Michael K. Williams’ Death and the Criminalization of Substance Abuse

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"Of the many tributes to gifted actor Michael K. Williams, who passed away Monday at the age of 54, the most enduring and consequential may be namesake legislation aimed at curbing mass incarceration in his home state of New York." - Marc H. Morial

By Marc H. Morial

“He was a Hollywood star with an off-Broadway paycheck that mostly went up his nose. He was a pacifist with a barroom-brawl, razor scar down the middle of his face. He played a sneering killer but started his career in dance tights. On set, he was Omar Little, the Robin Hood of the hood feared by fictional street thugs who feared nothing else. Off it, he was an aimless soul begging for someone — anyone — to love and accept him for who he was, not who he played.” – Kevin Manahan, Newark Star-Ledger

Of the many tributes to gifted actor Michael K. Williams, who passed away Monday at the age of 54, the most enduring and consequential may be namesake legislation aimed at curbing mass incarceration in his home state of New York.

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn of Brooklyn plans to introduce a bill named for Williams, a criminal justice reform advocate and A.C.L.U. ambassador for ending mass incarceration. Williams gained fame in the early 2000s for his groundbreaking portrayal of Omar Little, an openly gay armed robber who preyed on drug dealers, in the HBO series The Wire. His portrayal drew upon his experiences growing up in Brooklyn’s then-crime-ridden Vanderveer Estates and childhood abuse that left him conflicted about his sexuality.

Despite his professional success, Williams never overcame the demons that drove his struggle with drug abuse. Even in the years following his well-publicized recovery, he hinted of the turmoil beneath the surface. “People often think that when a person puts down the drugs or the alcohol, that all the problems go away,” he told journalist Tamron Hall in February. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Drugs and alcohol are not the problems, they’re merely symptoms of the problem. And once those things go away, the real work begins.”

Williams’ death from a suspected fentanyl overdose underscores both the growing opioid crisis among Black Americans and the need for a more compassionate, community‐based approach to substance abuse and mental health problems. Days after Williams’ death, the National Institutes of Health published a study revealing that opioid overdose death rates are growing faster among Black Americans than among whites. The study’s authors recommended an “antiracist public health approach” to address the crisis in Black communities.

“We have to do something different, a more intensive intervention in the African-American community,” addiction specialist Dr. Edwin Chapman, who serves the African American community in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

Williams struggled with cocaine addiction throughout The Wire’s run, sometimes sleeping on a bare mattress alongside other addicts in the basement of a boarded-up house in Newark. He sought treatment after the show ended in 2008, spurred in part by a meeting with then-candidate Barack Obama. “Hearing my name come out of his mouth woke me up,” he told the New York Times. “I realized that my work could actually make a difference.”

He became an ACLU ambassador for ending mass incarceration in 2014. At the time, his nephew Dominic Dupont was 17 years into a 25-year sentence in connection with a fatal shooting.

“Our society has been using jails and prisons as a dumping ground for the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs,” Williams wrote in a 2015 ACLU blog post. These human beings don’t belong in prison, they belong in treatment, yet we’ve pushed them into cages and denied them their humanity.”

The criminalization of substance abuse is partly to blame for the rising opioid death toll, deterring people in crisis from seeking help.

“They have that fear. If you go to get help, then people want to turn you in and have your children taken away,” said Latoya Jenkins, whose mother died of a fentanyl overdose in December. “If they are seen somewhere using drugs, instead of, ‘Hey can I get you to a treatment center or get someone to help you. No, we’re going to throw you in jail,’ ”

Assemblywoman Hermelyn’s legislation to reduce mass incarceration would be a fitting tribute to Williams and the cause for which he fought so fiercely.

“I will never forget that there are many more men with bright futures who look like me that have been relegated to our prison systems,” Williams wrote. “However, instead of being provided with opportunities to express themselves or their creativity safely or getting the right support, they make mistakes which cost them dearly. The costs of those mistakes are high and these men pay with their futures.”

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