Cops and dealers

Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh, Cop in the Hood, by Peter Moskos, Homicide, by David Simon

My father, a mild-mannered and very white academic, was once spat at in the street while taking a walk in Baltimore, apparently having strayed too far from his English literature conference. A generation on, I provoked only a snarled ‘What you lookin’ at?’, while searching among delapidated rowhouses for the city’s Edgar Allen Poe museum (and later a friendly heads-up that it was shut). Baltimore is a fascinating city, but the touchiness of some of its citizens when encountering misplaced white strangers is a reminder that it is also an overwhelmingly black and relatively poor American city.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘citizens’, in fact. The police in the HBO cop show The Wire, which is set in Baltimore, sometimes use the word to distinguish law-abiding tax-payers (black or white) from gang-members and drug dealers and no doubt the sorts of people who like to give white tourists a hard time. These people are not ‘citizens’; they have no place in respectable society. Unlike the denizens of third world megaslums, however, they live in the midst of a prosperous and sophisticated modern economy. In principle they have access to education and means of self-improvement – many of their peers are ‘citizens’ with jobs, if not good ones – and yet mainstream society has failed to accommodate them in mass. This failure is commonly put down to the pull of ‘the street’, the world of illegal drugs and the gangs that deal in them.

As the success of The Wire shows, this world is a source of fascination for relatively well-off Americans and Europeans, perhaps especially those of an intellectual bent, who have little in common with either drug dealers or the police whose job it is to contain them. It is likely that to some extent both Peter Moskos’ Cop in the Hood and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day are trading on the popularity of the TV drama. Moskos’ book recounts his experience as a police officer for a year in Baltimore, where The Wire is set, and while Venkatesh’s is about drug-dealing gangs in Chicago, it deals with many of the same themes and realities explored in the show. Besides this, what the two books have in common is that they are both written by young academics who left their desks to experience at first hand the two different sides of the world of cops and dealers; as the US subtitle of Venkatesh’s book has it, ‘A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets’.

Members of the Barksdale gang in The Wire (HBO)

The Wire is in a sense a sequel to the 1990s series, Homicide: Life on the Street, which is based on a 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon – the producer of both shows – which has just been republished by Canongate. Simon was a journalist on the Baltimore Sun, who like Moskos and Venkatesh took time out to experience ‘life on the street’, in his case shadowing a team of homicide detectives. Simon’s book was more like a novelisation of the squad’s travails over the year, though, originally marketed in the ‘true crime’ genre, and many of the characters made their way into the TV show with different names. Cop in the Hoodand Gang Leader for a Day are different, though both are highly readable and certainly not academic in style.

Moskos and Venkatesh both discuss the practical difficulties of note-taking in the field, with Moskos writing on a small laptop in his patrol car during quiet periods on the midnight shift, and Venkatesh writing at the kitchen table of his main gang contact’s mother, or else in a bar. But it is the deeper tension between scholarly investigation and participation in the everyday lives of their subjects that comes to the fore.

It is only in a short author’s note at the end of Homicide that David Simon refers to himself and the tensions he had faced as a journalist among police, such as the fact that he’d had to cut his hair, lose the earring and buy several sports jackets in order to blend in. Venkatesh and Moskos both put themselves at the centre of their respective narratives, and thus make much more of the cultural gulf between cops and dealers on one hand, and academics and writers on the other. There is more to this than fashion sense (though Venkatesh, too, quickly found his pony tail and tie-dyed shirts were not quite the thing in the Chicago projects).

Sudhir Venkatesh first showed up at one of the high-rise blocks where he would spend much of his time during his research armed with a survey that marked him out as other-worldly more surely than any outfit. ‘How does it feel to be black and poor?’ he asked a group of incredulous Black Kings gang members (p14). Suffice to say that this encounter revealed far more about the psychological distance between two ways of life than about how it does feel to be black and poor. Venkatesh reckons he wouldn’t have been able to gain the access he eventually did had he been white. In fact, his south Asian complexion meant he was at first taken for Hispanic. One of the Black Kings sought to make sure, having been just about convinced this stranger wasn’t a Mexican rival gang member: ‘So you don’t speak Spanish?’ In fact, as a bookish guy who went to school in California, Venkatesh does speak Spanish, but wisely chose not to labour the point.

The Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, where Venkatesh conducted his fieldwork

Venkatesh begins the book by explaining that he had been unhappy with the densely statistical and analytical approach to sociology that prevailed in his department. He wanted to take a more ethnographic approach, getting up close to his subjects and understanding how they lived and how they understood the world. The survey was his first, clumsy, attempt at this, which he soon abandoned in favour of simply ‘hanging out’ – taking up the challenge put to him by JT, the gang leader he ended up shadowing for several years.

The book’s title comes from another challenge JT set Venkatesh, to spend a day making decisions about various issues that came up in the gang’s business. Since that business was drug dealing, and most of the decisions involved whom to hit and how hard, this raised obvious problems. Add to this the fact that Venkatesh kept in with JT by letting him believe he was writing a book specifically about him (though he never had any such intention), and it’s clear that the project was ethically troublesome to say the least, though on balance it was certainly worth it.

While Peter Moskos was on the right side of the law during his research, he found no less a gulf between his world and that of the police. Tellingly, he joined up in response to a similar challenge to the one JT set Venkatesh. As a researcher in criminology, he at first applied to shadow the police much as David Simon had done, but the police captain didn’t want the inconvenience of an academic tagging along with his officers, and told Moskos if he wanted to understand police work he should join for real. Moskos called his bluff and became a bona fide ‘police’, as the vernacular has it.

For the most part, Moskos managed to fit in and get along with his fellow officers, but the tension between the detached and inquisitive mentality of an academic researcher, and the tough, practical attitude of cops on the street was unmistakable. This was also reflected in a more political antagonism between liberal opinion and the way police think. Moskos explains that ‘political correctness’ is both understood and mocked by police. He quotes one officer describing the people of Baltimore’s Eastern District as ‘drugged-out, lazy motherfuckers’, before adding the respectable yadda yadda about social conditions and the need for better education, ‘so when you write down all this stuff for your book I don’t come out like an asshole’ (p9).

Rather than lamenting the backwardness of his erstwhile colleagues, however, Moskos takes aim at the top brass and the target culture they impose on cops on the street, which engenders a confrontational attitude. Not only are officers encouraged to collar miscreants when a quiet warning might be more appropriate, but Moskos argues this culture also means spending less time on ‘unproductive’ tasks that make a real difference to the community, and even suppressing crimes (eg, downgrading theft to lost property) when the chances of an arrest are slim. Indeed, it is a failure to police certain neighbourhoods, rather than overly tough policing, that upsets the people who live there (this problem is also mentioned in Gang Leader for a Day).

Moskos makes the point that the current system of patrol cars responding to telephone dispatch was initially welcomed by radical critics who felt, perhaps rightly, that traditional policing by foot patrol was intrusive, and really about keeping the community down by force (p93). But he argues that this development further distanced the police from the public. It is not surprising when officers spend their time sitting in parked cars, and only encounter the public when crimes have been committed – preferably crimes involving drugs and an easy arrest – that they develop some cynical views about the ‘these people’. The ‘cultural’ distance between police and liberal academics has more to do with perspective than ideology.

Some of Moskos’ colleagues did try to use their discretion despite the arrest culture, and take the time to resolve problems intelligently, and he argues that their more enlightened approach should be encouraged: ‘Just as the culture of force gave way to a culture of arrest and “zero tolerance”, the arrest culture needs to evolve into something better: a culture of crime prevention, problem solving, and police discretion’ (p185). This is not really an organisational issue, though. Rather, it goes to the heart of the relationship between police and policed. In places like the Eastern District, the police are charged not with policing a community of citizens, but rather keeping the non-citizens from getting out of control.

