From selling crack to sociology

A failed dealer used his insider status to research drugs, violence and the American Dream

October 3, 2013

When I read the transcripts of my interviews, the stories would jump off the page. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe these people were my friends

“Yo, we gonna get paid! We gonna make crazy dollars, bro! Ha-ha!” Sitting in front of a mound of crack cocaine destined for the streets of New York’s South Bronx, Randol Contreras had never felt so confident of success. He was going to be rich.

His confidence, however, was misplaced: Contreras, now assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, turned out to be a lousy drug dealer.

His product was “garbage”, according to the local crack users who tried free samples, and no one was willing to sell it for him. One eventually agreed to deal it if he could take $2 for every $5 sale – twice the normal cut – but he often turned up late, leaving the 20-year-old Contreras and his friends to undertake risky hand-to-hand sales. After weeks of slow business, unable to pay “rent” to the dealers who controlled the sidewalk, he was forced out of the drug game, frustrated and broke.

Luckily, a friend in the neighbourhood had filled out a community college application for him. Contreras may have been “a repeat drug market failure”, but with strong encouragement from a community college professor he excelled in sociology, later becoming a graduate student at the City University of New York.

Far from losing touch with his South Bronx roots, however, he would return to the area as a PhD student to explore the lives of his childhood friends who had continued in the drug world. Hanging out on the “stoops” and corners with other young men, he listened to how early success in dealing crack – living the high life, spending money on cars, clothes, jewellery and women – had abruptly ended for many as the ready cash available during the 1980s “crack epidemic” dried up.

To remain part of the drug world, some of Contreras’ acquaintances had turned to an even more brutal way of life: conducting drug robberies – holding up drug dealers and torturing them to obtain information on where their drugs and money were stashed.

“I came into the market at the tail end of the [peak] crack era, which is partly why it was so hard to make any money,” he says. “I wanted to understand why my friends had now turned to drug robberies. I was never arrested or got a criminal record, but I could have easily gone down the same road as them.”

Contreras knew his “insider” status within the Dominican-American community – many of the so-called “stickup kids” were close friends – could secure him access to a violent underworld out of reach to even the best investigative journalists or academic ethnographers.

The son of poor Dominican immigrants, Contreras grew up in a single-parent home in the decaying New York suburb – a background, he believed, that would inform a different approach to sociological analysis.

“When I read the literature about robberies, it stressed the emotional thrill of violence or looked more broadly at social factors,” he says, leaving him frustrated that many studies failed to marry the two.

His aim was to combine “macroeconomic reasons for this phenomenon” with “the most micro of micro-reasons: emotions”. This would allow him to produce “a much more complete model of analysis that looked at deprivation and larger economic forces that explained why markets – including markets in drugs – rise and fall, but tying that to the emotions involved in these criminal enterprises”.

Ultimately, his research would lead to a book, published by the University of California Press, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream (2013).

One of the best-known recent explorations of drug dealing in the US is The Wire, the Baltimore-set police television drama that connects the actions of City Hall, police chiefs and legislators to the fortunes of the most downtrodden crack addicts seeking their next hit in the boarded-up row houses of once-prosperous suburbs.

Creator David Simon’s acclaimed drama was first screened in 2002, several years after Contreras began to tape the testimony of various drug robbers, a dangerous pursuit that he undertook most nights over a period of more than five years.

While Contreras admires the series, commending its ambition, scope and realism, he disagrees with aspects of Simon’s vision – in particular, the noble, shotgun-toting drug robber Omar Little. A lone wolf living by his own honour code (“I ain’t never put my gun on no citizen”) and his own rules (he is masculine, feared and openly gay), Omar is entirely a “fantasy character”, Contreras says, held in awe in a way that would never happen in reality.

Man holding pistol and bullet

One of his interviewees’ motivations for taking part in the study was the hope that the book would possibly lead to the sale of film rights

“In The Wire, Omar knocks on the door and the dealers drop the drugs out of the window,” he says. “That never happened to anyone I interviewed.”

The reality of a drug robbery is far more violent than anything depicted in the television show, he argues.

Potential targets are acquired through tip-offs, sometimes from rival dealers but most often by drug distributors’ disgruntled friends, colleagues, even family members. Most stickup gangs then set a “honey trap”, with a young woman gaining access to the dealer’s apartment and then unlocking the door for the waiting armed gang. Once inside, things move fast, with the gang spurred on by an “emotional momentum” to achieve their aim in the same way a football team unites in the common purpose of a touchdown, Contreras explains. The dealer is tied up, gagged with duct tape in most instances and then threatened – and the threats are often carried out.

“If you don’t tell me, I’m gonna cut your ear off. You understand that shit?” recounted one drug robber, who then proceeded to do as he had warned. On most occasions, household implements are used to torture victims: most people have an electric iron in their homes, and one method used is electrocution in the bath. Threatening to stab a heated coat hanger into a person’s ear generally yields information, various robbers have confided to Contreras.

Often dealers will endure some degree of duress to prove to their superiors that they had been taken hostage and robbed of the drugs (often belonging to others), rather than face suspicion that they had stolen from their suppliers, Contreras adds.

So how did Contreras conduct his study and cope with hearing such extreme stories of the maiming and murder of dealers by people he considered his friends? Did his personal ties to his subjects compromise his appraisal of their actions?

