Balancing on The Wire: David Simon and America's Forgotten War
The micro and macro storytelling mastery of HBO's The Wire shows the devastating effects creating social policy in the shape of war.
Before terrorism and in the waning years of the Cold War, drugs were framed as the biggest threat to America. Combating drugs served as a pre-text for strong police actions at home and military commitments abroad. In the post-9/11 United States, the War on Drugs seems like a quaint footnote, pushed off of the scene by bigger threats to the social order. However, every other year or so, David Simon, creator, producer, and lead writer of HBO's The Wire, reminds us that there is, in fact, still a War on Drugs being fought out on the streets of urban neighborhoods. Simon is keenly aware that this war is no longer the official priority it once was (indeed, a key plot point in season one revolves around manipulation of the Patriot Act for purposes other than hunting down terrorists). Despite being pushed to the fringes of official campaigns to preserve the Republic, the War on Drugs still has very real consequences for everyday life in the United States, especially if you happen to live in the inner-city. The Wire does not merely outline these consequences; it articulates an interrelated set of arguments regarding their significance to urban life.
At the heart of the series is the argument that the War on Drugs has ruined police work. Within David Simon's view of the world, police work used to involve knowing one's district, neighborhood, and street. It was about cultivating relationships and gathering intelligence. The series articulates this thesis in a variety of ways. The main cast of characters on "The Law" side work on a special detail assigned to build cases against Baltimore's biggest criminals (or simply ones that get under the skin of the Bosses downtown). However, the War on Drugs has created a law enforcement environment where quick busts and seizures are valued more than slow and deliberate investigative work with long-term payoffs. Slow and steady work generates few headlines and does little to aid Baltimore politicians in their desire for public displays of progress in controlling drugs. When the detail isn't threatened with outright closure, its work is constantly at risk of being derailed by the impatience of higher-ups.
Two characters that exemplify the good and bad of police work on The Wire are Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam). Both start the series on the detail, but by Season One's end, find themselves removed from the detail for ethical and political reasons. Herc is an unreconstructed drug warrior. He has little patience for investigation, and prefers face-to-face engagements with "the enemy." Carver is a sergeant, Herc's immediate supervisor, and the head of the Western district's Drug Enforcement Unit. He has instincts toward what Simon sees as true police work, but can't quite overcome the Drug Warrior culture in which he lives.
In Season Three, Herc and Carver's Major, Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), experiment with a strategy of selective enforcement whereby the police will look away from drug dealing if it occurs in designated areas, "free zones," and violence is kept under wraps. An early barrier to this strategy is finding who among the street level dealers have enough power and responsibility to actually move the trade into the free zones. Colvin turns to Carver for intelligence on who controls which corners in the district. Carver doesn't know, simply clearing drug corners doesn't actually require you to know who it is you're clearing, but he clearly grasps that this information will make it easier to get people moved into the selected areas. Colvin sees potential in Carver, but the latter is inevitably snapped back by the norms of drug warrior-dom wherein busting people is all that matters. What kind of police officer Carver becomes by the conclusion of the series will be a good indicator of how much hope Simon has for the revival, or at least continuation, of meaningful law enforcement. If Carver keeps falling back in with the Hercs of the world, that would seem to signify a pessimistic outlook that myopic, easily quantified, and simple-minded "enforcement" will continue to rule the day. On the other hand, if he commits to information gathering and fully grasps that enforcement is not an end in itself, but a tool for making people's lives better in whatever small and brief way, then perhaps there is hope.
Interference from individuals higher up the food chain inevitably influences the work of the investigative detail that anchors the series. What this suggests is that the War on Drugs has not only ruined police work, it has also infected city politics. War always raises the question of victory, and how you know when it has been achieved. More often than not, political leaders seek solace in numbers &151 - territory claimed, enemies captured and killed. In the case of the War on Drugs, the numbers that the members of Baltimore's political establishment look to for a sense of victory include arrests, murders committed, and drugs seized. The majors in the police force are called to account at routine "Comstat" meetings, which are essentially set-ups for commissioners and deputy commissioners to turn the heat that they get from above on those below them. Up and down the chain of command, these sessions are exercises in managing and massaging numbers to construct a facade of progress. However, rather than marking real steps toward success, the political demand for numbers and the dumbing down of police work are locked in a hopeless feedback loop where greater demands for the one further degrades the other.
