Mean Streets?

July 18, 2008

You may have heard me over the past few months contributing stories to Eight Forty-Eight. My first appearance was a discussion with host Gabriel Spitzer on the subject Guns and Gang Violence. If you look at the comments below the story, you'll see that the conversation generated a fair amount of controversy and debate. I tried my best to respond to the various posts--hostile and supportive alike--but I think more conversation might be in order. After all, I think everyone realizes that there's no way an 8-minute segment could adequately capture someone's thoughts on a complex issue such as gun violence. This is why I'm excited to be a member of WBEZ's group blog. It gives me a venue where you and I can talk about some of the ideas raised in my stories and reports on the show. First, I want to provide you with some background and context. The first story I did, "The Overdose Market," examined how heroin overdose serves as a form of advertising in the illicit drug economy. From the perspective of a heroin addict, seeking out high potency heroin makes perfectly good sense-it's a rational behavior in the short term even though from a larger perspective it may seem unreasonable and irrational. But the point of my stories on Chicago's "underground drug world" is to offer listeners an "emic," or inside-out, perspective. This is important for several reasons: (1) Rarely does the media offer such "insider" accounts of illicit worlds, (2) The insider's perspective shows that the people in question are just that-people, and (3) If we want to improve the lives of drug addicts, or even drug dealers, we need to understand the world on their terms, comprehend their daily lives. Otherwise, our policies and programs will fail miserably. The second story featured the controversy surrounding a heroin overdose antidote called Narcan (generic name "Naloxone"). I set out to pose a central question of morality: Should society help heroin addicts save their own and each other's lives? In the story we learn that the economic argument against the use of Narcan to save lives really doesn't pass muster. The listener, I believe, is left with two options: (1) Support the distribution of Narcan to save addicts' lives, or (2) Oppose the distribution. But if the listener chooses the latter position, then she or he should appreciate how such an oppositional stance plays into the perpetuation of premature death among people who happen to be addicted to or even recreationally use heroin. In my next few stories I'll be chronicling life in an encampment of homeless heroin addicts, crack smokers, prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves. It's on the West Side and it's called The Brickyard. Since March of 2001 I've spent nearly 4,000 hours there-conducting anthropological research, making documentary films, and engaging in health promotion outreach on behalf of the Chicago Recovery Alliance. For a two and a half year period I lived in the Brickyard, alternating three- and four-day stretches each week. The complex array of relationships I have formed in my time at the Brickyard form the basis of the stories I will be producing for Eight Forty-Eight. I hope you enjoy them. But more than anything, I hope the Brickyard becomes a place in your consciousness. More to come...stay tuned.