The issue of illegal drug use was a hot topic this election season with candidates for a range of local, state and federal offices pledging to tackle the problem once and for all. The debate is often fueled by stereotypes far removed from the reality of the day-to-day life of addicts and drug users. A new book out called "The Corner: A Year in the Life an Inner-City Neighborhood" seeks to depict a piece of America that is often lost in the rhetoric of the war on drugs.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!: The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman. Well, Election Day is over, and politicians will now go on vacations after stumping around their cities, their areas on many issues, one of them the issue of drugs and crime. And so today we thought we would sit back and have a conversation with one person who lives in one corner of one city neighborhood in this country. His name is DeAndre McCullough, and his story is written about in a new book by David Simon and Edward Burns called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Before we go to DeAndre, let’s turn to David Simon.
David, tell us a little about your book, The Corner.
DAVID SIMON: In a way, I think it’s about the logical consequence and, in some sense, the endgame for the drug war. Baltimore is one of the cities with the highest rate of intravenous drug use in the nation, so it’s the place that has sort of landed at one end of the extreme in terms of the drug war. And we wanted to go to a place where that war was being fought, and look at it from the point of view of the people being policed rather than from the point of view of the law enforcement community, which is vested. And we chose Fayette and Monroe Streets in West Baltimore. And one of the first people we encountered was DeAndre.
AMY GOODMAN: What was that first meeting like, DeAndre?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Ah, man, it was—
AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet David?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, they just showed up in our neighborhood. And for like two white guys to show up in our neighborhood without wanting any drugs or trying to lock us up, it was kind of strange. But after being around them for a while, I came to realize they was good people. So we’re still friends.
DAVID SIMON: Tell them about what your mother thought at first.
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Oh, my mother thought they was police. She told me to stay the hell away from them. I mean, a lot of people didn’t trust them for a while, but people got used to them, seeing they wasn’t try to go anywhere. So, people just learned to accept that they wasn’t going away and just took to them.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing there, especially that corner? What is the significance of that corner?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, that’s the neighborhood I was born and raised in. I mean, I did everything there, a lot of things I’m not proud of, but it was part of growing up for me. I mean, for me, the book was about a lot changes that I was going through in my life. I mean the drugs. I mean the violence. A lot of things. But it was a learning experience, and I’m trying to leave that behind now.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Twenty.
AMY GOODMAN: Twenty. Well, David, you said we wanted to go somewhere to do this, but why?
DAVID SIMON: Well, with the first book, which was Homicide, I was doing an ethnography covering the interior lives of police, following a squad of detectives. And that’s one-half of the story. But I think in terms of the drug war, there’s something that’s gone awry with the nature of the thing. I think it began as a war, quite nobly, against drugs. I think it’s effectively become a war against the underclass. That’s not the intent, but I think that’s what’s resulted. In Baltimore, you have 19,000 arrests a year on the average for drug-related crimes. For the whole state of Maryland, you have maybe 22,000 prison cells for all crimes, for all jurisdictions, Baltimore being one of about 24 jurisdictions. So there’s no place to put these arrests, and what you’ve effectively created is a sort of meaningless stat game. We’re spending a lot of money. We’re doing—we’re accomplishing nothing. We’re not serving the interests of those neighborhoods in any way.
AMY GOODMAN: You say that you started by doing your book Homicide following police. So what was it like to go from one side to the other?
DAVID SIMON: It was strange at times. I can remember one particularly awkward moment when there was a shooting in the neighborhood, and I was on the other side of the yellow tape watching with everybody else, and a detective that I knew from the first book made a point of sort of singling me out and having an amiable chat, which required all kinds of explanation for the next day or two to people who had seen that occur. I think most of the police that knew me from the first book were smart enough just to ride by and not—you know, not throw anything out to me that got me in trouble on the corner. But it was strange.
AMY GOODMAN: Because they knew what you were doing.
DAVID SIMON: Yeah, I think word got around after a couple months that the second book was about a drug corner and not to bother Dave when he’s out there.
AMY GOODMAN: DeAndre, what was your relationship with the police over the years?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: My relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department, I mean, I think that my relationship was the same as any other kid my age in any ghetto in America: I mean, I couldn’t stand them. I mean, I was—I didn’t want to be their friend; they didn’t want to be mine.
AMY GOODMAN: What was your first encounter with the police?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: My first encounter with the police, I would say I was about 10 years old, and I got caught throwing rocks at a train. Police took me home. My mother seen the police escort me through the door, and she gave me a beating that I still remember. And ever since then, I never liked the police.
AMY GOODMAN: What about on that corner?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, the corner, I mean, every day. I mean, running into the police was an everyday event. Every day, they harassed us. Every day, we said the hell with them. They wasn’t going away; we wasn’t going away. I mean, neither one of our situation was getting any better.
