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.”


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


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...



I think Tony-T is dead on that any candidate perceived as non-conservative has to be tougher on crime than conservatives. I'm not sure if incarceration rates have gone up with minority governors or mayors, but incarceration rates ballooned during the Clinton years thanks to non-violent drug offenses. There's also the incident in 1992 where in the middle of campaigning, Bill returned to Arkansas to preside over the execution of an African-American mentally-handicapped prisoner.


If I may indulge in a little nitpicking, KM, the Greeks (despite their "rabbi" in the FBI) did have to give up another crew in season 2. I don't remember if it was specified which crew it was that they dropped a dime on, but recall the scene where the Greek tells the FBI agent (Koutris?) over the phone that what he thought was merely a shipment of paint pellets was actually compressed heroin.


@ Munich P. (#11)

You may be right: the old Greek (who, again, isn't even really Greek, remember?) may well give Vondas up. And he was the one who had the in at the FBI, remember (or am I the only one who remembers the season on the docks?).


Great blog.

@Joel #15

Seriously, why don't you ask the thugs what they would do if marijuana was legalized and available at liquor stores and the powder drugs were available at a pharmacy. In other words, no black market in drugs.

Ask the thugs whether they'd still be in the drugs business or in other criminal activities depicted on this show and the Soprano's etc.

There is no connection between drugs and thugs except drug prohibition. Similar to the previous "noble experiment" in alcohol prohibition.

The Wire, however, unlike police procedurals depicting the Elliot Ness/Untouchables era, chooses to show the predictable corruption that follows when police pursue an well-meaning moral crusade to criminalize non-violent, consensual vices by adults. In non-law enforcement circles, conservatives would otherwise praise the workings of the "free market". Here, they are moral interventionists (against races and people they don't like: blacks, hispanics, kids, poor). The Wire shows the externalities and unintended consequences when naive do-gooderism runs into reality.


Dan Limbach

There's something here that nobody is mentioning. "The Wire" is a TV show. Fiction.

HBO strives for just enough authenticity to allow viewers to suspend their disbelief - to buy into the plot. But the writers will also write plots that are the most gripping, and most tantalizing, not the most likely to happen in real life.

So asking the real thugs what is likely to happen in "The Wire" is like asking an olympic wrestling expert to comment on what is likely to happen in a season of WWE pro wrestling.


1. "I don't like this posting thread- giving airtime to intentionally unethical men is inappropriate"

a. 'Ethics' are subjective by definition, i.e. 'ethics' =/ 'morality'.

b. Assuming you don't think the simple act of selling drugs is unethical (and if you do, I assume you don't ever smoke cannabis or tobacco or drink alcohol, thus becoming an unethical and hypocritical enabler & accomplice), then are these 'thugs' necessarily unethical? What if they are honest, forthright, non-violent, and reliable to customer & supplier?


2. "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."

You give up the coin TO your source. Your source gets a career bump; you get more info... that or you pay him beau coup. Note: these are very short-sighted dealer (and cop!) ethics.


Dale S.

Thanks for yet another great blog post. The concept of being a "coin" reminds me of Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed. I wonder how many coins there are out there.(?)

And don't worry guys - you will be finding out in next week's episode how Marlo uses that phone to communicate with the greeks. It's f------g brilliant.


Regarding #32: There is a difference between an assasin and a serial killer. Assasins kill for a particular external objective (typically political, economic or legal) and usually under someone else's orders. Serial killers OTOH are driven to kill in order to satisfy some internal urge or need. They experience this through the thrill, sexual satisfaction and/or dominance they obtain from the act and they act independently of anyone else (although in some rare cases there have been tandems they still act independent of anyone outside the pair).

Chris and Snoop are assasin's--they are motivated by an economic desire. They are rewarded for their service to Marlo with both money and a position of power. They are not caught up in the act of killing and in fact they are quite detached.


#30 - word.

#27 - that's messed up. i personally have never understood how people could sell drugs such as heroin... there's just no doubt that you're hurting people. there's no room for any sort of rationalization, but then again i've never been that poor.

and there's actually nothing odd about a sociopath being a nice person, it's quite common. check out the DSM IV's criteria. sociopaths/antisocials make great con men because they often are quite personable and have no affect. think, ted bundy. my point was, how is that different from just about any business? one of the tenants of buhddism that's always frustrated me is "right livelihood". that is, to make a living without harming others, but in capitalism this is almost unavoidable. driving to works pollutes the air, owning fast food restaurants assists peoples' obesity, and every time i weld i put fumes in the air that are said to cause cancer.

capitalism provides choices based on peoples wants and needs. you can rarely blame people for filling whatever niche capitalism provides them.



Brother Shine...I think Tookie Williams was a serial killer. There are a couple of Eight Trey Gangster Crips in LA who would fit nicely under the heading of serial killer. And I never saw an ETG who wasn't black.


Black people can never be serial killers.....I seem to remember 2 guys in DC with a beat up Chevy Caprice and a Bushmaster rifle not too long ago...

Back to the Wire and does anyone think Brother Mozone(?) is gonna make a return...


Isn't there an episode in Season 2 where the Greeks are tipped off by an FBI agent that Frank Sobotka has offered to cooperate with their investigation?

Would that suggest that maybe the Greeks were indeed in the position that Shine, et al. foretold?

I might be misinterpreting the events of Season 2, and I was never really clear on how or why that whole episode with Frank Sobotka being killed went down. I'm suggesting that maybe the Greeks were getting tipped off by the Feds because the Greeks had already given the Feds their "coin", and neither party wanted that arrangement compromised, as would have been the case had Sobotka been allowed to live.


I don't like this posting thread- giving airtime to intentionally unethical men is inappropriate- but LOL to the black-on-black police enforcement theory- it reminded me of Boys (sp) In Da Hood, where Cuba gets harassed by a black officer

B K Ray

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.


Richard Stone

If ever there were unadulterated nonsense it would be the horrible misuse of the word "appropriate" especially as it relates to giving deliberately unethical people a forum or listening to what they have to say. If we cannot have such a forum, how will we know or at least hear what they have to say, whether it is true or what they want us to hear or whatever other limitation we want to put upon the veracity of the information? And who decides what is appropriate? net busybodies? The functional equivalent of little old ladies? Inappropriate? Give me a break.

Munich P

Yeah the phone has to be encrypted. It could be a one-time pad, which is unbreakable code unless you tamper with the phone on either end.

It seems possible the Greeks will give Marlo up, theres also a possibility that the old Greek will give up Vondas along with Marlo. It seems like the old man and Vondas weren't really seeing things the same way. Am i wrong, or is the old man the decision maker?


Anyone else notice that Chris Partlow is growing a little weary of Marlo? He could end up selling Marlo out, especially if the Bunk turns up DNA evidence against him. Then again, Marlo could have Chris killed before this happens, leaving him with less muscle and more vulnerable to Omar...

KM again

KP - its cool, i love to pick nits about this show. Its true they gave up the shipment, but it was THEIR shipment anyway. They gave it up because their operation in B-more was compromised and they had to get out of town, and threw it to their man koutros as a gift. So they didnt actually give up a crew, just product. remember the conversation with vondas and the old guy "everything is clean..."

and yes, there is definitely tension btwn vondas and the old guy - my take is the old guy gave marlo his tacit approval to take out joe when the met at the cafe, and vondas really didnt like that.

Oh - and i watched the next episode on demand already, so i wont reveal what freeman finds out about those phones.