By now, if you haven’t watched The Wire or read Homicide and The Corner, the two astonishing books that acted as source material for the HBO series, something’s seriously lacking from your life. If you have you’ll know that Omar Little, the incredibly violent but still strongly moral stick-up artist, is one of the most compelling fictional creations ever to slam a shotgun into a dealer’s face.
Except he’s not wholly a fictional creation – his life and modus operandi was inspired by Donnie Andrews, a former stick-up artist, convicted murderer and all-round Baltimore bad-ass. After spending 18 years in jail he’s been working with his local communities back in Maryland and there’s currently a film being made of his life by Brad Pitt’s production company. I recently had a chat with Donnie.
Vice: I’d like to start by talking about Omar – he’s a character who lives and dies by his code. Is he sympathetic to you?
Donnie Andrews: Yeah. He had his moments, like when I was out there. You know I might do something or beat somebody, then go home and think about it. Or I might take somebody’s money, but then I’d always leave them with something. You had your moments, and they made Omar exactly the way I was. David [Simon] wrote ‘The West Side Story’ [the initial Baltimore Sun article about Donnie] after my conviction in ’86 and they basically had everything down-pat. The gay part they took from a guy called Billy Outlaw, he was a gay stick-up guy.
Were there other stick-up artists like you back then?
Yeah, there was a whole gang of us. A stick-up artist... you take your modern-day gangsters and you put them in a hat, you got the Dapper Don who had Sammy The Bull, Al Capone had Frank Nitti. These are guys who were enforcers, they make the gangsters – if it wasn’t for us, them guys called gangsters wouldn’t exist. They didn’t have the muscle or the heart that stick-up artists had, so these guys just had more heart and were willing to take more chances.
And that was you.
That was me. We’d make the so-called gangsters, drug dealers and whatever.
Can you trace your history back to an event that sent you down that path?
I know exactly when it was. I was nine. I had an abusive mother, and one night she woke us up, me and my brother Kent, like, two in the morning and made us go to the Laundromat to go wash clothes, so we got up. They used to have an old homeless guy or a wino to watch the Laundromat so no one would break no machines, and when me and my brother were putting our clothes in the dryer, three guys came in and they asked the guy that was watching the machines for fifteen cents to catch the bus. And the guy got indignant, cussed them all, "Fifteen cents? I got fifteen cents and a handful of change but I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls. You faggot motherfuckers, I’ll give you fifteen cents to get out of my face." Next thing you know the change went up in the air and they beat him literally to death. So me and my brother, we standing back there – my concern is my little brother. The back door is locked, it’s got a padlock on it so we can’t go out that way but we want to get up out of there but we can’t without passing them. So we had to sit there, stand there and wait until they finished beating on this guy. They looked up and seen us there, me and my brother, and they start walking toward us. I push my brother behind me, and they said, "Loan me fifteen cents." I said, "I ain’t got no money, this is my mother's money," and back in the day people respected, they don’t mess with mamas so they knew I couldn’t give them no money. Then they said "But if you had ten cents you’d give it to me, right?" and I said "Sure." So they left, then me and my brother, we left the clothes but we climbed over the washing machines because the guy’s laying in the middle of the floor in a pool of blood. I mean, a POOL of blood. We got to the door and I got my brother out then all of a sudden the guy let out a big fart and took his last breath. I stopped and looked at him, and right by his head was a dime and a nickel. I made up my mind that I would never be a victim, I would never be the prey, I’d be the hunter. If you going to be mean you gotta be the baddest motherfucker on the street.
You once said you had to be “the most vicious person on the street to survive” – what was day-to-day life like as a stick-up artist?