Contreras promised his participants that the research would not endanger them, so his study is “purposefully vague” about timings, uses pseudonyms and is covered by a Federal Certificate of Confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health, protecting him from any attempt to subpoena his field data.

Although he began by writing “field notes” on his conversations with his subjects, after three months he started to use a tape recorder for the interviews.

“Sometimes, the tape recorder was therapeutic, letting the study participants voice their hopes, dreams, sadness and anger in ways they never had. They even cried,” he writes in The Stickup Kids.

To be allowed continued access to those involved in the drugs world, Contreras also realised he would, to an extent, have to follow his participants’ rules – in words and dress, for example – avoiding any “slip ups” that might challenge his insider status.

He recalls chuckling, smiling and “high-fiving” as Gus, Pablo, Neno and others told him about their violent robberies as they drank alcohol on the public stairwell each night. Once back in the neighbourhood, he was expected to behave as the “same old Ran”. In such situations, he says, he was desensitised to vivid descriptions of how victims had been beaten, burned or mutilated, temporarily returning to his old status as a “wannabe” drug dealer, accepting their value system and even romanticising their actions.

Afterwards, however, he would look at the same tales in a very different way: “When I read the transcripts of my interviews, the stories would jump off the page.”

Sometimes, he says, he “couldn’t believe these people were my friends”.

But Contreras also worried about how his study would be perceived by academics. He did not want to be seen as a “cowboy ethnographer”– a term he uses to describe those “who are perceived to exploit research for their own professional or narcissistic ends…[or] glorify themselves”. He received warnings from colleagues that his project could “ruin” his career, and at conferences, questions would always turn to how his insider status had affected the work.

Eventually, after what he terms this “standpoint crisis”, he decided to devote part of the book to explaining how his own experiences and feelings significantly shaped his interpretations.

Omar Little, The Wire

In writing up his study, he was also aware of the risk of being seen to “glamorise” the participants and their actions. Disturbingly, one of his interviewees’ motivations for taking part in the study was the hope that the book would bring them fame and possibly even lead to the sale of film rights.

“I wanted to give them [the study participants] a potential movie. But I wanted to realize my sociological goals too,” he confesses in the book. He was also determined to publish with a university press. Ultimately, Contreras says, he had to sacrifice many of the violent stories and extend the sociological analysis in order to get the book through peer review and accepted by an academic publisher. In the introduction, he says that the study participants “will not like” The Stickup Kids as a result.

Many vivid accounts remain, however, including the story of Pablo, once a promising running back with hopes of a football scholarship. He became one of the drug market’s so-called “intractable criminals” after his incarceration at Rikers Island juvenile detention facility for a minor drug bust.

Gus, meanwhile, revelled in the brutality of the institution dubbed “gladiator school”, where overcrowding forced inmates into daily confrontations, solidifying his obsession with toughness and intimidating others. Back on the street, this mindset allowed Gus to become a “robber elite”, someone who, denied any chance of normal success, is able to target “American-style overachievement” and fulfil their ambition in the underground economy’s violence.

Gus did not see himself as an outsider in wider society, Contreras observes: he was living the American Dream.

Gus’ reputation allowed Contreras to feel somewhat secure when dealing with highly violent, untrustworthy criminals: he introduced the academic to everyone as his cousin, “the journalist”. However, there were times when Contreras feared for his safety as he hung out with “hoodlums” who would happily “double-cross” their own family members for money or revenge.

“I knew these people could betray you so easily. In fact, many of the drug robberies were often retaliatory, with information coming from someone with a grudge,” he says.

And when Gus fell on hard times, Contreras began to fear his one-time protector, who had supported the book from the beginning.

“I got a job in Baltimore, then Gus started dealing there. He started calling me, asking me for a $100 loan and telling me he had become a drug user,” he explains.

But street stories like Gus’ need to be heard, Contreras believes, not least because they often challenge assumptions about law enforcement, the prison system, career criminals and drug markets.

For instance, the study led the sociologist to the view that falling crime levels in New York had less to do with the “zero-tolerance” strategy introduced by Rudy Giuliani, mayor of the city from 1994 to 2001, than the natural cyclical downturn in the destructive crack trade. The crimes of the stickup kids, meanwhile, would usually go unreported.

He also urges policymakers to look more broadly at the decisions that facilitate the crack market in the first place. Everything from General Pinochet’s CIA-backed attack on Chile’s cocaine industry (which forced the country’s drug makers north into politically volatile Colombia) and the Pan-American Highway that enables easy drug transportation, to the rent controls that led to slumlords neglecting apartments for New York’s deindustrialised working class are analysed in Contreras’ treatise on how Gus, Pablo and Neno fell into their violent line of work.

The sociologist calls for efforts to reduce the gap between the highest paid and the least educated workers, wants more drug treatment programmes and hopes that a way can be found to reduce “the allure of our nation’s capitalist greed and its single-minded focus on material consumption as the greatest good” – desires that often drive (and are used to justify) the actions of those involved in the trade. However, he recognises that this goal is “perhaps most impossible to reach”.

In the end, he writes, “I must tell this story” because “we must understand how despair can drive the marginal into greed, betrayal, cruelty and self-destruction”.

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