The White House released a video yesterday in which Barack Obama talks with David Simon about "The Wire," Simon's five-season drama dissecting the many institutional problems in big American cities, which was, as you may have heard, set here in Baltimore. Part interview and part Obama expounding on the virtues of the show, the video clearly demonstrates this: the president gets it.
He sees the many faults of the war on drugs and hints that now is a time we need to start thinking about mandatory sentencing and different ways to prosecute drug cases in court. This also means considering how to change the societal perceptions that make it harder for convicted non-violent drug offenders to re-enter society. And one way to do this is to demonstrate that dealers and addicts are flesh-and-blood people who are often caught up in circumstances beyond their control and whose lives have value. "The Wire" does exactly that.
"[P]art of the challenge is going to be making sure, number one, we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories," Obama told Simon. "That's why the work you've done is so important."
Additionally, the president astutely realizes that the drug war is also a problem for police, who are often told, as he put it, "just keep it out of our sight lines and it's not our problem." Obama pointed to drops in crime in cities where police forces have "an awareness we were so invested in street-level drug transactions we were losing focus on what was really important, which is that people wanted to be safe."
This is in stark contrast to the comments on "The Wire" made by the people in charge of running Baltimore and keeping the city safe.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said in a C-SPAN interview, following up on comments he had previously made about "1950s-level black-and-white racism" in the city, that he only started the show when he was stuck inside on a hot summer day (previously, he admitted to never having seen it).
"I looked at the first season. That was enough for me," said Batts, according to a story in The Sun.
Later, he said "The Wire" did inspire the police department to do one thing: change its logo.
"They don't want the connection to 'The Wire,'" he said. "This is a new day for this Police Department. It starts with me and goes all the way down and permeates the organization... they don't want that anymore."
For her part, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the BBJ she hasn't watched most of the show but sees the long-lasting impression it has.
"Anecdotally, it still resonates with people as a true and accurate and unfortunately complete picture of Baltimore," she said. "The show's popularity was based on showing all that was wrong in Baltimore."
Presidential hopeful, recently departed governor, and former mayor Martin O'Malley, who was no doubt a major inspiration for slime ball councilman-turned-mayor Tommy Carcetti on the show, is no fan either, threatening to pull filming permits and complaining about how "The Wire" affected the city's image during his City Hall days.
In a 2009 interview on MSNBC, O'Malley dubbed himself "the antidote to 'The Wire'" and cited a 40 percent reduction in violent crime when touting the effectiveness of his stewardship of the city. When Simon and O'Malley had a chance encounter on an Acelea train some years later, in 2014, the two were able to share a beer and conversation. But O'Malley still hated the show with a "taut fury," at least according to Simon.
It's instructive that Obama didn't frame any of the issues he talked about as problems specific to Baltimore, because they're not. Officials past and present seem to think of "The Wire" as an indictment on the city, and thus their leadership. While Simon, Ed Burns, and the show's other writers drew heavily from real-life Baltimore figures to populate the world of the show, the characters are cogs in a machine that extends well beyond the city line.
It's a shame Rawlings-Blake and Batts haven't sat down to watch the whole thing, because they might learn something, as Obama clearly has. The existence of "The Wire," much like the problems it depicts, simply can't be wished away.