In the opening scene of The Wire, detective Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West, interviews a corner boy who was witness to the murder of a one Omar Isiah Betts, better known as Snot Boogie. Every Friday night, Snot Boogie would participate in a local craps game in an alleyway. He would wait until there was cash on the table, and would grab the money and run, only to be chased down and beaten up, week after week. A confused McNulty asks the corner boy, “if Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” The corner boy, staring at Snot Boogie’s dead body, surrounded by the wailing sirens of Baltimore cruisers, replies, “you got to, this America man.”
The Wire is at once both the most extraordinary and the most ordinary television show in American history. The series that helped propel Dominic West, Michael B. Jordan, and Idris Elba to fame is known for its cast of iconic characters and its expansive view of the city of Baltimore, from drug-infested alleyways to chandaliered rooms of City Hall, from the dying docks on the Port of Baltimore to the cramped classrooms of inner-city schools. During its own time, The Wire was dwarfed by its HBO counterpart The Sopranos, and failed to bring home a single Emmy or Golden Globe; at its peak, it was viewed by just four million, paling in comparison to the 18.2 million then-record set by The Sopranos in 2002. However, by purposefully availing itself of the pizzazz, romanticization, and general conformity that provided other shows with commercial success, The Wire set itself on telling ‘ordinary’ stories in fascinating ways. David Simon’s portrayal of Baltimore was often uncomfortable, depressing, and at its core, fundamentally American.
For The Wire, the death of Snot Boogie is the fundamental paradox of American freedom, the deterministic paths which carry ramifications disproportionate to the crime, and enigmatic to our sense of morality. Carried out in both investigation rooms and alleyways, the real etiquettes exist in unspoken codes, belying a paradox where honor shines most brightly upon thieves, and those too honorable to steal find themselves outsiders. ‘Good’ cops who actually care about solving the crime frequently have their investigations stifled by political games of the higher ups. On the corners, dealers and thieves play by the ‘rules’ of the game, as lawlessness and crime underlie a moral standard that forms a basis of honor.
Before producing his magnum opus, David Simon was a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, covering the crime beat before taking a one year hiatus to work with the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit. After shadowing detectives through search investigations, interrogations, and warrants, he produced Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a portrait of crime fighting in inner-city Baltimore. He then worked on the television series Homicide: Life on the Street and co-authored The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Detective Ed Burns, before eventually setting his sights on the creation of The Wire. The ensuing product was almost nonfictional; it drew inspiration from both Simon and the experiences of Ed Burns, a former detective turned public school teacher (a path strikingly similar to Roland ‘Prez’ Pyzblylewski, a character in the show). What was initially framed as a crime drama evolved into a commentary on the state of urban establishments, and the intransigent dissonance between the individual and the institution.
In an age of social tension, I’m reminded of The Wire on an almost daily basis. The distinction between the formal institutions of the police department and legal system, and the informal institutions of the streets is invariably marked by a racial divide; not everyone who participates in the former is white, but most everyone involved in the latter isn’t. In the backdrop of the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor protests, we are once again reminded of the dysfunction of American police, the Season 1 variants of Prez, Herc, and Carver ,who go around beating citizens and brute forcing arrests simply because they can. But it goes far beyond that. In the second episode, Prez pistol whips a black kid for leaning on his car, leaving him in critical condition. When informed, Lt. Daniels, Prez’s commanding officer, instructs Prez to lie and say that he was threatened by the youth. Later that night, Daniels’s wife asks him why he didn’t leave Prez and the other officers out to dry. Daniel replies that he never gives his people up to IID (Internal Investigations Division). “If I hang them, I hang myself. I’m the man in charge, remember?”
Lt. Daniels turns out to be one of the better cops in the Baltimore police system. He’s a good case solver, a respected superior, and possesses a moral fiber lacking in many of his colleagues. But even he is subject to the chain of command, which allows bad cops to be bad cops without consequence, and keeps the good cops from performing real good. Self-accountability in the Baltimore police department is at best nonexistent, and at worst a joke. More concerned with advancing their own positions, higher-ups fabricate numbers and shy away from solving real cases. At the end of the show, Daniels rises up to the rank of police commissioner, but after refusing a political request to fabricate crime statistics, resigns from his post to become a lawyer.
