DOING THIS six years late, particularly after these recent remarks*, reminds me (somewhat) of, how as a condition of certain behavioral treatments and recovery from addiction, people attempt to rectify the things they said and did, when they weren’t on the straight and narrow, with a mere apology — sometimes adding full acts of contrition — only to find those harmed or offended holding misgivings about full-hearted forgiveness. While it’s not that dramatic, with considerations to my political and cultural interests and erstwhile sociopolitical musings, not having uttered a word-processed sentence on The Wire is a sin of omission unfathomable.
Reviewing David Simon’s and Ed Burn’s drug war opera seems imperative to me, because it covers just so much of our contemporary sociological issues. As a series it’s so sweeping in its legal, institutional, criminal, surveillance and law enforcement scope that it has no equal. Though similarly formatted “wide-angled,” examining procedurals in Britain (Traffik) and Canada (Intelligence), provided similar investment-payoff ratios and edification on social matters. It even might be belonging to that unquantifiably volleyed title “best television show ever.” It may not be the most exciting show and certainly it was not the most watched in history, at first — with its revere largely cordoned-off by gender, education level and those with premium cable, along with a “media intelligentsia” and “intellectual snob” variety who we snicker at — but it is probably the best combination of an ambitious, entertaining, dramatic but accessible work on one of the greatest public policy debates of these times.
The series opens with Jimmy McNulty an on-the-outs, swashbuckling Baltimore homocide detective sauntering into a city courthouse to observe a ruling on defendant D’Angelo Barksdale, a nephew of yet-known East Baltimore drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale, in a homocide case. D’Angelo is found innocent — skating on a murder wrap under odd circumstances — when the state’s key witness amends prior statements while on the stand, leaving Barksdale sliding off into the sun. (And back to slinging again as a street-level manager in East Baltimore’s deadliest housing project.)
McNulty, in turn, being a crusading Don Quixote, striving for absolute right to be done in his professional world, is frustrated by the outcome. Because, beyond justice, McNulty’s personal life is a just-stepped-on pressure-plate attached to an I.E.D. of his own making. His wife’s divorced him and hectors him, he drinks the night away, and due to his long hours, he barely sees his sons. He’s basically looking and feeling like a fuck-up. In Baltimore’s world of overworked murder case-crackers, however, McNulty, is “good poh-leece,” something uttered in the series with a colloquial cadence, as a complimentary title ascribed to the get-it-done-right cops.
McNulty, on a hunch and with the bad taste of the ruling concerning D’Angelo Barksdale, decides he should enlist an old friend: a judge, who to the judge’s political detriment agrees to green-light a sprawling investigation, culling a rag-tag bunch from across the divisions of the department to look into D’Angelo’s uncle, Avon Barksdale, and his associates, all on the possibility of intimidation of a state’s witness in a murder trial: Ordered by a man who oversees a narcotics ring in a housing project, and whose enterprise carries several murders to its name.
From there, the onion layers peel by the episode. Over thirteen chapters, the Barksdale’s criminal and economic influence — totaling in the double-digit millions in East Baltimore’s dope trade and washed in and by multiple fronts — sketches a complex, multi-generational drug operation where viewers become witness to their keen abilities to elude law enforcement, sell in public, produce counter-surveillance and prosecute Baltimore’s street code.
Told through season one’s arc are the “inside baseball” games of Baltimore’s police: As they work within a counterproductive results-based tracking of cases that simply focus on the rate of “clearances” (closed cases), and creates internal and city-wide political pressures which thwart honest police work by lazy and case-trading officers, worried about their own clearance rate numbers and careers. It’s just as if the constant standardized testing in schools, that takes away from lasting teaching**, had been moved on to law enforcement.
Viewers of The Wire are also privy to a less-flattering depiction of the everyday work-life disposition of detectives who disdain truly grueling investigative work, and avoid prima facie unsolvable cases, not-so-affectionately referred to as “Whodunits,” which are frowned upon by division heads. Since those cases consume inordinate amounts of time and are no stop-gap against the cascade of murders in a murder-rich environment. The Wire also demonstrates how interwoven personal ambitions can hurt what small progress and peace can be achieved on the streets through policing, as much as incompetence and a constellation of long set-in institutional dysfunctions.
