The political awakening of Michael K. Williams
The late actor's activism was stubbornly local and focused on substantive change over symbolism.
When people think of Michael K. Williams, they almost immediately visualize Omar Little.
Certainly, the mercurial actor’s role as the openly gay, shotgun-toting Robin Hood of South Baltimore is among the most iconic in television history. That’s not a controversial take; even a certain ex-president agrees that Omar is the GOAT and Williams’ portrayal was masterful.
Yet after binging as many articles and interviews as I could after the sad news of Williams’ untimely death broke over the weekend, my biggest lament is that we were robbed of a man whose brand of no-bullshit politics had recently blossomed.
The actor behind Omar Little and other memorable characters in HBO dramas was a complex, ever-evolving person who was often open about his own scars—even beyond the rugged one that marked his face. As such, the 54-year-old Williams openly admitted that he was something of a late bloomer in terms of his politics.
In an interview with Rolling Stone’s “Useful Idiots” podcast last year, the actor noted that he regretted falling asleep politically during the Obama years (to be fair, it would be awfully hard to hate your biggest fan) but had recently woken up.
But that doesn’t mean he went the typical Hollywood liberals route and broadcast his newfound wokeness as a kind of branding exercise and go to bat for the DNC, vague progressive causes, or big moneyed NGOs.
“I’m not a politician,” Williams said in an interview earlier this year. “I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, and I’m a grown-ass man, excuse my language, and it’s time to make my voice and my platform matter for something.”
That political formation was grounded in his own experience growing up as a young man in the overpoliced projects of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and as an astute observer of cross-racial poverty and under-resourced communities elsewhere.
“I get to travel around the country a lot, and I go to these rural places, and one thing I have noticed: there is a Wire in every city in every state in the goddamn country! You talkin’ Rhode Island? I done seen the hood in Rhode Island; I done seen the hood in Boston; I done seen the hood in Pittsburgh; I done seen the hood in Harrisburg; you know? It’s the same shit all over the goddamn country!” he said.
He didn’t identify as a Marxist publicly but certainly sounded like one at times. Take his incisive answer to a question from Time Magazine about his role in HBO’s “The Night Of” and what impact the show would have on “the conversation about race.” Williams refused to give a rote answer.
“In my perspective, the show has very little to do with race, and everything to do with class. I’ve come to realize the race thing is a smokescreen. The real war is a war on class,” he said. “It’s about how much green you have in your pocket. In this country, you can unfortunately literally get away with murder if you have enough political background behind you. You are innocent until proven poor.”
He also decried liberals’ emphasis on empty symbolic gestures instead of changes that would make a real material difference for poor and black kids.
That’s the lesson of a speech he once made at Harvard. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter from 2011, he recalled how everyone he polled enthusiastically raised their hands that they had seen The Wire but dropped them when he asked if they were mentoring any kids from the hood in Boston in response.
“You’re all up here at Harvard getting the best education in the fucking world.” I said, “Boston’s streets are some of the worst in this goddamn country!” I said, “Snatch you up a kid. Don’t matter what color. Snatch you up a kid, man, and teach them some law, teach them some of the shit that you’re all getting in here. Mentor!” You know?”
Let’s make less noise about whose faces were on statues and media representation and more about redistributing resources, he thought. For instance, he questioned the utility of simply declaring that Black Lives Matter without fighting for policies that improved the lives of black people.
“For anyone saying Black Lives Matter, the way to show that is by giving black people the resources so we can do things for ourselves,” he said.
What resources exactly? He outlined some examples in a tweet directed at New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio in April. At a time when gun violence was on the rise in NYC, Williams told Di Blasio that incarceration was a bad gun violence prevention strategy.
“...addressing historic and generational harm, OPENING schools, investing in arts programming, ensuring access to mental health and basic healthcare, ending food apartheid, affordable housing and increasing the crisis management system is (a violence prevention strategy,” he posted.
That he directed his message to Di Blasio reflected a laser-focus on local issues and politicians in his native New York City, particularly his home turf of Brooklyn. For instance, he attended a New York City Council meeting last June to testify that the NYPD shouldn’t be defunded exactly, but a substantial portion of their funds should be reallocated to social services.
Then in February, he endorsed little-known New York state assembly member Dan Quart in the crowded eight-person Democratic primary for the Manhattan district attorney’s race because he was won over by Quart’s promises of criminal justice reform.
“We deserve a justice system that sees people, not just criminals. And we need leaders who see the difference,” Williams said in a video promoting the campaign.
He also believed that those same leaders needed to directly address the communities most affected by the city’s criminal justice system. In June, Williams assisted a community organization called Crew Count with an unusual mayoral candidate forum during the primaries.
Seven of the city’s mayoral candidates came to answer questions from Williams and Crew Count volunteers about policing and gun violence on the streets of Brownsville, New York City's most violent neighborhood. In a video posted online, Williams confronted ex-cop-turned-mayoral candidate Eric Adams about how his rhetoric on criminal justice sounded too much like the tough-on-crime conservatives of the past.
That video only received 4,700 views, a fraction of the millions of those who watched him play Omar Little in the TV show some critics laud as the best of all time.
Yet, here was Williams—not as TV star but a regular guy who ultimately wanted to fulfill a civic duty to his own community.
“Man, I just want people to remember me as one cool-ass dude, you know? Someone who cared. And I would never want anybody to say, “Oh, he forgot where he came from.” That would hurt me the most.”
Let it be known that Michael K Williams indeed died a cool-ass dude whose politics proved he never forgot where he came from.