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Monday, August 6, 2012

Cause of death: poverty

Posted By on 08.06.12 at 03:04 PM

Cast of The Wire plus, from left, Donnie Andrews and Fran Boyd at a Harvard seminar last year
  • Tim Pierce
  • Cast of The Wire plus, from left, Donnie Andrews and Fran Boyd at a Harvard seminar last year
DeAndre McCullough died last week in Baltimore, apparently of a drug overdose. He was 35.

McCullough was the protagonist of The Corner, David Simon's 1997 book on drug use and dealing in west Baltimore. When Simon and coauthor Edward Burns began their research, McCullough was 15. The authors followed McCullough, his drug-addicted parents, and other dope fiends and dealers in their neighborhood.

The deck was stacked against DeAndre from the beginning, I wrote when I reviewed the book in 1997 for the Washington Monthly:

DeAndre grew up on a street where voices day and night chime out "Killer Bee," "Lethal Weapon," "Tec Nine," or whatever brand of heroin or cocaine is being hawked that day. Gaunt figures stumble down to the corners to cop. DeAndre's mother is one of these. Others slink into abandoned, urine-stinking rowhouses to fire home their dope. His father is one of these.

DeAndre lives with his mother and younger brother in an 8' x 10' room in a three-story rowhouse. Various uncles and aunts, most of them addicts like his mother, inhabit the rest of the building; the hallways are heavily trafficked by dope fiends. When DeAndre ends up on the corner, slinging packages and vials, is it really that surprising?

DeAndre's father died of an overdose as The Corner was being written. DeAndre's mother, Fran Boyd, got clean of her heroin addiction and became a counselor to addicts trying to recover.

In 2007 Boyd married Donnie Andrews, who used to rob drug dealers in Baltimore and was the inspiration for the Omar Little character in Simon's HBO series The Wire. Because Simon had introduced Boyd and Andrews, their wedding was prominently covered by the New York Times. That story related how Andrews had used his ties to street dealers to monitor DeAndre's drug dealing and ultimately help him escape it. "Mr. McCullough now does odd jobs, working in security and producing aspiring rap artists," the Times story said.

But addiction ultimately prevailed over DeAndre, Andrews told the Baltimore Sun Friday. At the time of his death he was wanted for two armed robberies.

Andrews told the Sun: "We have a whole city of Andres running around, who pass dead bodies on the way to school and take drugs to hide their emotions."

I wrote here last week of a deeper problem for the poor than the war on drugs—the devastating impact of the drugs themselves. Substance abuse is both symptom and cause of the malaise that rules poor urban neighborhoods. Drugging fits in naturally with infant mortality, homicide, abandoned buildings, unemployment, single-parent families, and child abuse and neglect. They're all the fruit of the amok capitalism that for decades has churned out concentrated poverty, especially among African-Americans, in Fuller Park and North Lawndale, and neighborhoods like them throughout Chicago and the nation.

That unrelenting poverty—in the home, throughout the apartment building, up and down the block—generates misery and hopelessness, and a yearning for the temporary relief that drugs provide. And so it also yields chaotic, drug-beset families like the one DeAndre, and many Chicagoans, are born into—homes that cultivate emotional disorders in children that later respond well, if briefly, to heroin and booze. The war on drugs certainly hasn't helped matters: the felony convictions make legitimate work even harder to find, and the black market lures youth into destructive occupations. But the drug war itself is a symptom and not the underlying problem.

I wrote about this last Wednesday, which, as it turned out, was the day DeAndre died.

When I reviewed The Corner 15 years ago, I said that the debate over legalization of drugs "misses the point that The Corner makes clear. For the problem isn't really what's happening on the corner. The problem is what's not happening elsewhere. Legalization might take the profit out of street dealing . . . but the more complicated challenge of creating an alternative for people like DeAndre—a meaningful role for them in our society—would stubbornly remain."

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