The Wire: A War against the Underclass

(Picture: Jacobin)

By Daniel Wright-Mason – Editor-in-Chief 

(Note, whilst this article does not contain any explicit spoilers, it does give an overall summary of the plot of HBO’s ‘The Wire’)

As the backlash against the ‘war on drugs’ seems to finally be moving to the forefront of Western political culture, it is perhaps a time to reflect on one of the most influential TV shows ever made, which illustrates the grim reality of drug policies within inner cities, ‘The Wire’.  Written by David Simon and Eddie Burns, the show is a subversion of the classic police genre, which centres around the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore, especially at the time of the shows release, had some of the highest crime rates and one of the biggest drug problems in the entire country. This, as the show suggests, is only exaggerated by the ‘war on drugs’, but is systematic of a much wider war, a war against the underclass.

The show slowly builds up around the failing institutions of the city, and shows how they all feed into a vicious cycle. The corrupt and ineffective police force are further exposed by the systemic problems with the economy, the corrupt politics, the crippled education system, and the crooked media of the city. They all feed into a rigid world, that seems impossible to change. In fact, as we see time and time again, people within the institutions are often punished for trying to make change.

Season one introduces us to the war on drugs, and the two main institutions that form the spine of the show, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and the Baltimore drug gangs. Whilst not ever explicitly compared, the viewer is presented with two structures locked in a perpetual dance that solves nothing, and leave the streets of Baltimore fractured and scarred. When sitting down in an interview with then President Barack Obama, David Simon, the shows creator, made several comments on this. He pointed out that in his twenty year career as a crime reporter in Baltimore, the war on drugs had seen a huge increase in drug related arrests, but a huge decline in “police work”. As he put it;  “what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass… All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.”

There is undeniable truth in this. The United States’ Federal Prison population is over 2.5 million, with drug offences making up around 46%, including over a million drug possession arrests per year. This is compared to only 3.2% of sentences for homicide. It is this correlation that Simon states to the President, and illustrates within the show. The competent, retroactive investigations of felonies, or ‘police work’ has been replaced with mindless arrests for petty drug charges, which has created a culture of stat obsession within the Baltimore Police Force. As it is noted by one character “you duke enough stats and Sergeants become Majors, and Majors become Colonels.” This is a trend that Simon noted within the city of Baltimore during his time as a writer. In order to meet statistics, he said, “robberies became larcenies, aggravated assaults became common assaults, felonies were leeched down to misdemeanours. Reports were unfounded.” With these false statistics, felony crime rate ‘fell’ by 70% in a single year. The mayor then ran for governor of Maryland, and was successful. They made crime disappear in Baltimore, but they didn’t make it not exist for its citizens.

Those who were imprisoned on drugs charges, upon leaving prison, are faced with the reality of virtual unemployment, inability to vote, and alienation from their communities. A study between 2005-2010 found that 77% of released state prisoners had re-offended within that time, with 43% doing so within a year. They have become the underclass, victims of the war against drugs.

This is especially prevalent in a city like Baltimore, which is around 63% African American, a group that makes up 43% of the U.S Federal prison population, despite being only 13% of the overall population. As season one of the Wire illustrates, this creates entire areas of the ‘underclass’, stuck in the same cycle as the generations before them. Whilst the seasons story has an ending, there is no closure to it. Arrests are made, but not enough to stop the drug operations, and we see characters punished by their very institutions for deviating from the cycle, whether this be within the BPD, or within the drug gangs. Few things change for the better, and the war on drugs keeps rolling on, which sets the tone for the entirety of the show.

This is only the first layer of the onion however, and subsequent seasons begin to fully illustrate the complexity and scale of the problems, which show why the system is so monolithic and unchanging. Season two brings in the decaying Baltimore docks, with its ‘blue collar’ and largely white, dock workers. Once again, we see the development of the underclass, left behind by the economy. Every year, fewer and fewer ships are arriving at the docks, and the unions are slowly being forced to smuggle more and more drugs into the city in order to survive. This systemic failure keeps these people trapped within the drug war too, and we see characters once again punished for trying to escape or change their situations. Much like season one, season two ends similarly to how it begins. The cogs in the machines may alter slightly, but it does not slow down.

