Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement

George Floyd’s mur­der while under arrest for alleged­ly pass­ing a coun­ter­feit bill of small denom­i­na­tion sparked mas­sive world­wide demon­stra­tions against police bru­tal­i­ty and in sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter.

It also led to the abrupt can­cel­la­tion of television’s recent hit, Live PD, and its longest-run­ning real­i­ty show, Cops.

As Aman­da Hess recent­ly observed in The New York Times, pub­lic opin­ion has turned on any show that pro­motes an image of police offi­cers as uni­ver­sal­ly decent forces for good, “lov­able goof­balls,” or anti-heroes whose rough edges make a play for view­ers’ alle­giance by sug­gest­ing the char­ac­ters are real­is­ti­cal­ly flawed and thus, relat­able:

The “good cop” trope is a stan­dard of both police pro­ce­du­rals and real-life police tac­tics, and now crowd­sourced video of the protests has giv­en cops a new stage for per­form­ing the role. In recent days, sup­pos­ed­ly uplift­ing images of the police have spread wild­ly across the inter­net, com­pet­ing for views with evi­dence of cops beat­ing, gassing and arrest­ing pro­test­ers. In Hous­ton, an offi­cer con­soled a young black girl at a ral­ly: “We’re here to pro­tect you, OK?” he told her, envelop­ing her in a hug. “You can protest, you can par­ty, you can do what­ev­er you want. Just don’t break noth­ing.” In Nashville, the police tweet­ed a pho­to of cops kneel­ing next to a black boy with a “Black Lives Mat­ter” sign, smil­ing from behind their riot hel­mets. And in Atlanta, a line of Nation­al Guard sol­diers did the Macare­na. On the final rump shake, a black rifle slung over one soldier’s back swung to the beat.

These images show cops engag­ing in a kind of pan­tomime of protest, mim­ic­k­ing the ges­tures of the demon­stra­tors until their mes­sages are dilut­ed beyond recog­ni­tion. They reframe protests against racist police vio­lence into a bland, non­spe­cif­ic goal of sol­i­dar­i­ty. These moments are meant to rep­re­sent the shared human­i­ty between offi­cers and pro­test­ers, but cops already rank among the most human­ized groups in Amer­i­ca; the same can­not be said for the black Amer­i­cans who live in fear of them. Cops can dance, they can hug, they can kneel on the ground, but their indi­vid­ual acts of kind­ness can no longer obscure the vio­lence of a sys­tem. The good-cop act is wear­ing thin.

Accord­ing to Hol­ly­wood Reporter crit­ic Inkoo Kang, almost any por­tray­al of cops on TV right now ran­kles, even one that was laud­ed for its real­is­tic por­tray­al of cor­rup­tion and abuse on the force, HBO’s crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed The WireBarack Obama’s avowed favorite.

Kang writes:

In the first sea­son of The Wire, just about every on-the-ground cop par­tic­i­pates in police bru­tal­i­ty — often as a kind of pro­fes­sion­al pre­rog­a­tive. Their vio­lence is meant to add dark­er streaks to the char­ac­ters’ oth­er­wise hero­ic gloss, but it also has the effect of nor­mal­iz­ing police bru­tal­i­ty as a part, even a perk, of the job.

Her com­ments touched a nerve with actor Wen­dell Pierce, whose char­ac­ter was based on a Bal­ti­more homi­cide detec­tive, Oscar Requer, who achieved his posi­tion at a time when black offi­cers rou­tine­ly faced racial harass­ment from with­in the force. Pierce pub­lished his response on Twit­ter:

How can any­one watch “The Wire” and the dys­func­tion of the police & the war on drugs and say that we were depict­ed as hero­ic. We demon­strat­ed moral ambi­gu­i­ties and the pathol­o­gy that leads to the abus­es. Maybe you were react­ing to how good peo­ple can be cor­rupt­ed to do bad things.

If The Wire did any­thing right, it depict­ed the human­i­ty of the Black lives so eas­i­ly pro­filed by police and the destruc­tion of them by the so-called war on drugs; a delib­er­ate pol­i­cy of mass incar­cer­a­tion to sus­tain a wealth dis­par­i­ty in Amer­i­ca that thrives keep­ing an under­class.

The Wire, if any­thing, was the canary-in-the-mine that fore­casts the insti­tu­tion­al moral morass of pol­i­tics and polic­ing that lead us to the protests of today. “The big­ger the lie, the more they believe” was a line of mine that is so salient and pro­found in today’s cli­mate.

