to call a meeting with somebody — maybe someone on the [co-op], or a cop, or some higher up, or maybe Omar. As soon as he finds out about Marlo taking over, and the murders, he’ll get that s–t into the paper. Big story about how the police are hiding s–t, you know, that kind of corruption that papers love talking about. His bosses won’t like it, because they want that feel-good stuff about the homeless.”
“But what’s in it for him? Why do that?” I asked. “Let’s say he gets the story. He may still get kicked out of the paper, no?”
Shine spoke slowly: “My uncle was a reporter in New York. Told me something I’ll never forget. Newspapers are just like n—-rs on the street. If they’re in a fire, the first thing they do is find somebody to blame; then they put it out. Just like these cats around here: they’ll sell you out for a buck.”
“Gus has to think about what to do next — just like we all do on the street,” Kool J said quietly. “But, I think he’s too soft. I think he’ll find out this serial killing is a bunch of bulls–t, get the white boy fired, and go right back to his desk.”
“How do you figure?” Orlando challenged Kool J. “What makes you think he’s so different?”
“You got three people who do the right thing: Bunk, Omar, and Gus. Three black men who live by their word.” As soon as Kool J said this, my mind turned to the meeting of Omar and the Bunk in the previous season, in which each expressed his belief that a man is only as good as his “code” of honor.
“Have any of you ever met anyone who was good to their word like that?” I asked. “I mean in real life, on the streets, in your neighborhood. Anybody?”