The series was criticized for not showing the inhabitants’ resistance to the mechanisms of relegation. Now, season six of “The Wire,” in which the population finally rises up, is playing out.
On Saturday, April 25th and Monday, April 27th, the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore were the scenes of uprisings after Freddie Gray’s funeral. A state of emergency was declared. The 25-year-old black man died as a result of fractures to the cervical vertebrae after being violently apprehended by the police. This episode goes down on the long list of incidences of police brutality and popular reactions against state violence and its impunity. In August, the death of Michael Brown, shot by a police officer in Ferguson, followed by the latter’s acquittal, started the protests and a large nationwide movement asking questions about both racial discrimination and police violence. In April, in North Charleston, it was a 50-year-old black man, Walter Scott, who was shot five times by a police officer after a routine traffic stop for a broken light. The list goes on like a litany: Eric Garner, suffocated by police officers in New York; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child shot while playing with a plastic gun; in Baltimore itself, Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, two young unarmed men, died in 2013 at the hands of the police. In the majority of these cases, the police officers involved were not charged. The uprisings since then reveal the feeling of injustice against a story that seems to repeat itself endlessly.
Reality Extends Into Fiction
The images that we have received from Baltimore can only remind us of those that we saw in “The Wire,” the TV series filmed in the city during the 2000s that gained cult status thanks to its cinematographic quality, as well as for its closeness to reality and its critical force. “The Wire” subtly showed the degradation of working-class black neighborhoods into ghettos, the concentration of poverty, the influence of drugs, the end of industrial employment, corruption in political circles and the failure of institutions (police, justice and schools) to prevent social marginalization and spatial concentration from spreading into abandoned parts of town. Reality is extending into fiction; while we criticized the series for not showing the inhabitants’ resistance to these mechanisms of relegation, the sixth season of “The Wire,” in which the population finally rises up, is now playing out in front of our eyes.
The Spread of Social Marginalization
We can understand and analyze the reaction to police violence and the anger expressed on the streets of Baltimore independently of this social reality shown on the series. Because 13 years after the first episodes were broadcast, and despite local politicians and real estate developers celebrating the “the Renaissance of Baltimore,” nothing (or almost nothing) has changed. In this city, like in most major American urban centers, African Americans – and, to a lesser extent, other minorities – are systematically discriminated against with regard to employment, condemned to under-equipped public schools, subjected to police checks based on their appearance and are much more likely than white people to one day end up in prison. Rather than investing massively in these neighborhoods, for 30 years the state has chosen prison as a means to prevent violence caused by social insecurity. As “The Wire” has already demonstrated very well, mass incarceration, which especially affects black men, creates the conditions for the spread of social marginalization by destabilizing family units.
This eloquent assessment, which he has already dramatized so well, has not prevented the series’ creator, David Simon, from condemning “the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie’s name.” A whole section of the American press sees the rioters merely as “thugs” or “criminals” carrying out gratuitous violence. Even if the clashes on the streets of Baltimore do not solve America’s problems, and if we can understand the feeling of powerlessness and the mess that it causes, we can nevertheless suggest an interpretation that is more political than moral. They represent collective mobilization and the inhabitants of ghettos – who are faced with injustice and social and racial inequality – speaking up.
They take over a large march in the city and a group of rallies – which up until now were peaceful – on a national scale. But you have to note that despite the emotion of public opinion, and although the race question is on the media agenda – Time magazine has put the slogan of the “Black Lives Matter” movement on its front page – no attempt at reform has begun at the national level. The powerlessness or disinterest of the political elite on these issues amounts to a second miscarriage of justice. The presence of a black president in the White House for the last six years has done nothing to change this point of view. Barack Obama may be one of the Democratic presidents who has done the least for African Americans. If the unremitting hostility that he has been subjected to by his political rivals has done one thing, it has proven that diversity in the elite is far from enough to confront systemic racism.
From France’s point of view, and beyond the alarm that the rise in tensions in American ghettos raises, it is perhaps time to learn some lessons. A feeling of injustice is rumbling in our working-class neighborhoods too. Ten years after the uprisings that took place there, inequality continues to worsen, and discrimination remains a common occurrence. Social movements fight against discriminatory police checks or police violence, but their demands are taken no more seriously than those of the American activists. The French politicians concerned are in the same stalemate as their American counterparts: that of criminalizing poverty and youth.