AMY GOODMAN: What about your involvement with drugs? How did that start?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: I started selling drugs when I was about 12, started smoking weed when I was about 13, started sniffing heroin when I was about 15, maybe a little younger. And now I’m trying to leave that behind me, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Was any of those steps a major decision, or did you sort of just fall into it?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: Like selling.
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, no one forces you to do anything. I mean, if you want to do something, you’re going to do it. But no one tried to encourage me not to do it, either, so it wasn’t a hard decision. I mean, I was going through a lot of pain in my life, and getting high was my way of relief. Getting high was my way of saying the hell with everything. But as soon as you’re high wore off, the pain was still there, so you get high again. And it never solved anything, but it made me feel better.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the pain?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: I mean, everything that was going on around me. I was in a house that I didn’t want to live in. I mean, I had people running in and out my house all day using, selling. My parents were getting high. I was living in a neighborhood where it was as though if you didn’t get high or you didn’t sell drugs, you didn’t fit in. So, I mean, the choices to do something right, I mean, it wasn’t many. So, like so many other people, I got caught up.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did you come out of it?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: I’m still not out of it, because for the rest of my life I’m always be a dope fiend. All I can do is say I’m not going to get high today. I can’t tell you what I’m going to do tomorrow. I’m just living day by day now.
AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been drug-free?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: For about a month and a half.
AMY GOODMAN: What keeps you determined to do it, at least today? Why did you wake up and say you wouldn’t do it today?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Because I feel as though if I start going hard running streets again, something’s going to happen to me. I know something’s going to happen to me, because with these kids these days, either you’re going to have to kill one of them, or one of them going to kill one of you. I mean, nowadays if a kid smack, you’re thinking, "Should I hit this kid back?" Because if you do, he might kill you. Therefore, you ain’t taking no chances, you’re just killing him first. And I’m not trying to be a part of that, so I just stay home and mind my business. I mean, I haven’t—I ain’t got that much clean time far as drug-free time under my belt, but I haven’t been running streets for a while now. I mean, when I was getting high, recently, I mean, it was like maintenance use. I wasn’t out there running hard, selling drugs and doing all the things that I was doing. It was a getting high because I was bored type thing. But that’s not even right, either, but the streets is not for me no more. It’s a kids’ game. I mean—
DAVID SIMON: Your last run was with Sweetpea, right? Is that the last run?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Yeah, yeah.
DAVID SIMON: That was about six months ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And who’s Sweetpea?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: A neighborhood drug dealer who was killed about six months ago.
DAVID SIMON: Got you out of a debt.
AMY GOODMAN: How was he killed?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Oh, yeah, I had owed him some money, right? And I was like worrying about it, and he was killed. I’m not happy that he died, but I guess he won’t want his money now.
AMY GOODMAN: How was he killed?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: He was shot down.
AMY GOODMAN: On the street?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Yeah.
DAVID SIMON: Of the kids that we were—of DeAndre and his crew, the kids that we followed that year, two are dead. DeAndre’s cousin Dinky was shot to death. Boo was shot to death. Two others, Tae and R.C., were wounded on that same corner. But R.C.'s doing well now. He's got a job now. I think Tae’s still struggling. Brian came back. Brian was locked up, up here on Rikers, right?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Yeah.
DAVID SIMON: He came back recently.
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: He’s back out there. I would say, out of everybody who I grew up with, since as far back as I can remember, I would say about a handful, about three to five, are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Everybody else is dead or getting high. I mean, selling drugs used to be fun. There was a time where you sold drugs, I mean, go to the strip bars, buy you a little stripper, to her to a hotel, handle your business. You go smoke some weed, go get drunk, go rent a car. I mean, it was fun for a while, but now people are getting high to support their habit. And it’s a place in Baltimore, Monroe and Fayette, where you sell $3 vials of coke. If you’re selling $3 vials of coke and it costs you $10 to get high, how do you make money? You don’t. I mean, people—I mean, kids that I grew up with, now they’re basically just getting high to support their habit.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to DeAndre McCullough and David Simon. David Simon and Edward Burns wrote a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, talking about DeAndre’s corner. Did the presence of David and Edward change your life? I mean, is that part of why you’re trying to get out of it? Or do you think that would have happened anyway?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: No, that has nothing to do with it, because if I want to do something, I’m going to do it. And the influence of another individual, I mean, they do their thing, I do mine. When I first met them, it didn’t stop me from selling drugs. It didn’t stop me from getting high, didn’t stop me from carrying firearms or any other things I was doing before I met them. But I tried to keep it out of their presence, but as you see in the book, they found out anyway. But—
AMY GOODMAN: David, how did you find out?
