Tensions between police and an oppressed underclass come to a boiling point. An American city burns. And, immediately, commentators compare the situation to a premium cable series that went off the air seven years ago.
Baltimore is in trouble — and in newspaper columns and on CNN, “The Wire” is back.
“The criminal element translated that to mean free rein,” Deborah Simmons of the Washington Times wrote after the city’s mayor discussed giving protesters “space to destroy” — “just like the characters in ‘The Wire’ — the gritty HBO drama about the war on drugs in Baltimore that aired from 2002 to 2008.”
But is invoking fiction to explain fact necessarily helpful?
The media and commentators — who turned to David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” and members of the show’s cast who spoke out about the riots — presumably thought so.
“The anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease,” Simon wrote on his blog. “There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today. But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a diminution of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death.”
Though Simon — a former Baltimore Sun reporter and longtime Baltimore resident — spoke with hard-earned authority, some have pointed out that his TV vision of Baltimore doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it might disempower those the showrunner sought to help by exposing Charm City’s seamier side.
“The workplaces, neighborhoods, language and events portrayed in The Wire have the kind of verisimilitude that justifies the torrent of praise,” John Atlas and Peter Dreier wrote in Dissent in 2008 in a piece called “Is ‘The Wire’ too cynical?” “But Simon says he wanted the show to spur our country to do something about the plight of America’s inner-cities. Instead, his portrayal of Baltimore buttresses the myth that the poor, especially the black poor in the city’s ghettos, are drug dealers or users, eternally helpless victims, unable to engage in collective self-help and dependent on government largess, or crime, to survive.”
But even if Simon is the most reliable narrator of Baltimore’s troubles, some thought “The Wire’s” ubiquitous presence in news stories about Baltimore objectionable. Consider an analogy: invoking a fictional TV series about the 1960s to make a point about the actual 1960s.
Oh, wait: The media does that all the time.
“Did you not know, before Don Draper told you, that there was a time when women faced open, blatant sexism in the workplace?” Tom Scocca wrote in a 2011 Slate column called “Don Draper’s Shocking Secret: He Doesn’t Exist” that, among other things, criticized a New York Times piece for inserting “Mad Men” references into an article. “Why does anyone need Don’s blessing to bring up this basic, commonplace fact?”
Even as “The Wire” references flew early Tuesday, some on social media grappled with their propriety.
Or, more damning: “Is destruction of Black life always entertainment?”
Oh yes, it’s like “The Wire”. Except you can go back to your comfort zone once you’re done gawking at the ‘natives’. #BaltimoreRiots
— Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) April 28, 2015
Hey! The Washington Times has a take on black life in Baltimore! “ne’er-do-wells,” Bloods, Crips, and “The Wire.” http://t.co/lgDPutDvN0
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) April 28, 2015
Ya know, with all the white ppl who supposedly watched The Wire, y’all actin’ real brand new about Baltimore.
— *sips tea* (@kyssthis16) April 28, 2015
Oh, see when it’s real ppl, then it’s different. I see. Or is destruction of Black life always entertainment? — *sips tea* (@kyssthis16) April 28, 2015
Just for the record, being really, really into THE WIRE doesn’t count as knowing actual black people from Baltimore.
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) April 28, 2015
David Simon: “When cop cars were burned on ‘The Wire,’ I gave voice to the voiceless. I didn’t mean the voiceless should actually be heard.” — Sasha Frere-Jones (@sfj) April 28, 2015