The death of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and many others has fueled immense anger towards police departments across the country, eruptions of protests, and calls for widespread change to corrupted systems. Some have campaigned for comprehensive police reform, while many others believe that the police as an entity is so irredeemable that defunding it is the only option. It’s very much true that a corrupt system trivializes the efforts of good police work and allows for the sustenance of immoral ones; The Wire is hardly fictitious in this regard. In a recent interview with NPR, a near quarter-century veteran of the Chicago police force spoke out about whisteblowing in a police environment. “I’ve always spoke up against things I thought was wrong within the department. But like you said, this culture right now, a lot of officers don’t feel as though they can speak up because there’s no real, true mechanism that protects us from retaliation from our superiors.” Sgt. Isaac Lambert also noted the consequent ramifications to his career. “I wasn’t demoted. I was given an unfavorable position. I was put back in patrol. Working in the detective division is considered a prime position in the department. And when you get dumped back to the streets, it’s different.” Again, The Wire has this spot on. After spiting his bosses repeatedly by doing good investigative police work, McNulty is reassigned from the Homicide Unit to the Marine Unit, after Major Rawls learns that it was precisely the unit that McNulty wished to avoid.
At its core, the rigid fraternal structure of America’s police forces is incompatible with self-accountability. The highest form of treason isn’t the fabrication of statistics or the brutalizing of civilians, but rather being of snitch. The reason for snitching is made instantly inconsequential by the act itself. It’s easy to sit back and deem every cop as a complicit pawn in an irredeemable system, but for the well-intentioned whistleblower, it takes tremendous courage to speak up, more so than one might give credit for. It is the very definition of courage, the willingness to act on one’s convictions in the face of tremendous consequence, and in this case, little reward. There’s a reason why the SEC has to coax whistleblowers with enticing financial incentives; whistleblowers are entitled to 10–30% of monetary sanctions collected. In the financial world, this often amounts to payments of over $1 million per successful whistleblower. Since its inception in 2010 in the aftermath of the Madoff investment scandal, the program has been largely successful, allowing the SEC to recover over $2 billion from wrongdoers. But the success of the program presupposes an uncomfortable and yet obvious truth; the moral incentive alone is miserably inadequate.
Like all of you, I’d like to believe that a moral cause alone might be enough to propel me to action, that the mistreatment of my fellow citizen or the corruption of a just institution would be motivation enough to take up arms. But if I were indeed faced with a situation where my moral convictions alone were appraised against the weights of the world, I make the honest admission that I could very well falter. The police whistleblower stands to lose the respect of his brothers and sisters. He stands to lose his livelihood, his career, and his professional aspirations. He stands to lose the ability to provide for a family. And what does he stand to gain? Not even the guarantee that his actions would result in a necessary correction. The only thing that he gains for certain is the mere knowledge that just maybe, he did the right thing. Unfortunately, we know that this is almost never sufficient, and nor can the individual always be blamed for the corruption of an institution that is far larger than oneself.
While corrections in financial institutions have somewhat mitigated, or at the very least deflected issues of self-accountability arising from a similarly self-perpetuating environment of counter-accountability, police systems lack the financial resources to make it work. Sure, the SEC whistleblower stands to lose the same things, but he also stands to make a nice ten-figure payoff. Some might say this helps. By the limitations of their profession, police systems cannot provide the same incentives, even if they believed it to be a good idea. Perhaps this is for the best, as it opens up a more compelling case for earnest and holistic reform, rather than the somewhat disingenuous band-aid fix made successful by the SEC. But in its current situation, we must recognize the diminished position of the individual relative to the institution. We can’t ask every cop to die a hero, because the inability to comply with that impossibly high standard might see them all out as villains.
While the first season of The Wire focuses primarily on the Barksdale drug trade and the police, every consequent season continues the central plot while magnifying a different aspect of Baltimore. The second season takes the drug trade from the streets of Baltimore to its decaying docks, following a group of stevedores as they try and mitigate the financial decline of America’s working class in a post-industrial world. It marked what many initially felt to be a confusing departure from the central plot and character development undertaken in the first season; some of show’s more prominent figures were somewhat set aside, creating some temporary resentment and confusion from show’s cast. At a reunion at Paleyfest, Michael K. Williams (Omar Little) recalled his initial frustration at the show’s newfound direction.
“The whole first season I came on as a recurring character and the character started to grow. So I fell in love with the cast, I fell in love with the writing, I fell in love with the city, so what do you do? You move to Baltimore. So I was ready for second season, like OK, where’s this storyline going? And I got introduced to the mind of David Simon — he took it to the docks. [laughter] I got real bitter. [laughter] I was an angry black man. And I approached David, in my ignorance, you know — how come when we made the show hot, and you want to give it to the white people?”
Compared to the never-ending and highly publicized war on drugs, the decline of blue collar America was, and still is, rather slow and uneventful. The fictional International Brotherhood of Stevedores (IBS) is pressed by declining membership and the slow and inevitable onslaught of automation. It watches helplessly as labor laws turn against it and politicians cater towards greener pastures, leaving a once proud American tradition as a former shell of itself. While the first season was captivating in its own right, the second seemed to lack that same sort of glamour. Who wants to watch a show about unions and dock workers when you could have drug dealers and gang wars? That is precisely why the second season might be even more imperative than the first; it tells a story that otherwise might not have been told. It’s not as flashy, not as loud, but it’s a story that defined this country in the apex of its prosperity, and is once again defining it in its demise.