DAVID SIMON: Well, the corner is a kind of insulated place. It’s really sort of a watering hole for the whole neighborhood. And what one person doesn’t tell you, five others will. And one of the things that I found from doing this kind of journalism, this sort of stand-around-and-watch journalism, is that the longer you go with your subjects, the more truth comes out. If we would have written this book after following DeAndre and Gary and Fran and the other characters in the book for six months, a certain amount of deception would have passed muster. I mean, things that we thought after six months, we learned the exact opposite were in fact true maybe a year later or a year and a half later. We’ve been—when we met, DeAndre was 15.
And I think you were onto something before when you talked about it being sort of the absence of a decision. It’s not really—in that environment, you know, DeAndre’s grown up in a shooting gallery. Both his parents were deeply involved in drugs at the time, although his mother is now doing very well. But at the time, it’s the absence of a decision, the absence of believing in any kind of tomorrow. And that’s where sort of the drug war has gone wrong, is that we have the "just say no" thing down, and we have the police chase down, but we have no clue what it is that, you know, a kid like DeAndre is supposed to say yes to in that neighborhood. It wasn’t that he decided to sell drugs or he decided to get high. He just—the moment never came where he decided not to sell drugs. And I don’t think we’ve developed a weapon system against that kind of thinking yet in the drug war.
AMY GOODMAN: DeAndre, what about your parents?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Well, my father, he passed away last year. My mother, she has a couple years clean under her belt. I mean, I’m proud of her. She’s—I mean, she’s my all. She’s my best friend. Sometimes we disagree on a lot of things, but, I mean, she’s my mother. So, sometimes I find myself humbling myself. But my father, he died of a drug overdose after he had a couple months—he had like three months clean.
DAVID SIMON: Mm-hmm.
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Yeah, three months clean. He came home. He hadn’t even been home for two days. And his brother, my uncle—I’m not saying that my father was not old enough to make his own decisions, but turned him—turned him out again, started him using again. His first blast, I guess, he died.
AMY GOODMAN: Back from where?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Say again?
AMY GOODMAN: He was back from where?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: He was back from out of a treatment center. But my mother, she’s doing very well. I’m proud of her. She was a drug counselor, but they stopped funding it. Now she’s transporting disabled patients to the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: How did your mother get involved with drugs to begin with?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: I mean, my mother been getting high for 28 years. I mean, I wasn’t there. I mean, from my understanding, back then, getting high was fun. I mean, people getting high now to hide their pain, but it was a time where you could get high, have fun and still go to work and maintain and handle your business. But now people just sitting around and get high all day. From what she was telling me, they still did—they did their thing, but they also had a time for it. And now the time for it is all the times. So, times changed.
DAVID SIMON: I think the difference there is coke and dope. Heroin was much more of a maintenance drug than cocaine can be, two different pharmacological effects. And I think one of the things that we’re finding with cocaine, I think, became pretty clear by the late '80s in Baltimore, and I'm sure up here, as well, is that while you could get by on $20 or $30 a day and maintain a heroin habit, coke would just go right through your pockets. I mean, any money you had was going right up to the corner, so that it became much more of a chase for people using, particularly since in Baltimore most of the people who started out just on straight heroin ended up shooting speedballs of—most intravenous users anyway. So, the climate of the drug corner has actually changed in the last five, six years.
AMY GOODMAN: What about crack?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Oh, man. Whoever invented crack, I mean, he should burn in hell. I mean, that’s—that’s a drug that—it’s a form of coke, but its potency is like triple. I mean, crack will have you stealing from your mother, selling your kid’s clothes. I mean, it’ll have you doing some things that you definitely wouldn’t normally do. I mean, I think it’s the most addictive drug out there. It’s insanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you use much crack?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: I always said that I would never do it. I did it one time. And when I did it, I had just re-ed up. I had just went and bought me a half ounce of crack. I took on hit. I stayed in the house for three days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. All I did was smoke. And when I came down off that high, I felt 14-karat stupid. For one, I just smoked $1,100. For two, I was broke. And for three, I was embarrassed, because I always said that I would never do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why the distinction? Why did you say, "I’d do this and this, but I wouldn’t do this"?
DEANDRE McCULLOUGH: Because I think it’s like—it’s different levels of being—I mean, it’s worse. Some people think that it’s worse to shoot dope than to sniff dope. Some people think that coke is the mother of all drugs, and that’s definitely a no-no. I mean, it’s to each his own. I mean, if it’s smoking a joint, getting high is getting high. I mean, drugs are drugs, but people’s distinction in how they look at them is different.
AMY GOODMAN: Fayette and Monroe, that’s the corner in West Baltimore that we’re talking about, where the full price of the drug culture is being paid. You’re listening to DeAndre McCullough, who lives on that corner, and David Simon, who’s the author of the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. He wrote it with Edward Burns. We’re going to come back to this conversation in just a minute here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!
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