[URBANTH-L]NEWS: A Scene from HBO's The Wire, Set in Baltimore

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon Sep 15 16:14:43 EDT 2008

A scene from HBO's The Wire, which is set in Baltimore
David Simon, The Guardian,
Saturday September 6 2008

Baltimore - it's been an ordinary week in Maryland's largest city. The
August heat broke and one can nearly sleep with a window open; the
Orioles are again down in the cellar in the American League East; the
city murder rate is a bit behind last year's blood-letting, and if it
holds into the fall, politicians and police commanders will compete to
claim credit.

The stories in the Baltimore Sun remain fixed on the surface, each of
them premised on the givens: schools will open next week and provide
more or less the same inferior education as previous years; Johns
Hopkins is building its biotech park expansion where the East
Baltimore ghetto used to be and the ghetto is migrating due east and
north-east; the biotech park will be great for white folk with college
degrees, for those with union cards, the factories are still closed
and the port is still losing cargo to Norfolk; a shooting here, a
cutting there ...

All in all, an unremarkable summer.

Save for one lonely headline the other day - something that genuinely
intrigues. It's a curious item - a draft report by a local non-profit
foundation, a simple statistical study of the difference between
Baltimore criminal juries and those of the surrounding, suburban

It seems that in Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in America,
jurors are far more reluctant to convict criminal defendants than in
the suburban enclaves that ring the city.

The report upset the city's chief prosecutor; she thought its
conclusions "politically divisive" and asked the foundation to either
amend the draft study or kill it entirely. The press mocked her for
this, of course, and rightly so, while on the radio here, white
talk-show hosts had fun speculating about why city jurors - read
"black people" - won't do their civic duty when it is, in fact, their
communities that are so overwhelmed by crime.

Everyone had something to say for a day or two, and of course, after
that brief span of time, the entire issue disappeared into the glowing
mediafest that was Michael Phelps and his remarkable collection of
gold medals. Phelps is from Baltimore, by the way. As he is not
wrapped in crime-scene tape, hampered by a budget shortfall or unable
to raise his standardised test scores to the national average, we
claim the great Olympian with considerable pride. The boy can swim,
yes he can.

In any event, the story about the reluctant city juries slipped
quickly below the waves in the Beijing pool without anyone ever
seriously inquiring into the why of it, much less attempting to do any
actual reporting on the matter.

Anomaly noted. Half-assed speculation offered. On to new business.

But here's the thing of which we can all be certain, the thing that
fuels all the dramatic arcs of The Wire, in fact: the why is the only
thing that actually matters. The who, the what, the when, the where,
even the how - every other building block in which journalists and
policy planners and political leaders routinely trade - amount to
nothing beyond the filler, interchangeable with the facts flung a year
ago, a year from now and decades hence.

The why is it. The why is what makes journalism an adult game. The why
is what makes policy coherent and useful. The why is what transforms
bureaucrats and foot soldiers and political leaders into viable
instruments of rational and affirmative change. The why is everything
and without it, the very suggestion of human progress becomes a cosmic

And in the American city, at the millennium, the why has ceased to exist.

When I read reviews and commentary on The Wire in the British press, I
am usually moved to a peculiar and conflicted place. I'm gratified by
the incredible amount of verbiage accorded our little drama and I'm
delighted to have the fundamental ideas and arguments of the piece
discussed seriously.

But at the same time, I'm acutely aware that our dystopian depiction
of Baltimore has more appeal the farther one travels from America. The
Wire is, of course, dissent of a kind and it is true that there are
many of my countrymen who are in fundamental disagreement with the
manner in which the nation is being governed and managed. But somehow,
it sounds better to my ear when it's my own people talking trash and
calling our problems out.

At the same time, it's not just a question of standing, but of nuance
as well. I get that we've been the bull in the china shop
internationally, that we've been arrogant and tone-deaf in so many
arenas for so many years, and now, with the margins of the American
empire being pressed, everyone is ready to embrace the requisite
number of I-told-you-so moments. Fair enough. We had it coming. But
the emotion in all of that sometimes leads the overseas commentary
about Baltimore and The Wire toward something that I don't recognise
as accurate.

Baltimore is not the inner circle of hell. It is not entirely devoured
by a drug economy that serves as its last viable industry. It is not a
place in which gangsters routinely fire clip after clip, spraying the
streets in daylight ambushes. It is not unlivable, or devoid of
humanity, or a reservoir of unmitigated human despair.

