In The Cook-Up, author D. Watkins, short for Dwight, recounts the story of how, after his brother was shot and killed, he went from being accepted into Georgetown University to becoming the head of a successful crack empire in East Baltimore. In the process, he exposes the realities of the world that he and other young men like him live in—a world rarely entered by the general public or mainstream media.
TCR staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez spoke with Watkins about the motivation for this book, the programs he is involved with in the Baltimore community, what his experiences have taught him about the failures of the education system and police bias, and why the recent verdicts in the Freddie Gray case were disappointing.
The Crime Report: What prompted you to write this story?
Watkins: There are so many young people out there who are going through situations that are not only just like mine, but are far worse. They feel like their stories aren’t relevant and they don’t matter. So, I just wanted to tell my story and talk about my mistakes and how I worked really hard to redeem those mistakes. Hopefully, they can read it—become thinkers—which is what reading does for people, and then, at the same time, own their own stories and mistakes and try to get redemption too.
The Crime Report: What was life like as a top drug dealer?
DW: I don’t think I was a top dealer. There were guys making way more money than me. But, it was like a job, only where the consequence was death. When I got into, it I was hurting. I was missing my brother, who had just been killed. So I didn’t care if I lived or died.
TCR: The importance of education is a strong theme throughout the book. What are some of the issues confronting education in East Baltimore today?
DW: Our school system is full of hurdles. We blindfold these kids, put them on a track, and then just tell them to go. [But we never prepare them for the hurdles they will face.] We need to acknowledge the problems that exist within the school system so that we can constructively address them. A lot of top-down methods haven’t worked, but bottom-up strategies do. As it stands, schools are setting our kids up to fail. If people like myself and the groups I work with continue to have a presence in the schools we can change that reality.
TCR: What work are you currently involved in?
DW: I’m running the BMORE Writers Project and working with Writers in Schools. With the Writers Project I’m training students how to be journalists, how to collect information, how to acknowledge people’s social context before they interview them or write about them, and then archiving it on the website. With Writers in Schools, we donate copies of my book and then I go into Baltimore and D.C. schools to run workshops and spend time with the kids after they’ve finished reading it.
TCR: In your experience, what are some of the major educational hurdles affecting kids today?
DW: One of the major things is that they’re placed in schools that don’t have resources. Kids are not given any literature that speaks to them or their existence, and they have educators who aren’t really aware of the hardships that they go through.
TCR: There’s a character in your book named Ike Guy, who personifies today’s accepted image of the abusive and violent cop. Did he represent the norm for policing in the community you grew up in?
DW: There are levels to it. I think Ike was a racist. He was the worst. The level under him would be the person who is not from Baltimore, probably from some suburb of Pennsylvania, who’s coming to Baltimore City to be a cop. Even though some of the people who take these jobs aren’t racist, the bulk of their thoughts are rooted in racist ideas. The only thing they know about black people is stereotypes, so when they come into these neighborhoods they treat us a certain way. That’s the bulk of the cops. Ike was more of an extreme version.
TCR: How can we eliminate that bias?
DW: Police do cultural training and social training, but they only do it one time. It needs to be an ongoing thing… every year. Second, police officers need to live in the city. They don’t have to live in the neighborhoods where they work, but they should live in neighborhoods that mirror the places where they work. Third, we need to get rid of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. There’s a different one in every state, and it gives officers a license to kill. In Maryland, cops get ten days before they even have to talk about killings they are involved in, giving them ample time to come up with whatever story they come up with. Sometimes it’s the truth, but a lot of times it isn’t.
TCR: In the book, police brutality and police violence are described as a regular occurrence in the neighborhood you grew up in. With that in mind, why do you think the Freddie Gray incident struck such a cord with communities like your own?
DW: Tipping point. People were tired. Some of those young people were sick of hearing those stories from their dads and their granddads, and their moms and their grandmas. They just wanted to resist in a different way.
TCR: Last year, Maryland officials approved $30 million of funding for a youth prison in Baltimore, but removed $11.6 million from the city’s school budget. Is there more concern placed on incarceration than on education?
DW: A black guy in jail is worth more than an educated black person. You can make money off of inmates. It fits right into the system that we live in. They’re not really looking to make changes in a positive way for us.