Me and my brother, we basically had to fend for ourselves. Everything we got, we had to steal it. Coming up in that environment, it’s like when in Rome, you do what the Romans do. If you playing in the grass with snakes, you got to make sure you’re a King Cobra. I did some crazy stuff, but at the same time when I look back I regretted doing a lot of it. But at the same time, if two or three guys were beating you and I didn’t know you, I would jump in and help you. And that’s the way I was, mainly because I guess sometimes I look for trouble and sometimes trouble find me. I had a sense of justice, "OK, that ain’t right." I’d jump in, then they jump in, then it’s even. It was survival, but at the same time it was building a reputation because one thing leads to another. They might say, "OK, Donnie did this," and the story goes on and keeps getting embellished.
What did you have to do to build up a reputation?
When I was coming up you had to be good with your hands and people respect you if you could fight. Number one, if you break a law you going to jail, and you don’t have a gun in jail. So if you can use your hands you don’t have to worry about that. Me and my brother, if you messed with one of us you messed with both of us. And you don’t mess with my little brother or my family. I guess going to jail was a big thing, people look up to you after that – you come back from boys village, training school – and so I stayed in jail, stayed in trouble. Then when you go to jail you meet other people, other criminals and stuff like that, they hear of you and so your name spreads. It was a rough life.
It seems like it was another life for you – the change between then and now is huge. It seems like you’re an actor who used to play a certain role.
I tell everybody, coming up the whole world is a stage and when you living where I come from you had to be a prolific actor [laughs]. You had to hide your emotions and you couldn’t show weakness. You show weakness and that was it, you got all kinds of trouble. You got to keep that mask going all the time. Now I feel like I've grown up, I’m a man and I don’t have to wear that mask. When I start looking towards the future, I never had no future when I was out there. I was just living for the moment, and when I was a kid people tell me I ain’t never going to reach 21. I’m 55. Whatever I did, I did it well. I relish the fact that I’m still here and I regret some of the things that I done, but I still gotta be proud that I made it.
Why has the story of Baltimore and the drugs trade that Homicide and The Corner depicts hit such a nerve?
I think you have to respect the conscience of a nation. If you go out there and you see a homeless guy and he asks you for a dollar, you turn your nose up and walk away and then all of a sudden somebody comes to tell you, "You know that guy you just turned your nose up? He just gave someone a million dollars, that was Bill Gates!" You never know who you’re dealing with and at the same time you try to stay away from stuff that don’t concern you. They just put The Wire, The Corner out there for the world to see, and it ain’t just happening in Baltimore, but all over the world. One guy was telling me, he’s from some island, and he say the black kids look up to Omar, Stringer Bell – even though the show is a great show, why does it strike home to the ignorant? Black kids, gang-bangers, like I tell them, if you a doctor, if you a lawyer, if you an engineer you making good money you not going back down into the ghetto to bring them kids out, so the only ones they look forward to is they local drug dealers, and that’s they role models.
When you were in jail you said you had very little to do with the mafia because they were only loyal to an organisation and not each other, but still today the mob is hugely glorified. The Wire shows a different side of things but still seems to hit a nerve.
You have women that only date bad boys, you see what I’m saying? I had a couple of girls who had good men – they worked every day, come home pay the bills. But why they break up with him? "He was square, he was easy. He let me have my way. They give me everything I want." And I’m like, "What? You let him go?!" Everybody is looking for that sense of excitement: The Wire, Scarface, The Corner – it all gives them a sense of excitement. We had a friend of ours, never did drugs, and said to my wife, "I never did heroin but the way people describe the high, I don’t care if I’m 8o years old, I want to try it before I die." Why?! If you see what it doing to communities and other people, why you want to mess with it? That’s the curiosity in people.
How do you feel when people who read about you and your life and take the whole experience almost as tourism?
