‘You see no children on the street here’


Damien McNeil, resident of Baltimore WestStatue of Thomas Rueba

It started on this street corner. Here, at the intersection of Fulton and Lexington, Detective Jimmy McNulty sat on a staircase twenty years ago in the iconic opening scene of The thread† In front of him lay the body of an Omar Isaiah Betts, better known as Snot Boogie. “He once had a runny nose,” McNulty tells an eyewitness in the scene, “and instead of giving him a Kleenex, a bastard calls him Snot. So he’s Snot forever. ‘ The witness shrugs his shoulders, this is how it is here in Baltimore.

“They called me Bert,” says Damien McNeil, 45, a local resident, and he smiles bare with his gold teeth. “From Sesame Street, you know that? I used to be bullied because they thought I looked like Bert, so that’s my street name. Something like that sticks out.”

What The thread imagined when he was alive. McNeil was 13 years old when he started dealing drugs on the street corners of West Baltimore. “I did not have a father, my mother was always tall: of course, the deal would be my fate, just like all the guys in the series.”

Thread – season 1 dates back to 2002 – it was a pale portrait of a city in decline: worn-out cops, corrupt politicians and underprivileged young people trapped in a hopeless cycle of drugs, money and violence. Fiction, but still not. The series was created by the natives David Simon and Ed Burns, a journalist and former cop, respectively. They wanted to reveal something.

Series The Wire Image

Wire series

‘As a teenager, I have many The thread learned, ”says McNeil. So what? “That we were intercepted, of course!” He laughs. “We suddenly saw very precisely how the Baltimore police worked.” If the series did one thing, McNeil says, it was to make them smarter drug dealers.

characters in The thread were often modeled after existing individuals. Snot Boogie, for example, but also drug lord Avon Barksdale, one of the main characters. “The real Barksdale was a relative of mine,” McNeil says. “That series, really hit the whole spot. That’s how it was. Or well … ‘He grimaces.’ This is how it is.”

Numbers do not lie

Twenty years later The thread the situation in Baltimore has only gotten worse. The city is one of the 2 percent most dangerous places in the United States. This year, according to the local newspaper’s life counter Baltimore Sun.125 people were killed. One almost every day – and that in a city the size of Rotterdam. Analysts say 2022 is set to be the deadliest year in the city’s history. “No, it’s not going well,” McNeil says. “Numbers do not lie.”

The number of people who have died from an overdose.  Statue of Thomas Rueba

The number of people who have died from an overdose.Statue of Thomas Rueba

That high-rise buildings from the series, tower blocks that served as criminal breeding grounds have been largely leveled and replaced by seemingly decent brick townhouses. Drug problems have been around for years The thread just grown.

The number of drug-related deaths in Baltimore, which is tracked on a scoreboard at a police station, fluctuates around 300 a year. Also on this corner they hang out, the addicts, as in all suburbs. At night, together with the police, they are almost the only ones on the street. They determine the face of both the western and the eastern part of the city.

Skipping rope

“Have you noticed what you do not see on the street here?” asks Eugene Brown, board member of the McElderry Park Community Center. He answers himself: ‘Children. You see no children. ‘

Though The thread mainly takes place in the West, near Damien McNeil, more was filmed here: East Baltimore has fewer trees that could hide the view of the cameras. “I have lived here all my life,” says Brown, “so… 62 years old. When I was a child, no one locked their doors. Now people no longer dare go shopping for fear of a bullet. ‘

The McElderry Park Community Association is a small office tucked behind black glass between two houses. The desks are strewn with flyers, fly strips hanging from the fans. From here, events such as neighboring grills, such as neighboring grills, are organized with gentle means, and residents with poor contacts are informed. ‘If something happens here in the district, then we make sure everyone knows about it. Like yesterday’s news, did you see it? ‘

This Saturday morning, McElderry Park is still back after an unusually violent day, even for Baltimore. Around the corner, a heavily pregnant woman and her fiance were shot and killed. Before she died, she managed to give birth to her baby in the hospital. “So things like this are happening here,” Brown says, half raised in his scooter. “People have gone mad.”

With the dealers in his own neighborhood, Brown has made an agreement, calling it a periodic ceasefire: “Every Thursday afternoon it is Throwback Thursday† Then the children are allowed to play unhindered on street corners where shopping is otherwise. For the adults we play old music. You only see children skipping rope on Thursdays. ‘

Freddie Gray

Drive ten minutes from here and you will see the city change before your eyes. In the immaculate center, around the busy boulevard, the expensive hotels and chic restaurants sparkle in the spring sun. Inequality is screaming in Baltimore.

