Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wire on Tap

Drugs get transacted. Buyers and sellers develop an extensive system of exchanging product for capital. The industry thrives, while the city ails. Addicts, runners, snitches, and bystanders get stomped by industry head honchos, who patrol the streets of the ghetto with full impunity. Their eyes are lit up with the knowledge that their code of behavior is more robust than the official rule of law. Cops attempt to rollback the prevailing urban pharmaceutical system of distrubution with the courts, zero tolerance, aggressive enforcement tactics. But to no avail. This is the world inhabited by the Wire, HBO's stellar program that just concluded its fourth season.

Authenticity is the province of this show, as its writer and director were born and bred on Baltimore's police, journalism, and urban mayhem. There is substantial reason to believe that the show expertly captures the gritty reality of a vast segment of Baltimorean cultural and economic life. The dealers are case studies in diehard entrepreneurialism, their egos stroked by a city whose fiends soak up a constant supply of chemical sustenance. The drug kingpins in the Wire are depicted as masters of their domain who generally are inclined to knock off relatively undeserving interlopers. Stringer, the Barksdales, and Omar consist of the business elite in the show's capitalizing upper echelons. Their drive to accumulate wealth is egged on by the mouths of the hungry and hopeless habitual drug users, who number around 50,000 in today's Baltimore.

That's in a city of about 640,000 folks. A city on the population rebound from it's lowpoint in 2000. An urban unit that suffers from the highest per capita murder rate of any American city with a population over 250,000. Averaging between 250 and 300 murders yearly, Baltimore's murder rate remains stagnant at about 6 times New York's. Believe it or not, Baltimore was the largest American city after NYC until 1870.

In this context, the Wire portrays B-more as a city on the edge. Though so far I've not watched past the first season, the show depicts my hometown as a battlefield. The cops try desperately to pursue justice the best ways they know how, without trampling on too many civil liberties but also without full respect for the rights of the criminals. Clearly, in the Machiavellian world of the drug trade, the cops can't be too bothered by the letter of the law. Clearly, the dealers aren't bound by anything more than a primitive Stop Snitching ethic that supposedly governs their actions - until they too face the Prisoner's Dilemma head on and must rat to save their own skin.

Is the show excessively negative in its depiction of a criminal culture that seems to overshadow the more promising aspects of city life? What does the show owe the city in terms of positive reinforcement of viable role models or upright citizens? The show does not delude viewers into thinking that the drug trade is all gravy. And neither does it suggest that police work is sacred. To the contrary, no one truly ends up on top in the Sisyphean challenge of preserving a semblance of urban order. Cops need to cooperate with the dealers to whom they have access. The way they pit certain players against others that get played reiterates the idea that anyone is liable to "get got" at almost any time. The brutish tendencies of both sides in the drug war belie the best intentions of certain cops to earn an honest living and of the few dealers that seek to minimize the collateral damage of their daily peddling and gun-toting.

The Wire treats enterntainment as a profane pursuit. Whereas some cop shows profess to contain sacrosanct messages about public policy or social redemption, this particular one steers clear of moralizing. The nightly reality of Baltimore's thug culture is straight fucked up. There's no denying the deadly characteristics of a street game that, while increasing the inner city GDP by a significant multiple, renders decrepit vast expanses of the city and creates an entrenched cycle of violent engagement between urban security forces, opposing drug gangs, and the dreaded snitches that bridge the gap in this civil war of sorts. Government soldiers cannot be entrusted with the authority to enforce laws on an equal basis. Gangsters produce an endearing culture of criminal glorification with regards to the urban other. Historically accurate fiction gives us the impression that we are privy to these social universes that are far removed from our own. The Wire has got me on tap.

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