Of the many strengths of its inaugural season is a feat that its forerunner in H.B.O.’s acclaimed flagships of original programming, The Sopranos, had achieved; which is to humanize the believed to be utterly despicable high-level criminal. Just as we saw the smarts and skills necessary to juggle family dynamics and crime with Tony Soprano, the audience of The Wire similarly bears witness to D’Angelo Barksdale and the operation’s kingpin, Avon Barksdale, along with the sharply cerebral lieutenant, Stringer Bell.
Watching The Wire is a Rorschach test on personal perspective. For those 17-year-olds who watch Cocaine Cowboys with a romantic awe and aspirationally bounce to Rick Ross and The Clipse, it is another engrossing Grand Theft Auto-ish way to escape the mundane aspects of life. For politicos or ideas and information consumers, it is a confirmation of data parrotted over the last two decades about just how much is wrong with drug enforcement policy. For the lay, who are less plugged into the realities of an American criminal underclass, at both the popular culture level, and as the targets of actual policy; this show could simply be a Bible on the matter.
And for those in the intersections who hold a reformist’s bent towards what is quickly being the nation’s least talked about, most important domestic issue, aside from security, though they are entwined, the first season of The Wire is a realization of just how much must happen — just how many pieces of a puzzle must fall into place — in order to achieve significant results against the tide of illicit drug markets. But, real shit, no matter who watches The Wire, they will know that the War on Drugs has failed, and they will know it intuitively, without a political harangue being bellowed between the lines of its characters.
According to the Pew Research Center in a study conducted eleven years ago, 74% of Americans agreed with the statement “We are losing the drug war” and 74% also agreed with the statement “Demand is so high we will never stop use.” In 2012, it’s hard to imagine people would agree less. The amount of incarcerations in the war has amounted to nothing but a war on minorities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice data in 2011** supports this. In December 2011, the estimated percentage of blacks incarcerated on drug sentences at the state level was 21.1% of the total population of state prisons, and 19.5% of the estimated total number of those incarcerated on drug offenses at state prisons were Latino.
Prisoners under federal jurisdiction who were sentenced on drug offenses in 2009 amounted to 96, 735 and 94,472 in 2010. Those federal drug incarcerations dwarf the next highest category of incarcerations for those same years, public order offenses, a category which comprises immigration crimes, weapons charges and a miscellaneous “other,” that amounted to 63,714 in 2009 and 65,873 in 2010. A New York Times op-ed titled “Numbers Tell Failure of Drug War,” from July, further hammers the unnecessarily high incarcerations rate home:
And the domestic costs are enormous, too. Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations. Four out of five arrests were for possession. Nearly half were for possession of often-tiny amounts of marijuana.
Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York, told me that processing each of the roughly 85,000 arrests for drug misdemeanors in New York City last year cost the city $1,500 to $2,000. And that is just the cost to the budget. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly black and poor, are unable to get a job, a credit card or even an apartment to rent because of the lasting stigma of a criminal record for carrying an ounce of marijuana.
There’s just no other way around it, in analyzing that data, or watching The Wire, that one cannot see that this war is a futile endeavor. As the end of The Wire‘s inaugural season notes, following a 13-hour — in viewer’s time — painstaking dragnet that lands a kingpin and his third in command, into custody. Yet little changes on the street: Another generation of youth who grew up as junior associates in Barksdale’s company happily move up the organizational ladder in reward for their willingness to commit rather gruesome acts; all of them perfectly trained in what is not much different than an internship, only the lessons are in the drug economy. The young bucks who take the hard lessons from their imprisoned boss, and the new leadership, keep the wheels of narcotics sales moving just like a corporation in post-crisis; holding true to their foot soldier status and newly-appointed mid-level manager positions, in a literal cut-throat industry.
