The Wire

It took me some time to get into The Wire, mainly because I couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. Perhaps, the language used by the criminals in the show is a major point, a sub-cultural creation, a difference between them and us. I mainly understood what the police, lawyers and politicians were saying but I didn’t always understand what the people from the projects were saying. It seems they had created their own language. In later episodes the police

even employ an interpreter to explain and transcribe from the wire taps; it is difficult not to see the irony in the police and criminals speaking a different language. I still struggle to understand what Snoop says. Language use is just one example from the show that fully utilises some concepts from criminology.

The poverty and social conditions from around the projects is another line of difference, the truancy, unemployment, the ‘stuckness’ and lack of opportunity that comes with them. It is fine to believe western countries are meritocracies but what opportunities exist for some of these people in the show? Are these normative cultural positions or responses and innovations against the

system? Are schools and the job market weighted in the favour of those who conform? This can be seen in many guises in the show, for example in season 4 experienced teachers are telling a new teacher to only teach to the exam. “You don’t teach math, you teach the test.” If the students don’t pass the test the school may be shut down or taken over. Likewise, he is also told that his first year is not about the students, it is all about him passing his teaching qualification.

Stringer Bell is a street dealer who becomes a property owner, he wants out of the dealing and violence and tries talking Avon into becoming legitimate and climbing further up the ladder, “You know, Avon, you gotta think about what we got in this game for, man. Huh? Was it the rep? Was it so our names could ring out on some fucking ghetto streetcorners, man? Naw, man. There's games beyond the fucking game.” It all becomes so clear in that sentence. Stringer also gives us this little gem that supports what their goals may also be about “We ain't gotta dream no more, man. We got real shit. Real estate we can touch.”

The projects represent some of the Chicago school arguments in full force, finally making sense of those text books. We see gentrification as some of the towers make way for condos, but where do the profits go? Eventually when Barksdale and Stringer have their expensive apartments they re-tell stories about how they made it. When they were younger Bell had stolen a badminton set, even though had no garden to play in, he just wanted to do it. Part of this may be defiance, some could be risk and thrill, some may be learnt behaviour or some could be opportunity, they are difficult to untangle. However, when Bell’s apartment is being searched in season 3, the police officer (McNulty) finds a book entitled ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and asks, “Who the fuck was I chasing?” It seems that labelling Bell and dealer or murderer may not provide a level of understanding for McNulty and his colleagues, but it is not the full picture. This is a trap we probably all fall in to.

I think it is fair to say that sub-cultures can be identified, where labels help us make sense of that part of the social world. We also see that not all goals are material which is the Cohen/Merton debate you may come across. There is an understanding of culture from within the Barksdale crew,

culture either as the collective vitality of the subversive social praxis from within the projects or alternatively the opposition from the social glue that Durkheim may well have understood. The two positions are very different; whilst we may identify Barksdales crew as heroic rebels against the system from the first definition, in the second we see them as anomic failures, the cast off from societal collective norms and values. These are the lumpenproletariat that Marx and Engels wrote of. So, if you side with the bad guys by hoping the police don’t catch them, I think that is OK.

At one-point ‘Major’ Bunny Colvin is trying to justify his development of the free zone ‘Hamsterdam’ to another police officer, “This drug thing, this aint police work”. We had already seen Colvin in series 2 question what exactly police work now was. It is probably important to understand that Colvin has 30 years in the Baltimore Police Department and during that time society had changed, and the nature of policing had done also. It isn’t just Colvin that struggles with this change over time. Colvin takes a mayoral candidate to a community meeting to show how local residents are grateful for the moving the drugs trade away. The community complaints are now about ‘quality of life issues’ such as mini motorcycles rather than gun and drug crime. One resident stands up and says about her childhood;

“We knew the police, we had a white police officer and our house was on his beat. He did foot beat and he would sit out and talk to my mother every night…. This man’s name was Frazier O’Leary, he even knew my grandmother by name. I have not seen that face to face policing in a long while – until last week. A young black officer came by and gave me his card, his name was Reggie Boward. He sat and he just talked to me, just talked. So now I know his name and face and he knows my name and face. I’m going to tell you something, that is how it should be”

These are issues that remain today. Most police officers will tell you the need for the public support and co-operation. The lack of contact with the public, face to face interaction and local knowledge is crucial. Police forces run the risk of losing public support and co-operation. The question is will social media and technology really be able to replace face to face interaction? Of course government cut backs do not help, neither does a changing society which means the police are constantly playing catch up. However, political interference and knee jerk and diverse policy measures over time have led to an inconsistent and demoralised workforce within criminal justice.

