Michael K. Williams’ latest offering: Investigative Journalism

Michael K. Williams is best known for his dynamic performance as Omar, the homosexual robber of drug dealers, in the critically acclaimed television series, The Wire.

He used the success of the show to further his television career with HBO on Boardwalk Empire, as well as playing typecast roles in various films up through 2011.

Since then, Mr. Williams has been promoting work that he produces, to include Snow On Tha Bluff, a semi-biographical film dreamed up by Curtis Snow, a notorious robber of drug dealers in Northwest Atlanta.

On top of producing, he’s also been taking a shot at investigative journalism, and based on his latest offering, through Vice Television’s “Viceland” experiment, it’s been subpar.

The project is called Black Market, where Mr. Williams explores, tacitly I might add, a particular area of underground trade.  In his first episode, he discusses the new wave of auto theft plaguing Newark, New Jersey, while interviewing representatives from each component in and around the organized crime of carjacking.

For those that may remember, in the mid-90’s a film about this very topic was made called New Jersey Drive.  At the time, Newark was full of youth who had little to do, and little to aspire to.  Consequently a trend started, whereby kids went around at night in groups, breaking into cars and joyriding around city streets in an effort to impress friends, potential lovers, and their enemies.  The results of this was a mix of dropping off cars are chop shops, wrecking them in suburbs and leaving them for cops to find in the early morning hours, or being caught in them.  Eventually state government got involved, formed a task force with law enforcement personnel from city, county, and state agencies to stem the tide of car theft, leading to lots of overtime, and late night stakeouts, all in an effort to confirm that Newark youth didn’t have strong parents to lean on, lots of pent up anger, and little in the way of respect for anybody.

As time moved on, so did that generation.  Though it’s important point, however tragic, that a number of the people involved in this era of car theft have died behind their various plights of crime, some have been handed heavy sentences for their repeated acts, and still many others have left the Newark-East Orange area entirely, finding a completely different life for themselves.  Anyone wanting to cover this topic would know to point that detail out.  Williams never approaches that.

Williams also makes it clear that his youth was spent on the same streets that these car-jackings occur on.  He makes a point of fillming his attendance of a church service at Christian Love, a source of hope and inspiration amongst a backdrop of a new breed of youth that are even more violent, and more angry than the last generation of car thieves in northern New Jersey.

And so with his statement of authenticity, albeit in dramatic fashion, Williams starts interviewing lots of men in masks. A few throughout are being interviewed without anonymity, to their credit.  I for one appreciate criminals, or former criminals who are not afraid to hide who they are.

Williams interviews them candidly with each question he poses, but the problem with this format is that he never gets beyond three or four questions with each person.  He covers some generic information about what motivates these criminals to carry out their version of car theft, which involves stopping people in their cars at gun point in the street.  The car jacking “gangs” as they are all but referred to as, make it a point to pose with their rifles, I’m sure none were legally obtained, and none of the people depicted are legally allowed to own or possess guns, but that’s a whole other topic.

The point is that in the mid-90’s, the teenagers of this community stole cars in non-violent fashion.  They broke windows, or “slim-jimmed” door locks, and then hot-wired or jammed the ignition with large, bulky screw drivers, and drove away in the night.  He also interviews “E” who said that back in his time, the 80’s and 90’s, car jacking was a way for youth to pass the time, because the “government” removed funding from their youth sports programs.  But as E speaks on the topic, it starts to sound as though E actually is still involved in car jacking, because he’s able to map out in explicit details how the car jacking of the modern era has emerged (he blames car manufacturers for making electronic keys–not criminals pointing guns in someone’s face), and then goes onto to say that the teenagers committing these crimes can’t focus on an education because they are high on drugs…..so, what’s their logical option?

But this recent up tick in car theft in Newark is now perpetrated with long guns in the face of victims.  Williams ask a group of masked car jackers if they would kill someone if they had to get them out of the car.  They say they wouldn’t, as one notes, they are a “car thief with sympathy.” But as the conversation unfolds with a different group of masked robbers, one of them says that if you “move the wrong way” they’ll be forced to kill you.  Makes for very sexy television on Vice, apparently.

The general message from these various armed robbers is that the government sucks, because it can’t provide them jobs.  And that’s why they have to walk onto city streets with illegally-obtained guns and rob hard working citizens of Newark for their cars.  As the cars are worth upwards of 10,000 US dollars, and that means they won’t be hungry anymore.  Boy, that just sucks when government can’t provide you something, doesn’t it?

After shooting what could only be a number of set up b-roll takes of unknown persons spinning donuts in various intersections (you know you used do them at your favorite empty parking lot!), the next major section of the episode is Williams interview US Customs and Border Protection agents at the Port of Newark seaport facility, where upwards of 10,000 sea canisters sit at any given hour, waiting for ships to arrive.

Williams also interviews an Homeland Security Investigations agent who must remain anonymous during filming, likely because of how much he comes into contact with the purchasers of these stolen cars, not to mention, the thieves themselves.

After seeing how CBP discovers stolen cars in the shipping cans, the agents reveal where most of these cars are heading to, West Africa, particularly Nigeria.

I would imagine some of these wind up there.  But I would also venture to guess that a number of them wind up in the Middle East, Central Asia, and even Indonesia.

At any rate Williams tracks the cars to impromptu car sales lots, setup prominently around and in the Lagos port known as “Tin Can Island.”  Williams cites that up to 3,000 cars clear Nigerian customs weekly.  I would venture to guess that number is significantly higher, because even William’s footage suggests how large this problem truly is.