“The Wire” is a deep dive study of the con­tribut­ing vari­ables that feed the vio­lence in our cul­ture: in the streets and at the hand of police. Clas­sism, racism, destruc­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and moral ambi­gu­i­ty in our lead­er­ship all feed this par­a­digm of Amer­i­can decline.

I know I sound defen­sive and I prob­a­bly am, The Wire is per­son­al for me. The Wire is also Art. The role of Art is to ignite the pub­lic dis­course. Art is where we come togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty to con­front who we are as a soci­ety, decide what our val­ues are, and then act on them.

The cri­tique here is that tele­vi­sion seems to fol­low behind the cur­rent events of the day. I would ask that you con­sid­er that maybe The Wire was a pre­cur­sor to the dis­cus­sion that is manda­to­ry now. It was an indi­ca­tor, a warn­ing light, of the implo­sion we are feel­ing today.

At a time when the world is called upon to lis­ten care­ful­ly to what black peo­ple are say­ing, and much of the world has shown them­selves ready to do so, Pierce’s words car­ry extra weight.

His asser­tion that the show, which ran from 2002 to 2008, accu­rate­ly depict­ed a sys­tem so rot­ten that col­lapse was inevitable, is echoed in inter­view clips with cre­ator and one-time police reporter, David Simon, above.

The video essay was put togeth­er by aspi­rant screen­writer Nehemi­ah T. Jor­dan whose Behind the Cur­tain series aims to pro­vide insights on how cel­e­brat­ed scripts for both the big and small screensFight Club, Uncut Gems, The Sopra­nos, Break­ing Bad—come by their aes­thet­ic qual­i­ty.

Simon’s ambi­tion for The Wire was that it truth­ful­ly con­vey what he had observed as a reporter, as well as the lives of the peo­ple he inter­act­ed withboth Bal­ti­more cops and those they most­ly failed to serve.

In a 2015 White House con­ver­sa­tion with then-Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, Simon remarks that an empha­sis on drug-relat­ed offens­es led to an epi­dem­ic of pre­sump­tive police work, and a decline in “com­pe­tent retroac­tive inves­ti­ga­tion of felonies.” A dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of young black and Lati­no men were incar­cer­at­ed dur­ing this time, and upon their release, their felony his­to­ries meant that few of them were able to secure mean­ing­ful employ­ment. America’s prob­lems were com­pound­ed.

Whether or not you are moved to watch, or rewatch The Wire, we hearti­ly rec­om­mend Where We Go from Here, a recent New York Dai­ly News op-ed by actor Michael K. Williams, who played fan favorite Omar Lit­tle, and whose real life coun­ter­part Simon dis­cuss­es with Omar-fan Oba­ma.

New York native Williams, who has worked to end mass juve­nile incar­cer­a­tion, foment col­lab­o­ra­tion between police and at-risk youth and serves as an ambas­sador for The Inno­cent Project, pos­sess­es a deep under­stand­ing of the New York Police Department’s struc­ture, chain of com­mand, and day to day work­ings. Stat­ing that tan­gi­ble action is need­ed to “shift police cul­ture” and “trans­form the rela­tion­ships between law enforce­ment and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” he makes a case for six con­crete reforms:

  1. Over­haul Comp­Stat, the NYPD’s crime track­ing mech­a­nism.
  2. Elim­i­nate plain­clothes units.
  3. Cre­ate an inde­pen­dent body to inves­ti­gate “use of force” inci­dents at the time they occur.
  4. Reimag­ine the duties of civil­ians with­in the depart­ment tasked with com­mu­ni­ty-build­ing.
  5. Imple­ment ongo­ing trau­ma-cen­tered train­ing, edu­ca­tion and activ­i­ties for offi­cers, exec­u­tives and the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.
  6. Make racial jus­tice a core com­po­nent of NYPD train­ing and edu­ca­tion.

Read Michael  K. William’s Op-Ed here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Art­ful, Ani­mat­ed Trib­ute to The Wire, Cre­at­ed by a Fan of the Crit­i­cal­ly-Acclaimed TV Series

The Wire Breaks Down The Great Gats­by, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Clas­sic Crit­i­cism of Amer­i­ca (NSFW)

The Wire as Great Vic­to­ri­an Nov­el

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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