Another subtle gem from Colvin lies in the statement “If you call something a war then pretty soon everyone’s gonna be running around acting like warriors. They are gonna be running around on a damn crusade….. when you have a war, you need a fucking enemy. Pretty soon the neighbourhood you are supposed to be policing is just occupied territory.” These words must align themselves back to ‘real world wars’ the media, politicians and police leaders have us believe are being waged on our streets. The result is so often a fearful public, where going out of the front door becomes associated with risk. In fact, our whole existence becomes one pre-occupied by risks that may or may not be real. They may have some basis, but where and when? Soon the risk of something happening in a city 40 miles from home becomes something we have to consider too. This is not to say crime is not occurring everywhere, it is to say the fear of crime is more prevalent than the reality.

The free zone or ‘Hamsterdam’ was a place where Colvin allowed dealers and drug users to ply their trade free from prosecution. The results were that crime fell throughout his district, leaving police leaders and politicians scratching their heads over how he had managed to reduce crime. In fact, what Colvin had done was remove the drug problem from his crime statistics (for a short period of time) by putting most of the ‘bad apples’ into one area to ply their trade. He had cleansed an area. When Colvin showed Carcetti ‘Hamsterdam’ he says “What you’re going to see aint pretty but it’s safe”. The irony of a community self-policing without state intervention is an interesting proposition to many. Whilst this is not totally anarchic, there are some police to help break things up occasionally.

The Wire represents the Police well also, they are not a homogenous group, there are disputes within teams, officers frequently have different methods, there has probably always been a self-preservation element, the leading officers are not always considered as being grounded in the reality by those at the front, the leadership ranks positions is more politically driven than it should be. There is often a negative attitude to police canteen, both in academia and the media. Perhaps researchers looking from the outside never always got to understand it. In my experience most officers have an overwhelming desire and understanding that what they are doing is for the benefit of society. The problem is, that the methods for achieving that can cross a line into corruption, dishonesty or unacceptable conduct. We see McNulty cross the line and yet he believes he is doing so for the greater good, we could perhaps identify this with noble cause corruption.

A former ‘player’ of the game, Dennis ‘Cutty’ Wise, had been released from prison and soon felt separated from his former life. In one exchange he says to Slim “The game done changed”, to which Slim replies “Games the same, just got more fierce”. After finally admitting the ‘gangster’ life was not for him Cutty opens a boxing gym to help young people in the neighbourhood, perhaps as

a form of redemption. He tells Deacon “Tell you the truth, I aint got no idea how to go at these hoppers” and concedes nobody does. The irony of this is the actor playing Deacon (Melvin Williams) was a convicted major dealer who inspired the character Avon Barksdale. It is difficult to know, but I would imagine both Cutty had changed and the nature of the game had also. We do see Cutty had problems readjusting and looked destined for the revolving door between the streets and prison. Figures just released (UK, July 2016) reveal that 46% of those released from prison are reconvicted within 12 months.

‘Cutty’ approaches Avon Barksdale asking him for money for new boxing equipment. Barksdale gives him $15,000 and tells him to look after those ‘young uns’, but the truth is the ‘young uns’ could either work for him at some point or buy from one of his corner dealers in the future. Avon, though, clearly sees himself as a provider for disadvantaged youngsters from the projects. In one show we get to see young children acting out the game as part of their play. They are taking it in turns to be Omar, the character that robs and kills dealers. We get a bit closer to families too and how problems pass through generations. We see this for Michael, Namond and Dookey; without spoiling anything the show ends very differently for them all. One of the most poignant moments of the show is when an emotionally empty Michael tells Dookey he no longer remembers his childhood because innocence and love left him a long time ago. The times laughing and bonding, not worrying about surviving have gone. At that moment I think many people who watched the show asked themselves, ‘what are we doing to our children?’

Much of the show can be grounded in reality. “Soldiering and policing, they aint the same thing.” Colvin learnt his policing trade or craft, like so many of my former colleagues, from walking the beat. This is where police and public really interact, whether it be actual conversation or the reassurance to the public from having a visible police presence. This is where people get to share space, and combine and interact to make a place. During some post grad research into community policing I specifically targeted retired (UK) officers and interviewed them. They had over 150 years’ worth of community experience and they were saying some of the same things that Colvin was. It was a personal milestone for me. At some point the role of the police has got confused. It deals with the dark side of humanity that exists in all of our towns and cities. It picks up the pieces from failing welfare, education and healthcare. It deals with social inequality. It deals with fear and victimisation. It deals with a system that is full of holes and contradictions. It is now expected to keep pace with a changing society, which is proving more complicated than keeping pace with changing legislation and budgetary cuts. As politicians try to keep up with events rather than shape them, they are asking the police to do the same.

#sociology #criminology #deviance #moralpanic #thewire #crime #drugs #HBO #cultural #police

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Jonathan South MA, BA (hons), Pcep (YJ)