It is these economic situations that help propagate and sustain the drug industry, but it is also the actions, or inactions of politicians that help it survive. This is the focus of season three. We are presented with a corrupt and ineffective city government, who appear to be stuck in a similar cycle as the inhabitants of Baltimore, in which they are perpetually trying to fix problems that they themselves have helped to create. The opening scene illustrates this, and sets the tone for the entire season. In the scene, we see the Mayor proudly destroying public housing tower blocks, that had become a hub for drug trafficking. This will not solve the problem, and ironically enough is simply destroying a previous solution, as a solution to the problem that they had in the first place. This is mirrored throughout the season, especially in the destruction of ‘Hamsterdam’, a rogue Police Major’s attempt at an unofficial legalised drug zone.

We also see elements of political corruption throughout the local government of Baltimore. Politicians are accepting money from the drug trade, and using it to fund their political campaigns. Once again, the political institution is rigid and unchanging, and attempts to punish those who wish to break the mould. Even after following the campaign of a new Mayoral candidate, we are clearly met with a similar wall. In order to fix the policing system, the Mayor must give money to it. But in order to do that, they must take funding away from an education system that is already economically crippled to the point of collapse. By the time a politician manages to fight their way through the corruption of the political system, they have just enough time to realise they have no means to bring in substantial change, before they have to begin campaigning again for their next term.

This brings the show along to season four, which focuses on the education system. This is perhaps the most important season of the show, as whilst the first three seasons show the structures above the street level, season four highlights the structure below it. The viewer is met with a school system that mirrors that of the police department. That is, a structure that is forced into meeting meaningless statistics, in this case through standardised test scores. This leads to a style of teaching that consists of memorising answers to tests that are set by the State and Federal government, leading to a lack of ‘real’ teaching, much like the police and their decline in ‘real’ police work. The only engagement we see is when the students are taught in ways that fit in with the world in which they live in, and much like with ‘Hamsterdam’ in season three, when more unorthodox approaches are tried, they seem to yield some form of progress. However, once again these approaches are crushed by their monolithic institutions which care about appearances. It is the structures of the institutions that creates negative incentives for those within them. Real education, much like real police work, doesn’t look good on a statistics sheet, and if politicians have bad statistic sheets then they cannot be re-elected.

Season four is crucial as it highlights the complexity of the people who inhabit the drug trade. They are presented with educations that have little impact on their lives, and have little alternatives elsewhere, and so simply choose to focus on the drug trade as the only avenue for the underclass.

Finally, the introduction of the press. Season five highlights the decline of journalism, and focus on sensationalism that distracts from the real problems facing the city. It also plays more into the concept of the declining bastions of society within Baltimore and the city as a whole. Much like the docks, the print media is dying slowly, and many don’t know how to accept it. The ones who do stay are just as focused on their ‘statistics’, in this case Pulitzer prizes, as those within the police and school systems. When David Simon entered journalism, in the period after the release of the Pentagon papers, and the Watergate scandal, he said he felt as though journalism was finally holding truth to power, and could shine a light on the corrupt and stagnant political institutions, but was dismayed in the decline in of the media asking ‘why?’. Why is it that crime statistics are supposedly going down, but murder rate stays the same? Why is it that the test score average is supposedly increasing, yet school drop out rates remain the same? Why is it that the Baltimore docks are supposedly being renovated and renovated, yet jobs are continuing to be lost?

To Simon, as a career journalist, it is this decline in media that is perhaps the biggest tragedy, and thus it is where the show ends. The underclass may be let down by the institutions around them, but it is the media that has allowed these institutions to crumble, without stopping to ask why.

Overall, the Wire paints an incredibly complex and nuanced picture of the city of Baltimore. It shows how the war on drugs has lost it’s meaning a long time ago, and that it simply pushes the most vulnerable class in society further back into the shadows. It also brings up an uncomfortable reality, that in places like Baltimore the drug trade is the biggest and only industry for many of its citizens. Alienated from society by the scars of incarceration, left behind economically, without a real education, they are contained by the very institutions designed to protect them, which are themselves stuck in a similar cycle. The Wire does not offer a cure for these problems, but nor does it present the future as completely bleak. The bad may continue, but so does the good, and amongst the darkness there is still beauty in the city of Baltimore, and a spirit of hope within it’s people.

With many States now moving towards legalisation of certain drugs, and the political current seemingly moving away from the ‘war on drugs’, perhaps now is the time to reflect on the message of the Wire. Because as the show illustrates, there will always be ‘good police’, and people who wish to change the system for the better. The game may be the game, but it doesn’t have to be the same forever.

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