One consequence of the demand for simple quantifiable victories has been to make the War all too real for urban neighborhoods. Poor but relatively quiet communities are now war zones between police and dealers, rival gangs, and other criminals on the fringe of the drug trade. Caught in the middle are those who are simply trying to lead their lives. Getting these neighborhoods out of the crossfire is Bunny Colvin's main motivation for experimenting with the free zones. The areas designated for selective non-enforcement of drug laws, "Hamsterdam" to the kids on the street, were sections of Colvin's district where housing and licit commerce had largely been abandoned. In explaining this strategy to his skeptical Drug Enforcement Unit and senior officers, he likens it to the use of brown paper bags to conceal alcohol. This device allows police to look the other way and keeps their daily routines from being dominated by arresting people for violating open container laws. For Colvin, the point of drug enforcement is to keep the trade from interfering with people's everyday lives. If isolating and containing dealing can achieve that goal, then his mission will have been accomplished. While it lasts, the experiment works as a way of reclaiming neighborhoods. However, it isn't given enough time to rehabilitate police work, and other problems emerge as well (more on this below). In Season Four, The Wire will turn its attention to the public schools. This will no doubt deepen the series' portrait of neighborhoods under stress.
Of course, the police are not the only actors in the drug war. The Wire also looks closely at those on the criminal side. This portrait is, however, a nuanced one, and those on "The Street" side of the show are as complex and varied as those on "The Law" side. In general, the series argues that participating in organized criminality is a rational response to changing economic conditions. This is the main theme of season two, where the show takes a slight detour from its focus on the inner-city and the drug trade to look at the consequences of deindustrialization and the decline of Baltimore as a port city.
In the second season, the plot hinges on disappearing blue collar jobs, and specifically on the docks of the Port of Baltimore. This leads the stevedore union's leadership, led by Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), into a web of smuggling and corruption as they desperately try to hold onto the vestiges of an older economy based on goods and raw materials rather than services and information. Options for the middle aged men who've done nothing but work on the docks are non-existent. Options for their children might be better, but only if they are willing and able to look elsewhere for jobs. For too many, the way is not clear, and while this can be the result of personal failings, it is also the result of economic and political changes that value waterfront condos more than container ships. Faced with limited prospects, it is no wonder that working class people choose to engage in illicit enterprises with people who still seem to need their services. The series does not, however, present this as a simple choice or one without consequences. It is one, in fact, that ruins the lives of the Sobotka family who are at the center of the Season Two narrative. Working class people are caught between the rock of a changing formal economy and the hard place of an alluring underground economy.
The theme of economic hopelessness and social marginality is also present in The Wire's mainline drug narrative. Overwhelmingly, the soldiers on both sides of the drug war are African-American. The lack of opportunity for those who are poor and black is evidenced everywhere in the derelict landscapes of inner-Baltimore. The neighborhoods that have become the battle zones in the War on Drugs have largely been forsaken by society at large. As the season three character arc of Cutty/Dennis (Chad Coleman) aptly points out, there are few legitimate jobs to be had in the inner-city. Newly released from prison, Cutty quickly learns that legitimate employment means getting shipped out to the suburbs to mow the lawns of the rich and the white. When lack of jobs is linked to the dangers of living in an environment where kill or be killed seems to be the order of the day, participation in the drug trade becomes comprehensible, even if it isn't a choice you would applaud. With his drive to transform Barksdale drug money into investment capital and his attempts to apply and train his people in economic theory, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) is a character who embodies Simon's argument about the rationality of dealing, even as his demise punctuates the overwhelming and destructive reality of the War.