The labor movement was borne out of necessity in the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, as concentrated production facilitated a means to empower the industrial worker. As GDP and population growth soared exponentially, the labor movement, first in Britain and consequently in the United States, provided a way for workers to keep some of the products of their production. Peaking in the in the aftermath of the New Deal and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the American labor movement is directly responsible for the forty-hour week, overtime pay, the right to a minimum wage, and other working standards that most Americans now view as staples.
Since the late ’50s, private sector unions have been on the decline, as the New Deal coalition gave way to an era dominated by free trade, fiscal conservatism, and neoclassical economics. Cast aside by the Friedmanesque and Reaganite waves which dominated both intellectual thought and politics, the American labor movement fell into a state of heavy decline. An increase of imports and international competition saw manufacturers move overseas for labor, and many jobs that did stay went South, where organized labor was weaker. The second season of The Wire follows the downfall of an already declining union chapter, but the criminal ending of Frank Sobotka’s IBS Local 1514 is predicated by the economic conditions which have made the union a declining force in America today. Outsourcing, globalization, and automation have necessitated a race for the most efficient labor, or in other words, a race to the bottom for American workers.
As we tangibly move away from a labor theory of value, how do we mitigate its effects for those most heavily impacted? Do we even bother doing it? The apparent inevitability of the situation suggests that the solution cannot lie within a Luddite mentality, or protectionist policies that merely prolong what’s economically and technologically necessary. Perhaps it’s even inane to think this way; after all, solutions, to be considered such, must be presupposed by problems. The admission that automation has been and will be a positive force for most Americans makes for an issue seldom addressed, and carefully avoided by policy and politicians alike. The Wire does not pretend to offer any remedies here. It only asks that in a transitional era of American prosperity, we continue to think about narratives that are easily forgotten and often overshadowed in the backdrop of immense social change. As Frank Sobotka, treasurer of the Baltimore IBS, watches his profession slowly fall to ruins, he acutely laments, “we used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”
I first watched The Wire in 2017, during the summer between high school and university. I was going through a bit of an HBO binge, starting with the Game of Thrones, working my way through The Sopranos, and then the criminally underrated historical drama Rome. As the summer drew to a close, and I prepared to ship both myself and my belongings to Chicago, I began The Wire.
Moving to Hyde Park, I was well aware of Chicago’s outstanding criminal record, from high murder rates to public and political corruption. This extends beyond the municipal level as well; prior to the commuted sentence of Rod Blagojevich, at least one Illinois governor had been occupying a federal prison spot for the past dozen years. However, I didn’t think that any of this would be particularly impactful on my college experience. After all, Hyde Park was a relatively safe area, and The University of Chicago boasted the second largest private police force in the world, second only to the Vatican. Throughout my four years at the university, my expectations were largely confirmed.
Aside from two occasions where I heard distant gunshots outside my dormitory on 63rd, my fellow classmates and I were largely unbothered. One had to be congizant of the chance of a late night mugging, and rather expectant to be approached for money outside of campus, but these interactions, which conjure a significant portion of exchanges between university affiliates and lower-income residents, indicate a diversity in Hyde Park reflected largely by separation rather than integration. Through the pains and efforts taken by the administration and the The University of Chicago Police Department, students are able to take for granted the normalities of a modern college experience. To be clear, it couldn’t have been any other way. Without a forced separation between the university and the dangers of some of its surroundings, The University of Chicago, as we know it, would cease to exist. In a sense, I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t have had a college experience without it. On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the disturbing conditions which necessitate this. What does it say about the state of our country when just one neighborhood, let alone an entire city, effectively acts and functions as two?
Due largely to its university community, Hyde Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, an anomaly in a city split visibly by racial divide. South Side and Roseland are overwhelmingly black communities, whereas suburbs like Cicero are about 90% Latino. As you branch out from the Loop to the suburbs, it tends to get much whiter. Accordingly, these neighborhoods and suburbs become distinctly varied in income, education, crime rates, and every other conceivable category.
In many ways, these are obvious observations, but necessary ones that underlie specific issues that plague urban environments. Many of the themes in The Wire play around a tale of two cities and the political dynamic which is tasked simultaneously with protecting one and keeping the other at bay. In Baltimore, it’s the same old story. The advancement of the city is undertaken on behalf of those in power already. In a system of limited resources, funds are almost always, and some would say perversely, allocated towards the wealthier parts of society, while the less fortunate and less productive are relegated to second class citizenry.