The manufacturers had that too The thread well spotted. In a rock-solid scene, the drug dealer D’Angelo decides to spend his earned money in the underworld in the upper world. He takes his girlfriend to an expensive restaurant. Inside, it literally seems to shrink. He feels monitored. Where everyone in the slums treats him harshly but always with respect, here D’Angelo is even humiliated by the haughty servant. “No matter how hard you try,” he complains, “you never get ahead.”

For a long time, Baltimore’s upper class could turn a blind eye to the dire situation in the suburbs. Of course everyone was watching The thread, but it was mainly a problem with east, west, from there. “It’s changed since Freddie Gray,” says Damien McNeil. “But not for the better.”

On the morning of April 12, 2015, police charged 25-year-old Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. for possession of a butterfly knife. Gray is thrown to the floor in a police car, feet tied together, arms behind his back. During the crazy ride that follows, he flies through the bus. He suffers such severe injuries that he dies a few days later.

Major protests erupt in the city, shops are destroyed, 113 police officers are injured. State of emergency has been declared. For weeks, the unrest continues, and the whole of Baltimore is forced to face the facts.

The six officers involved were initially prosecuted, but none of them have been convicted. A judicial inquiry at the time shows that the Baltimore Police Department was burdened by widespread corruption and that “African American society is being disproportionately affected” – to an extent that The thread did not turn out so.

Pistol in the pants

It is in this reality We own this city takes place, the new series of The threadcreator David Simon. The first episodes are released this month. The series, based on the book by local crime journalist Justin Fenton, reveals the advice of the Baltimore Police Department.

After the death of Freddie Gray, the corps leadership tries to reform, to improve, but every step is met with resistance. Police in the city start a so-called ‘work down’: passive protest. Patrols and arrests plummet, street interrogations drop to 70 percent, and crime rises.

'We Own This City', the new series from the creators of 'The Wire'.  Picture

‘We Own This City’, the new series from the creators of ‘The Wire’.

‘In the time of The thread I really did not just walk around with a gun in my pocket, ”says Damien McNeil. “Too risky, you were caught like that. If you needed one, you picked it up. Now every dealer in Baltimore goes with a gun in his pants because they think the police will not do anything anyway. And yes, so you also use it faster ‘.

IN We own this city The focus is on the so-called ‘Gun Trace Task Force’, a unit whose task was to get these weapons off the street. In fact, this corrupt collective acted as a street gang that terrorized Baltimore’s neighborhoods for years. Meanwhile, the police leadership kept their hand over their heads because, unlike many other officers, they delivered ‘results’.

Our hood, our job

“Yeah, I know those guys well,” says Elijah Miles, 26, on a street corner in East Baltimore. Like McNeil grew up among the criminals The threadthat’s how Miles knows the police officers We own this city personally. “They did a lot of housekeeping, and it all happened here.”

The department assaulted prisoners, stole money and sold randomly seized drugs back to street vendors. This neighborhood, Miles says, became less secure because of this type of police officer.

“Watch out for needles! Never pick up needles!” Like every Sunday morning, Miles guides a group of children through his neighborhood today, armed with grips and garbage bags. †Our hood, our job‘is written on their shirts. “Cans, bottles are okay,” Miles calls after them, “but make sure there’s nothing dangerous in them!”

Elijah Miles and a group of children in East Baltimore keep the streets of their neighborhood clean.  Statue of Thomas Rueba

Elijah Miles and a group of children in East Baltimore keep the streets of their neighborhood clean.Statue of Thomas Rueba

Ten years ago, as a teenager, Miles started a project to lift the neighborhood. He called it the Tendea family after the Swahili word for ‘congestion† Today’s participants are between 8 and 18 years old. They can earn $ 50 by collecting dirt. “I want to show them that in Baltimore, there are more ways for young black people to make money than what you see in it.” The thread or We own this city

For that ultimately remains the problem, Miles says: bad examples follow, too. “Those series are the only times these guys see themselves represented on TV. It’s the vision of the future that they are constantly getting confirmed: if you grow up here, you’re apparently becoming a drug dealer. ‘ To break the cycle, Miles says, young people must first believe that such a thing is possible. ‘I would love to see a TV series about it.’

Damien ‘Bert’ McNeil did that. Today, he is dressed in a bright orange polo shirt from Safe Streets Baltimore, another civic organization hoping to improve the city. McNeil, like Miles, wants to be a role model: to show Baltimore’s youth that you do not have to end up like Avon Barksdale or Snot Boogie in this city. ‘I speak their language, I have lived their life. They will sometimes listen to me. ‘

Children clean in the neighborhood, on their T-shirts and sweaters it says 'Our hood, our job' Image Thomas Rueb

Children tidy up the neighborhood, on their T-shirts and sweaters it says ‘Our hood, our job’Statue of Thomas Rueba

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