The Wire and The Word on the Street:
StreetSafe Boston in Dialogue
The Word on the Street is a compelling series of programs sponsored by StreetSafe Boston, the Boston Foundation initiative dedicated to curbing youth violence in Boston’s neighborhoods. The goal is to bring together residents, civic and business leaders and funders of StreetSafe Boston to engage in a continuous process of learning about the devastating impact of youth violence on our city—and to discuss strategies for stopping the violence.
This fall, on October 30th, The Word on the Street focused on The Wire, HBO’s Peabody Award-winning drama series that aired for five seasons and vividly portrayed life on the streets of Baltimore. The dialogue began the night before at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government during a public forum sponsored by the Boston Foundation and featuring Harvard professors William Julius Wilson and Lawrence Bobo and members of the cast of The Wire.
“The Wire has done more to enhance our understanding of a systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study,” said Professor Wilson, the legendary Harvard sociologist who plans to teach a course on the show. “More specifically, the show exposes the drug war as a fraudulent attack on communities of color.” One of the aspects of the show most admired by Professor Wilson is the complexity of the characters on both sides of the law.
Professor Bobo, agreed. “It is rare that a television show holds up a mirror to us,” he said. “The Wire reflects the toxic combination of entrenched poverty, public policy failures, an ever-expanding pursuit of a war on drugs and the ‘get tough’ policy that has led to an explosion of intrusion on the part of the legal system into the lives of the poor.” He pointed to the historic rise in incarceration in the U.S. in recent years, particularly among black men. “One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars,” he said.
Michael Williams, who played Omar Little, a character who made his living by robbing drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore, shared details from his own youth, which included traumatic experiences and searing violence. “I’m proud that The Wire was a voice for people who normally go unheard,” he said. “Our kids are dying in America like we’re some third-world country.”
The dialogue continued at the Boston Foundation the next day where Donnie Andrews, who was the inspiration for the character of Omar Little, served on a panel moderated by Rev. Eugene Rivers. “I started out as every other black kid in America,” said Mr. Andrews. “I got caught up in the life in Baltimore.” He described an epiphany he had when a young man was killed in a violent confrontation. “I thought ‘this guy’s black like me; he’s human like me’.” He went on to talk about his relationship with Ed Burns, who arrested him in Baltimore while serving as a police officer there for 20 years, then went on to become a teacher and eventually a writer and producer for The Wire.
“I took my punishment,” said Mr. Andrews, “18 years in prison; and he stood by me the whole time. The more education I got, the stronger I got. Now every day I wake up feeling like I’ve got to give something back.”
Actress Sonja Sohn has been using her celebrity status, earned through her outstanding portrayal of Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire, to give something back. She and other cast and crew members launched reWIRED for Change, a nonprofit organization that works to empower young people living in the most underserved communities across the country through education, media advocacy and street-based intervention.
“The last time I was here in Boston I learned about StreetSafe Boston,” she said, “and it blew me away. It’s offering not only an anti-violence component, but wraparound services. That’s why it will be successful. All too often, failed institutions, neglected neighborhoods and disintegrating families have left young people without any opportunities for a better life.”
After the panel, Robert Lewis Jr., Boston Foundation Vice President for Program and chief architect of StreetSafe Boston, spoke to the initiative’s streetworkers, who work day and night with proven-risk youth in five Boston neighborhoods disproportionately affected by violence. “When a lot of people run away from these folks, you run to them,” he said. “I’m so proud of all of you.” He then introduced Foundation President and CEO Paul Grogan, praising his leadership.
“The scope of this terrible problem of youth violence leads many people to conclude that we can’t do anything about it,” said Mr. Grogan, “but the message from StreetSafe Boston is that if we focus on those neighborhoods where most of the violence occurs and those youth who are at proven risk, something really can be done.”