I live in Baltimore, in a neighbourhood that is none of these things.
I am vested in the city and its future and I can drive you to places
in this city that would transform even the most devout Wire fan into a
fat, happy tourist. Baltimore's charms are no less plentiful than most
American cities.

And yet there are places in Baltimore where The Wire is not at all
hyperbole, where all of the depicted tragedy and waste and dysfunction
are fixed, certain and constant. And that place is, I might add, about
20 blocks from where I live.

That is the context of The Wire and that is the only context in which
Baltimore - and by reasonable extension, urban America - can be fairly
regarded. There are two Americas - separate, unequal, and no longer
even acknowledging each other except on the barest cultural terms. In
the one nation, new millionaires are minted every day. In the other,
human beings no longer necessary to our economy, to our society, are
being devalued and destroyed. Both things are true, and one gets a
sense, reading the distant reaction to The Wire, that Europeans are
far more ready to be convinced by one vision than the other.

I used to quote Churchill as declaring that a first-rate mind was one
that could maintain two opposing ideas at the same time. It certainly
sounded Churchillian to me until someone better read pointed out that
this notable quote is by F Scott Fitzgerald.

At first this disappoints, because the quote, to me, seems to argue
for political nuance, for subtlety and precision in state affairs. For
a long while, the literary origin of the credo made no sense.

But then, The Wire.

As with Fitzgerald, we were selling story only. And at all points,
when filming our drama, we understood that we were arguing the case of
one America to the other. We were not saying everything, showing
everything. We focused on the urban dynamic of drugs, crime and race.
We argued the fraud of the drug war and offered an elegy for the death
of union labour and the working class. We ruminated on the political
infrastructure and its inability to reform. We picked a fight over the
decline of public education and the lie behind our national claim to
equality of opportunity. And lastly, we suggested that in the end, no
one in our media culture is paying attention or asking hard questions.

We did not contemplate immigration. We largely ignored sex-based
discrimination, feminism and gender issues. We spoke not a word about
the pyramid scheme that is the mortgage crisis, or the diminishing
consumer class, or the time bomb that all of our China-bought debt
might prove to be. Nor did we glory in the healthy sectors of the
American economy, in the growth industries of the information age. We
did not embrace Brooklyn Heights and West Los Angeles, Silicon Valley
and Marin County. Hell, we didn't even rest for more than a day or two
in Roland Park or Mount Washington or Towson - those Baltimore
neighbourhoods that define a viable, monied America. We spoke to the
other part of town, the forgotten place, the one they don't tell many
stories about, at least not in the medium of entertainment television.
It was a story rooted in truth, but it wasn't the only story or the
only truth. Who, but a second-rate mind, would claim otherwise?

Yet in my country, they actually argue the point. While British
audiences might believe The Wire to represent more than it does,
Americans - many of them, at least - are quick to argue that it
doesn't represent everything and is therefore, somehow, not
representative of anything at all.

Was the Wire myopic? Should it have been allowed to dwell for five
seasons on that in America which is broken and brutal? Was it not
obliged, as an act of journalistic equanimity, if not dramatic power,
to display portions of the America where human lives are not
marginalised and discarded?

Well, there are about 350 television shows about the affluent America,
the comfortable America, the viable and cohesive nation where everyone
gets what they want if they either work hard or know someone or have a
pretty face or cheat like hell. That America is available every night,
on every channel in the Comcast package.

For a brief time, there was one television drama about the other America.

Are we really going to debate whether it was one too many?

Which brings us back to this week in Baltimore and that jury report,
the one that everyone had something to say about, but no one actually
bothered to analyse. The draft study, which tracked jury trials in
Baltimore over a one-year period from July 2005, found that jurors in
surrounding, predominantly white suburban counties were 30 times more
likely to convict defendants of the most serious charge. Overall in
the surrounding counties, the acquittal rate was 27%. In the city, it
was 43%. And the disinclination of Baltimore juries to convict drug
defendants on serious charges was even more pronounced, according to
the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun's coverage indicated that the report's author had speculated
vaguely as to "population characteristics and socioeconomic factors"
being relevant to the statistical variance. The Sun itself provided no
additional analysis, reportage, thought or speculation as to why city
juries behave as they do.

Again, the why of the thing. The only part that really matters.