But alas, Williams runs out of time, and while we get a skim look at this issue, we don’t delve into the issues, other than Williams being an apologist at the end for the criminals, who he says don’t like to be labeled a “menace,” but yet not one of them could say that for themselves, on camera.  Some of them mentioned that they can see the side of their victims, having their cars taken at gun point for no reason other than taking the most logical route to their destination.

We here a father suggest that he’s being talking with the Mayor of Newark (Ras Baraka) about “doing something” for the kids.  Again, another swipe at government for not raising kids, or providing employment.

And then the pastor of Christian Love Baptist Church, Reverend William Christian returns to say that because these mostly teenage criminals receive sentences for armed robbery that go past their 18th birthday, they can no longer get city, county, or state government jobs……I’m sensing a pattern here with this cry for help from this group, and it disturbs viewers on a number of points, judging from the apprehensive response on social media.

Here is the main problem with look at a criminal lifestyle:  Again, and again, the people who hold influence over this group that are subscribing to a life of violent crime are saying that it’s government’s job to provide jobs, programs, etc.

Considering the history of New Jersey politics, it’s no wonder this has become a regular theme in the complaints of many New Jersey citizens.  The government in that State, be it at that State level, or in county, or city departments, have tried to be everything to everyone.

This is a fatal flaw in government.  Government should never attempt to control all aspects of life.  When they do, they ultimately topple themselves because there is simply no way to cover all problems, both fiscally, and resourcefully.  Government control of any issue does not mean better, or equal, or for all.

Too many people in Newark see their problems as something that only politicians can solve.  But what about themselves?  What about solving their issues themselves?

I might be taken to task for this comparison, but let’s consider the plight of Leavenworth, Washington for a moment.  It’s a very tiny town in middle of nowhere, along the eastern half of the Cascades.  And if you think it’s tiny now, you would be amazed at how tiny it was in the World War I era.

After WWI, the railroad that made Leavenworth a small, but successful logging town relocated to Wenatchee.  And with that, the economy of Leavenworth began spiraling.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that a group of businessmen, along with research students from the University of Washington got together and looked over potential ideas for solving the issues of economics the community was facing, that their identity started to come together.

After Ted Price and Bob Rodgers bought a failing cafe along Highway 2, near the city, they considered the idea of making a themed-town. They organized a group from the community to tour Solvang, California, a town that is modeled after traditional Danish communities.  From that, the community partnership in Leavenworth decided on a Bavarian ski-town concept.  And the town flourished.  They started with an Oktoberfest celebration, similar to that seen in Germany, and now Leavenworth has an equally touted Christmas celebration.  These events last weeks long, and the economy is ever thriving in Leavenworth.  And they inspired Winthrop, Washington to take on a theme in their town as well, which has lead to slow, but growing tourist economy.

Some might say “Well, what’s your idea, a car jacking town theme?”  No, not at all.  But my point here is that it wasn’t government that solve the issues in Leavenworth.  It was business owners and prominent community members that got together to figure out how to take their failing town to another level.

But what that group had to recognize was that blaming government wasn’t going to solve the issue.  If anything, removing government and their burdensome regulations would be the best way to accomplish what they did.

I can’t imagine a town where installing a theme would be an easy task, thanks to government regulation now….and that’s a bad thing.

But for all this blame shoved on government to solve problems, I hear nothing from people of influence in Newark, and people with money (Williams, Treach of Naughty By Nature who appears in the episode briefly, to name a few) who have any interest in building businesses, in building vocational programs within their communities, really, in building anything.

Instead it’s just a constant whine-fest about how the government doesn’t help.  I have it on good authority that New Jersey politicians are some of the worst this country has to offer, but even if they weren’t, it’s not their job to solve every problem, and citizens should not be expecting the government to solve every problem they incur.

If you want a community to flourish, you can’t run away from it, you have to be a part of it.  Recently a documentary about Spanish Lake, a community north of Saint Louis was made, and it was that exact point that the film maker was able to prove in his interviewing of residents, past and present.

Newark may be different than Leavenworth, but the problems they face now are no different than what any fledgling community has ever face.  Building a community takes investment by the people that live in it.  It may be that money is not widely available.  But that didn’t stop people in Leavenworth, or Solvang, or Winthrop, or Houston, or Atlanta right now.

Stop relying on government.  Fix problems for yourselves.  Demand better of your neighbors.  Bet yet, employ your neighbors to join you in making your street, your neighborhood, your community better.

What skills do you have?  What are you able to share?  What kind of projects could you put together, with people you already know?  I will admit you may need your local government if land is an issue, but you don’t need them for every step.  And sometimes one project is all you need to redevelop that long lost sense of community.  It’s always bigger than one person, but each person is always so greatly affected by it.

And what about those people of influence reaching out to business members of the community?  Surely not all members of Newark are gun-toting criminals, even if that’s the blatant picture depicted in this short doc.

I applaud Mr. Williams for discussing a topic most people outside of New Jersey aren’t aware of, and really should be.  This is terrible that citizens in Essex County are subjected to gun point robberies of their cars, all so they can be shipped to Africa and beyond.

But I’m even more terrified by the theme that  it’s up to government to provide a solution.  Because it’s not, and outside of arresting these criminals, there is nothing that any government agency can provide that would be any type of answer to the issues presented in modern-day Newark.

We all have a role to play somewhere, but Mr. Williams misses the mark a bit here, playing too sympathetically to criminals, even if these criminals believe they are born out of circumstance.  At the end of the day, they do have a choice that does not involve pointing a gun in someone’s face, or threatening their community at large through scare tactics they display on camera.

Tearing down anything is easy, but building something takes work.  My hope is that there are people left in Newark who want to build.  We need all hands on deck.

 

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