‘What you lookin’ at?’ Crack slingers in The Wire (HBO)

Moskos quotes one bemused ‘citizen’ of the district demanding to know, ‘What is it with the drugs? When there’s shootin’ or fightin’, you don’t seem to care! But when there’s drugs, you come right away’ (p184). The War on Drugs has long been the prism through which the authorities have looked at urban problems in the US, as if removing drugs would transform deprived areas into bastions of middle class virtue. A societal problem – the failure of that society to integrate large numbers of its own people – is reposed as a criminal one – the sale of glorified anaesthetics. In place of a socio-economic or political solution, we get a containment strategy, and one that puts drug arrests before more mundane law-enforcement. In other words, cops are more interested in drug busts than in protecting citizens because that’s the job they’ve been given. (The stifling of more creative approaches, by bosses and politicians, is a recurring theme in The Wire.)

There are of course severe limits to what could be achieved by even the most enlightened policing strategy. And the same goes for any approach based on moral injunctions or changing cultural attitudes. Sudhir Venkatesh describes how he grew frustrated even with the apparently considered prescriptions made by sociologists.

‘life in the projects was starting to seem too wild, too hard, and too chaotic for the staid prescriptions that social scientists could muster. It struck me as only partially helpful to convince youth to stay in school: what was the value in giving kids low-paying, menial jobs when they could probably be making more money on the streets?’ (p176)

Certainly, this was the message Venkatesh got from Ms Bailey, the formidable ‘building president’ who impressed and horrified him in equal measure. Ms Bailey’s part-time job was to lobby the housing authority for maintenance and funds for tenant activities, but as the de facto liaison officer not only between tenants and the authorities, but also tenants and drugs gangs, she commanded far more respect and indeed fear than one might expect of an elderly black woman in a high-rise. Ms Bailey was the personification of grubby compromise, enjoying her power and the ill-gotten perks that came with it, but given the essential role she played for her fellow tenants, Venkatesh felt unable to condemn her fully. A corrupt system of housing maintenance and services is better than none at all.

Indeed, Venkatesh found that it was impossible to make black and white moral distinctions. The Black Kings sometimes put on free barbecues in the grounds of the projects, and law-abiding tenants rooted for ‘their’ team in basketball tournaments between the gangs. Venkatesh also goes some way to dispelling the glamour of gang life, pointing out that even quite senior gang members get lousy wages and tend to live with their mothers. People simply do what they can to get by in circumstances beyond their control, often confounding expectations about what it’s like to be ‘black and poor’. At their very first meeting, Ms Bailey asked Venkatesh contemptuously, ‘You planning on talking with white people in your study?’ (p147). Her point was that the poverty of black people in Chicago cannot be understood in isolation from society as a whole. It is a fair point.

It was of course in Chicago that presidential candidate Barack Obama once worked as a community organiser. While this is often cited as evidence of Obama’s idealism, it is salutory to remember that this kind of work by its nature is often frustrating and demoralising, given the compromises involved. It has been suggested that it was disillusionment with the grubbier aspects of community organising, and its inherent limitations, that drove Obama into a career in politics, where he felt he could make a real difference (1). Of course, this reverses the conventional view, according to which grassroots activism is pure and virtuous, and national politics is all about sordid compromise. No doubt politics involves a great deal of that, but it at least it includes the possibility of change at a social level, rather than limiting people to working within a system over which they have no power.

Nobody has to sell drugs, of course, or to indulge in gang violence. But the quality of the alternative matters. If being a ‘citizen’ means working long hours for little reward and less respect, there will always be substantial numbers of young men and women who prefer the short and exciting life offered by drugs gangs. It isn’t the lure of the street that has to be explained, but society’s failure to offer something better – and credible. Barack Obama’s promise of change sounds more attractive than more of the same, but there is little as yet to suggest concrete change on the scale required – that is, not simply remedial measures to improve the lives of the poor, but the progress of society as a whole to an extent that might abolish poverty and integrate the once-poor as full citizens.

In the meantime, the cops and dealers will continue to do their thing. And as long as they are regarded by mainstream society as objects of contempt, fear, or pity – or even fascination – ‘these people’ will be entitled to glare back and ask, ‘What you lookin’ at?’.

1) Creation Myth – What Barack Obama won’t tell you about his community organizing past, by John B Judis, The New Republic, 10 September 2008

First published on Culture Wars.