It damages the message, and it actually hurts me as a black man. When I decided to change my life I sat down and started to study the words of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, even George Jackson, and I understood their message and it made me feel bad. Martin, he was a man of peace and for me to take my violence to another life... he absorbed all the hate he could and still remained the same. It hurts me when we go out and vote for these politicians who say they going to make our lives better – we organise these rallies, we say we going to do this to make a difference, we set Friday for the rally and then when Friday come no one shows up. "I gotta go to work, I gotta pay my bills." It hurt me that people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would die so that we could get where we at today, and to see there’s no following through in America today. You know, you got people who are pro-life but they bombing clinics – nobody is for what they preach about and that hurts me to see that. They don’t stick to they guns. It’s always, "Today I’m angry, tomorrow I gotta go make some money, I don’t want to lose my job." I had a perfect example last year. I was trying to pull together a gang summit in Baltimore, I had most of the gang leaders and they was willing to sit down – but I could get nobody to back me. So I took them and said we gotta bring our kids back home, and at first they was all for it but then the next day they weren’t. About five of them come to me after and say, "I should’ve listened to you man, they killed my son last week." And I’m sorry for their loss, but in my mind I’m thinking – that’s what happens when you do nothing, sit back and watch. Like Martin say, a man who won’t stand for nothing will fall for anything. And our community is falling for anything and everything. Until we get together and start rebuilding our communities, we can’t wait for our government to do anything. Right now, the government is chasing all the blacks out of Baltimore city and putting them in projects they created in the county. Now, counties that had like one murder now have 26, and it goes up higher and higher every year. It’s the game, everybody playing.
Is talking about yourself being a voice for your community?
I try to be, and at the same time people have voices but they scared to stand up and talk. They scared the government won’t come get them, they scared they gonna get retaliation from gang-bangers. I don’t know what the problem is. I was a major part of it, so I’m going to do whatever I can to try and change it. Live or die, at least I’m dying for something. I put my life on the line every day for 33 years and didn’t care if I lived or died, and that’s the same mentality as those kids out there. They know for a fact that nobody care for them. Think about it, you have the government building more prisons, more prisons – but they shut down 14 schools in Baltimore. You got people losing they jobs but the correction facilities, they still building. That, to me, is stupid. They want to cut down on crime and get the bad people off the streets, but they have all these bad people and then you tell them, "You got a criminal record – you can’t get a good job, you can’t live in public housing, you can’t get insurance." When I came home it took me like four months just running around the city to get my ID. Because without ID you can’t get your social security card, you need your birth certificate and it was like crazy. They tell you you can’t get social service, but if you doing all this and you telling a man he can’t eat, what recourse does he have but to take when he can by stealing? You fighting crime, but you creating it. They use 9/11 as a way to take away human rights, and the constitution they just twisted it. If you want to really fight crime you can give a big dent if you just let people work. A lot of time, I’ve got guys jobs and they work for six weeks but then they told they got to be let go because insurance won’t cover them because they have a criminal record. They happy that they got a nice job that could support their family, then three weeks later it’s totally different. It’s a lot of politics involved.
The outreach work you do, tell me about that.
I work with gang-bangers, my wife is an outreach worker for drug programs. She goes out and does Aids testing, I try to work with gang-bangers. But lately I’ve been backing away with them because today, the kids see The Wire and they think it’s show and tell. People see me and think I’ve been home for 15/20 years but I’ve been home for four. They see me driving a nice car and keeping myself up and that is impressionable to them. I can tell them I doing like this without hurting nobody or selling no drugs, and they think, "You got a break – how can we get that break? We want out, can you show us how to get out?" And I got nothing to offer them. I’m backing away because I don’t want them to think I’m a politician, that I’m filling their heads with politics. There’s a program in Maryland called the Innocent Program – everyone saying that everyone in jail is innocent, but you look at some of these cases and you just can’t see how they got convicted. Perfect example, guy’s down for 39 years – he had a capital murder case but the trial lasted for 45 minutes. There was five of them and three of his co-defendants said they had no involvement, but the guy who actually did it turned on him and he got sentenced to life. And the governor said life means life, and we got thousands of cases like that. And there’s another girl, she got a kid and the government say they going to take away her kid if she doesn’t say some guy did something. I’m really happy about doing this, this way I’m still giving back and it makes me feel good.
