‘Antiracist public health approach’ needed to substance abuse, by Marc H. Morial

9/16/2021, 6 p.m.
“He was a Hollywood star with an off-Broadway paycheck that mostly went up his nose. He was a pacifist with ...

“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 died last week 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, N.Y., plans to introduce a bill named for Mr. Williams, a criminal justice reform advocate and ACLU ambassador for ending mass incarceration.

Mr.Williams gained fame in the early 2000s for his ground- breaking 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, Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Williams struggled with cocaine addiction throughout the run of “The Wire,” 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.”

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 Mr. Williams and the cause for which he fought so fiercely.

The writer is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.