In ghosts of political scandals past, President Obama once remarked in an interview that his favorite character from the critically-acclaimed drama The Wire was easily the shotgun-wielding outlaw Omar Little. This was a somewhat shocking claim to many who didn’t watch the show – Omar was not only a part-time drug dealer, he was a part-time drug dealer who robbed other drug dealers for his product.
Undoubtedly, Obama’s interest in Omar was rooted in the “stick-up man’s” strict moral code – unlike other dealers, Omar only brought violence against those who were involved in the drug trade. And while the show is highly regarded in its ability to weave together morally-ambiguous threads to construct a complex portrait of the criminal justice system, Omar’s Robin Hood-esque heists don’t represent all of the stick-up boys and girls holding up drug dealers today. Tonight’s episode of Drugs, Inc. attempts to get a closer look at that dirty, dangerous lives of real life Omar Littles.
The first question that many people ask is simple: why? There’s no doubt that aside from robbing law enforcement or military installations, robbing drug dealers is one of the most dangerous jobs a professional thief can pull. Many serious drug dealers are armed, or can count on some muscle from bosses and suppliers.
Though the answer may be different for each stick-up artist, the main driver is profit. Shaking down small corner-store owners generally won’t yield more than a few hundred dollars, and the planning and expertise needed to rob a bank rarely compensates for the risk and surprisingly modest rewards. As Slate notes, in larger drug markets, the excess of street-level dealers means that there’s a sort of dealer bell curve – while some are highly organized and have structures for dealing with stick-ups, others can be sloppy. Stick-up artists take advantage of more careless drug dealers, whose cash-only profits often leave them with large sums that can be easily taken off.
It’s also worth nothing that for some individuals who feel that their options are limited by past criminality, it’s a highly lucrative business. LA Weekly profiled a stick-up artist in the late 90s’ who claimed that he only turned to thieving after being rejected from jobs because of his tattoos and lack of education.
Few law enforcement officials have sympathy for ripped-off drug dealers, but stick-up artists often pose a headache for cops and communities by perpetuating cycles of violence. When the Center for Crime and Justice studied drug-dealer robberies and their effects on criminality, they noted that criminal retaliation linked to crack cocaine robberies was a major factor in creating the systemic instability and violence in American cities between 1984 and 1991. In December, The Baltimore Sun reported that stick-up boys heightened the need for drug dealers to be armed and alert, and were a driver of a considerable number of homicides. Robbed drug dealers retaliated because their contact with other criminals put them at risk for further victimization if they didn’t display strength.
Importantly, the study also concluded that the same driving factors associated with legal justice could also be applied to violent retribution. Namely, victims of drug robbery sought retribution in the form of vengeance, deterrence in the form of reputation maintenance, and compensation in the form of loss recovery.