TCR: One of the most interesting details in the book was the idea that guns were viewed as a sort of ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card.’ You hoped to get caught with a gun as opposed to product. Can you elaborate?
DW: You didn’t even have to get caught with a gun. Nobody leaves the neighborhood. So, a cop would literally see you and tell you to come back with this gun and you would be able to go out, find a gun, and then come back and give it to them. At that time they were more worried about murders than drugs.
TCR: Given that this method was commonplace, how do you feel it relates to the ongoing debate over gun laws and gun control when, in your experience, guns were used as a sort of currency?
DW: I don’t think our country is responsible enough for the gun laws that are in place now. It’s just ridiculous that (when) mass shootings happen at these schools the first thing gun advocates say is, “you’re not touching our guns.” We’re not even going to acknowledge the victims and their families? Then there are so many people who want to fight for tougher gun laws when their family members get shot. It’s like it doesn’t matter until something happens to somebody that they know. It’s ridiculous. The first time I got shot I wasn’t even doing anything. That shit hurt. I don’t think anyone should have to go through that.
TCR: The media perpetuates a notion that drugs and drug abuse exist only in poor, ethnic communities. However, your book contradicts this stereotype by revealing that your customers came from every community in Baltimore. Why do such stereotypes prevail?
DW: It’s a good sales pitch. It’s a good way to demonize black people. It’s a good way to push forward racist agendas. But there are good studies out there. The Long Shadow came out in 2014. It followed 400 poor white people and 400 poor black people and found that white people had higher rates of drug abuse and drug sales. The black people just get the time. As a black person, you get caught with some drugs and you’re a “‘kingpin.’” As a white person you’re exposed to a different system.
TCR: How do you change this sort of systemic racism?
DW: The whole idea of skill-sharing, of creating a reality where people are sharing their skills. My thing is literacy. I don’t just work with these programs; I also teach people how to read. I know another person who teaches financial literacy; once you make a dollar or two she shows you how to spend it. I know other people that do similar things with nutrition. It’s about us figuring out what our power is, working hard to attain mastery, and then sharing those skills with other people who normally wouldn’t have those experiences. It’s something that you have to work on for a really long time. I’m working to change the culture; I’m not working for instant results. It’s going to take years and years.
TCR: Recently one of the officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray was acquitted. Were you surprised?
DW: Disappointed, but not surprised. These people, these judges and prosecutors, they work together. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the end of the day, all of them were acquitted. They call it the Freddie Gray trial, but Freddie Gray’s not even on trial. He’s dead, he didn’t get a trial. It’s the Officer Nero trial. You have six cops who chase a guy with no reason and he dies. The FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] comes out and says they acted within their training. So, you’re training is to kill people who you don’t have a reason for stopping? This is ok? You can sleep at night? You can’t say that and believe in humanity. That mentality exists and I expect them to think like that.
TCR: Have you encountered police officers who have had a positive effect on these communities? What did they do right?
DW: They understand that we are people, that they are people, and that we have a lot of things in common. They understand that we have a lot of differences and there are grey areas as well. They get out of their car and have conversations with people, but they don’t get out of their car just to wave pistols. Colonel Melvin Russell is a good example of a person who shows a lot of love to a lot of people in the community and he’s been able to make a difference that way. He believes in positive police work, in attacking the bad guys, and not just saying “‘fuck everybody just because I don’t know who you are.’”
TCR: How should the role of police change in the communities you are concerned with?
DW: We can’t have a society without police. All police have to do is treat black people how they treat white people. If they do that, then we’re good. If I’m a white person and I need help changing a flat, if my cat’s in a tree, they’re going to do all of that. They’re going to help me with my taxes, they’re going to do everything. In a white neighborhood they protect and serve; in a black neighborhood they enforce and terrorize. All they have to do is bring the same mentality that they have in white neighborhoods to the black neighborhoods and everything will be better.
TCR: Despite all the evidence to the contrary, why do you think so many people deny that racism still exists in this country?
DW: If they’re black they’re too stupid to know; and if they’re white, they’re not suffering from it. Not acknowledging racism makes America look good.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, working this year as an intern for The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.