Much of the police work surrounding The Wire concerns itself with statistics, rates, numbers, and the ways in which those figures are reduced, increased, or manipulated in order to better represent the Baltimore Police Department, and transitively the image of the Baltimore. The department’s most pressing issue is its high murder rate. This is troubling in more ways than one. As Bunny Colvin puts it, “there are certain processes by which you can reduce the number of overall felonies. You can reclassify an agg(ravated) assault and you can unfound a robbery. But how do you make a body disappear?” Colvin is later berated by his superior, Commissioner Burrell. “Anyone who can’t bring the numbers we need will be replaced by someone who can.”
This is paralleled in the Baltimore school system, which is plagued by dismal standardized test scores. This pressure and responsibility to up those scores are passed down from state government to city hall to school administrators to classrooms teachers, who, beset by insufficient resources and time constraints, are often forced to sacrifice genuine learning processes for the sake of quick results. In his first year as an inner city teacher, former officer Pryzbylewski notes the unsettling similarities between chalked classrooms and police podiums. When told that teachers were required to forfeit more productive curriculums to teach the test, he turns to a nearby educator to vent.
“I don’t get it. All this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?”
“Nothing. It assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can’t.”
“Juking the stats.”
“Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.”
I want to propose that these ‘solutions’ are complicit in the reduction of many people, disproportionally black and brown, to a state of permanent underclass, where their lives are treated as pestilent accessories to an upper class which finds itself inconveniently associated with their more derelict counterparts by means of proximity and municipal jurisdiction. The emphasis on short-term remedies are reinforced by limited budgets and political terms that measure success in four-year blocks. Thus, the cycle self-perpetuates, running itself in a negative feedback loop that solidifies the divide of urban America.
The most memorable murders in our country are those which occur when one side infracts upon the other. We remember Breanna Taylor and George Floyd because they were killed by the police, an institution that is now regarded as a barrier between urban America rather than a protector of it. We remember Tessa Majors because she was stabbed blocks away from where she was a student at Barnard, a white woman with a bright future, who was suppose to have been afforded the same protection and peace of mind that my classmates and I took for granted. The names that no one remembers, however, are framed in the weekly headlines of cities like Chicago and Baltimore. “45 shot, 10 fatally, across Chicago this weekend”. “50 People Shot, 15 Fatally, In Baltimore In A Week”. The widespread apathy of even those living in the same city as the victims is akin to shooting in Libya or a bombing in Yemen, but 17 blocks away instead of 7,000 miles. The reduction of lives to statistics prunes the reader of accountability and inveigles them to indifference, ultimately transforming our close neighbors and fellow citizens into casualties of war from a distant land.
In Season 4 of The Wire, Bunny Colvin takes a group of inner city kids to eat at a nice restaurant in downtown Baltimore. Out of their comfort zone, the teenagers exhibit a startling degree of self-consciousness. Unable to tell the difference between the hostess and the waitress, and flummoxed by the intricate pickings of a leather bound menu, they are embarrassed, and lose much of the arrogant moxie that manifested itself as a defense mechanism necessitated by their environment. They are, in all senses of the word, foreigners.
The structural foundation of The Wire is built around the attempt to remedy the disparities in wealth and resources between the marketed America, the one defined by skyscrapers, Coke ads and iPhones, and its other half. The victories in The Wire are sometimes heartwarming, but despairingly bitter to the viewer who notices they come at the expense of the forlorn concession that the institution remains corrupted, and that victory comes not from changing it, but by leaving it.
I’d like to suggest that though police reform is the talk of the day, it is by no means the end, or even a proper beginning, of a much broader conversation that is required of us. I have the lingering premonition that when protests in city streets subside and calls for police reform simmer to a mere whisper, when people fatigue themselves of caring and move onto the next flavor of the month, that The Wire’s America will still shine clear as day through the rearview mirror. St. Louis and Baltimore will still have homicide rates that more closely resemble Cape Town than London. Kids will still be failed by a public education system that consistently lacks the resources, or even the motivations, to lift them out of poverty. Drugs and guns will keep people trapped in the pits of urban despair, while those fortunate enough to be on the other side can spectate comfortably through the column inches of a local paper.
The Wire tells us that meaningful change is not easy, nor can it be accomplished through the broken metronomes of politics and news cycles. It’s a story of multiple perspectives, the docks to the newsrooms, the alleys to the courtrooms, the corners to the classrooms. Unable to get away from itself, it presents a fractured but honest America. Police brutality shines most brightly today, but everything else in The Wire must have its day in court. I keep returning to Simon’s masterpiece, looking for the roots of social strife and economic inequality, awed by the modesty of their origins and humbled by the ambition required of their solutions. “We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.”