Because in my city, we have fought the drug war to the very end of the
line, with sergeants becoming lieutenants and majors becoming colonels
and city mayors becoming state governors. We have done so for decades,
one day into the next, one administration after another, each claiming
progress and measuring such in arrest rates, drug seizures, crime
stats. And no one asks: why?

No one asks why, with all the arrests and seizures, the availability
and purity of narcotics and cocaine has actually increased over the
past three decades. No one asks why, with all the law enforcement
committed, whole tracts of the city have nonetheless degenerated into
free-fire war zones. No one asks why police commanders are routinely
able to reduce the rates of robbery, or rape, or assault significantly
in any time period prior to an election, while the murder rate - in
which the victim can't be obscured or clerically "unfounded" - stays
as high as ever. And now, this week, no one asks why men and women
from Baltimore, upon being given a chance to strike a blow against
disorder and mayhem by convicting those charged criminally, would
shirk their responsibility.

Well, here it is, plain as day...

In order to elect Baltimore's mayor as Maryland's governor, crime had
to go down. And when that mayor was unable to do so legitimately,
through a meaningful deterrent, his police officials did not merely go
about cooking their statistics, making robberies and assaults
disappear by corrupting the reporting of such incidents, they resorted
to something far more disturbing.

For the last years of his administration, Mayor Martin O'Malley
ordered the mass arrests of citizens in every struggling Baltimore
neighbourhood, from eastside to west. More than 100,000 bodies were
dragged to Central Booking in a single year - record rates of arrest
for a city with fewer than 700,000 residents. Corner boys, touts, drug
slingers, petty criminals - yes, they went in the wagons.

But school teachers, city workers, shopkeepers, delivery boys - they
too were jacked up, cuffed and hauled down to Eager Street - hundreds
of them a night on the weekends. Some were charged, but few were
prosecuted. And in 25,000 such cases, they were later freed from the
detention facility without ever going to court; no charges were
proffered because, well, no crime had been committed.

I wasn't arrested. Nor was Ed Burns or Dominic West or Aidan Gillen.
Nor were my neighbours or the Baltimore Sun's editors or the members
of the Maryland Club. But then, we're all white. Among the black
members of my cast and crew, it was often impossible to drive from the
film set to home at night without being stopped - and in some cases
detained or arrested - on nonexistent probable cause and nonexistent
charges. The crackdown came wholly in black neighbourhoods and it
landed wholly on the backs of black citizens.

And now, just a few years later, comes this document that causes the
state's attorney to deny the obvious and leaves everyone else
wondering weakly and vaguely as to the why of it. Is it so hard to
understand that the same people who had their civil rights cleanly
dispatched, who spent nights in jail because police officers lied on
them and dragged them off without charge - that these people might be
inclined to disbelieve the word of law enforcement in any future
criminal case?

In places like West Baltimore, the drug war destroyed every last thing
that the drugs themselves left standing - including the credibility of
the police deterrent. To elect one man to higher office, an entire
city alienated its citizenry and destroyed its juror pool.

Mayor O'Malley is now Governor O'Malley. The police commanders have
all been promoted. A daily newspaper that had no stomach for
addressing the why a decade ago when it had 400 editors and reporters,
a newspaper more consumed with prize submissions and gotcha stories
than with complex analysis of its city's problems, now has 220 bodies
in its newsroom and is even less capable of the task. And nothing, of
course, changes.

Yes, such a scenario is grist for The Wire. We could have easily built
half a season out of the collapse of the Baltimore jury pool and the
inability of city prosecutors to bring cases into court.

Yet there is also something appalling in the suggestion that a
television drama - a presumed entertainment - might be a focal point
for a discussion of what has gone wrong in urban America, for why we
have become a society that no longer even recognises the depth of our
problems, much less works to solve any of them.

But where else is the why even being argued any more? Not in the
stunted political discourse of an American election cycle, not in an
eviscerated, self-absorbed press, not in any construct to which the
empowered America, the comfortable and comforted America, gives its
limited attention. To know why city juries won't participate in the
drug war any more, to know why they have opted out of our collective
dysfunction, you'd have to travel to the other America - to West
Fayette Street or Park Heights Avenue or East Madison Street or any
other of the forgotten places. And, well, as has already been said, we
are separate nations at this point. Few of us ever cross the frontier
to hear voices different from our own. ·

· A newspaperman for 13 years, David Simon is the author of Homicide:
A Year On The Killing Streets, published in the UK by Canongate, as
well as an executive producer and writer of HBO's The Wire.

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