In its present day of 2002; a decade ago, now, The Wire‘s first season served as a journalistically-mirrored artist’s depiction. But not much has changed in the very world it attempts to accurately portray with passion and a journalist’s scope. It’s a meditation on many of the Drug War’s fronts still suspended in time, preserved in amber; a fossil of urban decay and the permanency of the institutional failures of then, which are so wholly indistinguishable from the now. It might as well be a time capsule from last week in many cities.
The neighborhoods in our poorest communities are stocked with kids from families who’ve done nothing but sell and hustle drugs in someway — as D’Angelo Barksdale points out in one scene, laying out the matrix of his notorious and multigenerational family business – all of whom with no real hope to be on the legitimate path, mostly due to a generation of draconian incarceration policy, financially abandoned communities and failed educational systems. And so they are left to embrace the only opportunity they believe they have to make it in the world. For them the drug game is the company in their company town.
The takeaway from season one isn’t a shining coat of arms for cops, Baltimore or the American central city. It’s an indictment of the War on Drugs policy’s once-good intentions becoming that platitude of a “path to hell.” From the many failures of policing to the unfortunate and disconnected, deeply segregated communities that sprang up in housing projects becoming a lesson on what not to do in law enforcement and urban planning, season one of The Wire is an examination of what can be done to effect small change, while not ever truly dismantling illegal drug markets.
And to be frank, it is hard to grasp what the objective of the War on Drugs was other than to curtail abuse and sale, since outright eradication seems ridiculously unrealistic. You soon realize in watching The Wire that what the War on Drugs is now, can’t remotely be the objective; producing an unending loop of incarcerations and escalating violence.
The War’s blowback is counterproductively providing life-support to all kinds of ills from global terrorism (which networks use the sale of drugs to fund), to the reason for the grotesquely violent narco-terror. It’s also the lifeblood for all sorts of gangs and the interrelated nodes in the points of criminality in-between these categories: from the elastic murder figures of some cities, to, partially, why there are so many guns on the streets. Because one of the most common ways to make money on the streets is the drug sales. And the trade’s most important personal defense tool against the risk posed by other drug pushers, and addicts on a hunt to catch an easy fix, is the handgun.
Further, the war is exactly why there’s so much money involved and why the stakes are so high. Because — to bring in the fundamentals of supply and demand economics — the drugs are not so hard to secure and their demand isn’t remotely in danger of drought; it’s then safe to presume that the inherent risks involved are what make for the cartoon amounts of muscle and firepower. It’s the cost of conducting business, and the stakes rise with every successively higher level of product and dealing that dealers commit to. These paragraphs from “Numbers Tell Failure of the Drug War” are precise:
Yet the presidential elections on both sides of the border offer a unique opportunity to re-examine the central flaws of the two countries’ strategy against illegal narcotics. Its threadbare victories — a drug seizure here, a captured kingpin there — pale against its cost in blood and treasure. And its collateral damage, measured in terms of social harm, has become too intense to ignore.
Most important, conceived to eradicate the illegal drug market, the war on drugs cannot be won. Once they understand this, the Mexican and American governments may consider refocusing their strategies to take aim at what really matters: the health and security of their citizens, communities and nations.
Prices match supply with demand. If the supply of an illicit drug were to fall, say because the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped it from reaching the nation’s shores, we should expect its price to go up.
That is not what happened with cocaine. Despite billions spent on measures from spraying coca fields high in the Andes to jailing local dealers in Miami or Washington, a gram of cocaine cost about 16 percent less last year than it did in 2001. The drop is similar for heroin and methamphetamine. The only drug that has not experienced a significant fall in price is marijuana.
And it’s not as if we’ve lost our taste for the stuff, either. About 40 percent of high school seniors admit to having taken some illegal drug in the last year — up from 30 percent two decades ago, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The use of hard drugs, meanwhile, has remained roughly stable over the last two decades, rising by a few percentage points in the 1990s and declining by a few percentage points over the last decade, with consumption patterns moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.