You said gangs originally formed as a protectorate for a community. Is that realistically possible to recreate?
It takes a village to raise a child, so that community is going to have to become that village. You can’t sit in the house and wait for it go away because it’s going to get worse. Until people start standing up and actually doing something about it, it’s going to remain the same. When they come together, it going to bring about change. Some mothers have they sons out there selling drugs, and they fighting us, saying "Why you trying to do this? He only making money, you just jealous." Jealous? Well, your son might turn my son into a drug addict, so why am I jealous? You destroy my family! Until people realise what’s going it’s going to only get worse and worse and worse. But I think if everybody just stop relying on the police coming to do that and try to take the community back, that’s going to make the difference. The gang thing was just a fad, a lot of them who was in the gangs actually want out, but out to what? That’s the whole bottom line, out to what? Police want to tag them so they got records and there ain’t so much they can do.
How do people treat you back home?
They don’t treat me no different. I’m not into that life no more and I don’t want to get caught up in nothing, so if they still into that life I stay the hell away from them. If the feds start investigating something and people see me talking to the feds, I don’t want to be part of no conspiracy. I tell the gang-bangers, we can talk about you problems but I don’t want to hear nothing about no murders or no crimes. If you got issues we can deal with your issues, but all that other crazy stuff – don’t make me no conspirator. When I changed I changed, that’s it. I try to be the best person I can be, but somewhere down deep Omar still there and I don’t want to see him come back out.
Before you went to jail for 18 years, there seemed to be two major events that shaped you – the murder and the time you wore a wire for the police. The murder has been recounted a lot, but could you tell me about the wire?
That incident was the hardest thing in the world for me to do. But sometimes when you making changes you have to make the hardest decisions in the world. When the guy got... when we killed the guy, I managed to tell one guy, Fruit Loop, to get away but I wasn’t able to save the other guy and we had to go through with that. That was a hard decision. You make hard decisions, and if you can make them for the bad you can make them for the good. The time when I wore the wire, the feds and everybody was expecting me to renege but I was at the point in my life where it was either do or die right there. It was really, really hard and the thing is, the good thing is, I didn’t have to testify. That was something I didn’t know if I could go through with, so with them copping out it was a blessing for me. I was determined to make that change because I knew I was better than that, and to see my best friend Shortie Smalls die, that was a turning point. Shortie always told me my name, Donnie Andrews, that was like a basketball star and I could be a lot better than I was. Now I see 50/60-year-old gang members and dope fiends – let it go! You no longer a kid. I didn’t want to be that dope fiend out there, people kicking you in the ass.
And wearing the wire was you showing yourself you could do that.
Yeah, and not only myself but at that point it showed a lot of people that supported me that I was able to do that and I was for real. Everybody was expecting the opposite. I could’ve went and said, "You know what? If I’m going to do that then I’m going to walk away with no sentence," but I felt like I needed to go to prison for the crime I committed.
You could’ve escaped without punishment?
Yeah, I could’ve bargained. Like with Sammy The Bull, five years for 21! But I said I was going to serve my time – I had three life sentences, one with the feds and two with the state. At the time, the feds said for the life sentence you’d do 10 years and then be up for parole. After ten years I don’t think I was at the point where I’m at right now. The guy who made the deal with me, he reneged and said I should spend the rest of my life and die in jail. That created the fight for the next eight years because if you speaking of forgiveness you first got to forgive yourself. Because in that first 10 years, I hadn’t forgiven myself, I still carried that burden around. And I believed doing that last eight years made me really understand the concept of law. It made me see that everything I lived and died for when I was coming up, that was just a pipe dream. All my friends out there, they didn’t stick by me or send me a dime. It was a challenge, but I forgave even the guy who crossed me on the 10 because he helped me, and like if I had made a deal then I’d be back in jail now. He made me what I am today.