While the economic themes of the series raise questions about class, The Wire also argues that race continues to matter in the United States. As already alluded to, Baltimore is a majority black city. The city's political apparatus is dominated by African-Americans. This fact serves to de-naturalize race as a cause of social problems, while simultaneously reasserting the social significance of the category. The Wire is populated by African-Americans at all levels of the War on Drugs, from street dealers, to beat cops, to the mayor. There is no single black experience or life path. The diversity of roles played by African-Americans in the drama rejects attempts to characterize black people as inherently inclined to crime or necessarily destined for poverty as a result of their inferiority (it should also be noted that Season Two's story of deindustrialization emphasizes the desperation of the city's white working class population). On the other hand, the series also suggests that race very much matters in a social and political sense. African-Americans in positions of responsibility are acutely aware that they are being judged by the dominant white society outside of Baltimore's borders. It hardly seems coincidental that the War on Drugs is allowed to continue on in Baltimore even as it goes to the bottom of the national agenda. Would the destruction visited on the city be tolerated if it were taking place in the white suburbs of Baltimore County? It is hard to watch The Wire and answer "yes" to this question. Season Four looks to open this issue up even further through Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), a white city council member with his eye on the mayor's office. Season Three planted the seed of this idea, and the series has already signaled its awareness of the complexities of having a white candidate running for city-wide office with a majority black electorate.
Given the thicket of economic, political and social problems in which the War on Drugs is intertwined, it should come as no surprise that the series does not point to any easy solutions. Especially given Season Three's Hamsterdam storyline, it is tempting to read The Wire as advocating legalization. However, that would be too simple of a reading. For starters, the show was brutally honest about the downsides of legalization. While emptying inner-city neighborhoods of street dealers may have improved the quality of life for the people in those neighborhoods, the free zones were not pleasant places. They were, in fact, scenes of depravity and dehumanization with junkies dying in abandoned buildings and people whoring themselves out for drug money. In an interesting twist, school kids lost their jobs as "hoppers," that is, as lookouts and runners for dealers, adding another layer of unemployment to the city. The main point here seems to be that the problems facing American society and cities run deeper than just drugs. Drugs are a symptom of more serious political and economic problems. Legalizing drugs would no more cure those problems than participating in the drug trade is a foundation for a prosperous and secure life. Both are band-aids on social wounds opened up by race and class inequality and a culture that turns to war as a dominant metaphor for confronting its problems.
While much of The Wire's intelligence comes from the recognition that law enforcement is bound up in larger questions of race, class, and politics, the show never loses its focus on the daily work of police, and there the message is clear: being po-lice sucks. This isn't particularly unique to the War on Drugs, and is an argument that predates The Wire in Homicide: Life on the Streets, the NBC series based on Simon's book of the same name. As embodied by its nominal lead, Jimmy McNulty (Dominick West), The Wire represents police, real police, not the "Bosses" downtown, as flawed people. To one degree or another, the working detectives on the show are prone to alcoholism, infidelity, casual sex, careerism, and ethical lapses when it comes to evidence and the uses of violence. Profanity and expressions of vulgarity are common, as are homophobia and misogyny. However, these flaws arise as much from the job as from people's intrinsic personalities. Being police is hard. You're exposed to danger and the worst that humanity has to offer. The problems you confront are always bigger than you are. External validation, not to mention decent pay and benefits, is hard to come by. Spouses and civilians can't relate to what you have to do to just get through the day. For the best, being police is more a calling than a job. Better to take comfort in the arms of strangers, or in a bottle, than in people who love you but want you to be something else. These aren't excuses, but explanations. The flaws exhibited by the characters on The Wire are a way of honoring the men and women who become police. To see complicated, real people struggling to do right by their city is more meaningful than seeing cops as buffed and polished superheroes. The difficulties and pitfalls of the job would be there with or without the War on Drugs, but the War makes an already difficult path even more brutal to walk than it would be otherwise.
Like Homicide, The Wire has a strong sense of place. It is steeped in Baltimore history, politics, and society. Don't let that tempt you into writing off David Simon's critique of the War on Drugs as only relevant to that city. Baltimore maybe more on the front lines than other places, but its experience points to the pitfalls of seeing America's social problems through the metaphor of war. The Wire shows us that wars are sure to create war zones and warriors, but little else.