A pithy observation to glean from The Wire‘s opening act is the cunning and intelligence needed to run a high-level drug ring. The logistics, the precautions against an in-place legal framework, the robust investigation methods and resources, the unpredictable human element, which is wildly inconsistent, due to the involvement in one of the highest stakes businesses around; it seems if all things were equal, and if participants were once steered toward another path in a different environment, many of these fictional characters would’ve succeeded somewhere else in life, on much more linear paths. And it’s easy to assume that this would be true for those involved in the actual drug trade, outside of the capsule of an Ed Burns and David Simon teleplay, since The Wire isn’t some fantastical display of police cunning and truly daft criminals. It is a portrayal of humble triumph achieved at the hands of many smart police and well-honed investigation methods, over institutional dysfunctions, and a local drug franchise weighed down by human variables. And even then, that operation wasn’t dismantled.
It’s obvious that the economically downtrodden communities with nothing to lose tend to have more visible drug abuse — in the form of open sale — and are more actively policed. But what’s especially awful is that the victims of the War on Drugs are victims of the system already, before they even take on the trade, and so the war is in effect a double-whammy. As these are the working-class and poor, suffering from the generational divestment in the inner-cities, outsourcing, the loss of jobs due to increasing computerization efficiency, widening education gaps, a digital divide, and the outright death of American manufacturing, all ripping a hole into the lower-ends of the American economy.
That inequality only creates incentive to use as a way to cope, or for them to participate in an otherwise booming, recession-proof, tax-free business, with low-entry risk, but which also happens to act as a trap. Any “War on Drugs,” would generally be in some way a war on the poor. Sure there’s some rhetoric in there; but the entire War on Drugs enterprise has only provided a shaky amount of justification and far too many inconsistencies. (Such as the once-active sentencing disparities — amended by President Obama through the Fair Sentencing Act – in powder cocaine sentences and the more urban-consumed crack, which lead crack offenders facing a penalty that was equivalent to 100x times the carry-weight of cocaine.)
And much like in The Wire, in real life, there is pressure for law enforcement to “put drugs on the table,” meaning show the fruits of drug busts garnered from stash house raids and the like, in order to win the very obvious political game of police captains and mayors. The war has just been far too narrow, focusing on small-time busts rather than the elevated and out-of-reach kingpins. If wars, as one of the younger detectives in the first season notes, have a beginning and end, then this hopeless undertaking is no war at all.
Such as the “War on Poverty” or “War on Terror,” it is a twilight struggle, but unlike the one geared towards poverty, as a social policy it has mostly wreaked havoc, and you could argue the same about the War on Terror. But this war has not provided any tangible evidence of enough of actual lives saved, or of order being upheld, or even established. To merit its continuance in the way it is currently constructed, seems illogical.
Add to it all the yet mentioned: mandatory sentencing, a lack of drug education, porous borders that facilitate trafficking, our open society (whose unintended consequences) has greased the rails for smuggling operations; the shame our culture places on those affected by drugs, our aversion to focusing on prevention — along with a lack of focus on treatment — and finally the prison-industrial complex, which have all placed the nation in this awful place. No family, community or city has been left untouched, it seems. The Wire hits on so many of these elements in just its first stanza, as it connects the dots, while providing a tertiary experience in the form of a dramatic arc, for all those informed, and those with a mere passing knowledge of what has gone on in the American city and law enforcement policy for the last three decades.
* In my defense to David Simon’s protestations and “weariness” about the whole cottage industry of blogging concerning The Wire; as a “blogger”/writer on the topic, I was too young and in college during The Wire‘s early run. And I further argue, blogging about The Wire without the totality of my education in sociology and political science, any writing wouldn’t have been skillfully executed. As he argues, the series really does not pay out in the minutia or end-of-season calculus, but does so in the sum-of-its-parts, it’s Gestalt.
** Right table, “Standardized Testing : Con,” bullet points 4-7.
*** The report was edited and updated in February of 2012.