“The Western District Way:” Reflections on Freddie Gray & The Wire

For the past week, I’ve been trying to follow the news about Freddie Gray’s death this past Sunday, a week after being taken into custody by Baltimore police. Until now, I’ve been bookmarking, saving, and waiting to read a number of articles. I’ve just had a chance to read much of what has published about the events leading up to Mr. Gray’s death. It is apparently not clear what exactly happened when Mr. Gray was arrested, but it seems he was apprehended after 1) making eye contact with a police officer and 2) fleeing that officer. Neither of those things is a crime, but Baltimore police have asserted that the latter satisfies the requirement for probable cause even while admitting that protocols meant to ensure the safety of Mr. Gray were not followed and that officers failed to give Mr. Gray medical attention that he needed, requested, and deserved. Community members insist that the arrest was unwarranted and that police showed disregard for Mr. Gray’s wellbeing while he was in custody. Six officers have been suspended.

This New York Times article by Sherly Gay Stolberg puts Freddie Gray’s story into the broader context of “Baltimore’s broken relationship with the police” and the community’s “decades-long, growing frustration over the extent to which police in Baltimore have adopted a highly militarized approach to policing.” Felicia Pearson, the actress who played Snoop in The Wire, the critically acclaimed HBO television show set in Baltimore, echoes Stolberg’s account in this interview. Pearson, who is from Baltimore, was a troubled youth, spent time in prison for second-degree murder and drug charges, and knew Freddie Gray.

To those who’ve seen The Wire, much of the Freddie Gray story should evoke memories of one of the series’ most troubling episodes. In Season 3, Episode 1, “Time After Time,” Baltimore police officers, led by Herc and Carver, organize a drug bust on a corner. They end up chasing a young man who they believe possesses a bag full of illegal drugs when, in fact, the young man is a decoy and the stash of drugs had been picked up by another youth on that same corner. After calling in multiple units, including a helicopter, for backup, the police lose track of the young man they’re chasing. At that point, Officer Carver climbs atop a car and, in frustration, threatens the young man: “I’m going to tell you one thing and one thing only about the Western boys you are playing with,” he says, before going on to threaten the young man with beatings if he does not turn himself in immediately. Here’s a link to the scene. Watch it.

Later in the episode, back at the Western District station, it turns out that Herc and Carver have managed to apprehend the youth that had fled the scene. The young man sits at a chair with a bloodied and swollen face. When Major Bunny Colvin asks what happened, he learns the youth was caught with no drugs and that his officers only have a loitering charge against the young man. The young man in custody tells Colvin, “They whipped my ass,” to which Herc replies smugly, “The Western District way.”

So while protestors march on the real Western District station as they have done every night since this past Sunday, it’s worth noting, as Stolberg does, the broader context of militarized policing, brutality, and community tensions that surround Freddie Gray’s death. It’s worth noting that these were obvious enough to have been dramatized so clearly in an episode of The Wire (and that’s not to mention the rest of the series). And it’s also worth noting that the protests may highlight one of the ways in which the highly acclaimed television show, sometimes described as more realistic than non-fiction, falls short of representing reality. The show’s grittiness focused viewers’ attention on the limitations of urban transformation. Institutions in the show were almost complete failures, and no episode represents that more clearly than Season 3, Episode 1. There’s a reason the episode title was “Time After Time.” At the beginning of the episode one character, Bodie, says to another, Poot, “Don’t matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doing the same,” highlighting the inability to learn from our failures, whether moral failures or sheer incompetence. Indeed, only a few individuals – Bunny Colvin, Cutty Wise, Roland Pryzbylewski, and a few others – symbolize the potential for real urban transformation, and even their experiences of that transformation are compromised, limited, or otherwise fraught. But what The Wire doesn’t show us are collective attempts to push for transformation. It doesn’t show the protests and resistance. It doesn’t show the kind of community response that we’re seeing in Baltimore this week. After the beating in S3E1, no one marches on the Western District. But people are marching in Baltimore today. And if Baltimore and other cities across the country are to hope for more just and humane relationships between police and the communities to which they belong, that is going to have to start with this kind of community empowerment, community voice, and, eventually, institution-building and accountability of a sort that The Wire didn’t dramatize.

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