HBO’s The Wire, David Simon, Baltimore, and the Police as an Army of Occupation
Detective Ellis Carver: What he means to say is that we are effective deterrent in the war on drugs when we are on the street.
Detective Thomas Hauk (“Herc”): Fucking motherfuckers up.
Herc: Fuck the paperwork. Collect bodies, split heads.
Carver: Split ‘em wide.
Det. Hauk: The Western District way.
Det. Carver: A’ight.
This is dialogue from the first episode of The Wire, an acclaimed HBO series (2002–2008) set in Baltimore. Throughout the show, “The Western District way” is an oft-repeated slogan of many Baltimore Police Department cops (generally accompanied with a fist bump) which refers to their favored policing approach: abundant street arrests for petty offenses, performed as violently as possible. This element of the show, like many others, is very true-to-life, its creator David Simon having been a seasoned Baltimore crime reporter.
Recently, the real-life BPD “collected” Freddie Gray over possession of a pocket knife. His arrest and subsequent transport were so violent that he later died of his injuries, which included an almost completely severed spine and a crushed larynx. As it happens, Gray was detained in the Western District. Thirteen years after The Wire’s premiere, it would seem the “Western District way” is still going strong, and has graduated from splitting heads to breaking necks.
In a recent interview about the incident (which has since sparked protests and riots), Simon characterized it as a sign of the disappearance of any kind of code among Baltimore police concerning the appropriate use of force. Back in the day, beatings were reserved only for certain varieties of the blanket crime known as P.O.P. (Pissing Off the Police).
“Two things get your ass kicked faster than anything: one is making a cop run. If he catches you, you’re 18 years old, you’ve got fucking Nikes, he’s got cop shoes, he’s wearing a utility belt, if you fucking run and he catches you, you’re gonna take some lumps.”
The other way of “cruising for a bruising” was to fight back. Anyone who dared resist might get a handcuffed, unsecured ride in a paddy wagon, driven in such a herky jerky manner so as to send the detainee careening into the walls. Known elsewhere as a “rough ride” or a “nickel ride,” in the Western District it is called “the bounce.” Freddie Gray was given the bounce, and it is likely what killed him, or perhaps finished him off after he was grievously wounded during his arrest.
Simon doesn’t condone the violence allowed by the old code, but at least it showed a modicum of self-restraint. But the fact that someone like Gray was dogpiled and “bounced” is an indication to Simon of the code’s dwindled, sorry state.
“And yet, you look at the sheet for poor Mr. Gray, and you look at the nature of the arrest and you look at the number of police who made the arrest, you look at the nature of what they were charging him with — if anything, because again there’s a complete absence of probable cause — and you look at the fact that the guy hasn’t got much propensity for serious violence according to his sheet, and you say, How did this guy get a rough ride? How did that happen? Is this really the arrest that you were supposed to make today? And then, if you were supposed to make it, was this the guy that needed an ass-kicking on the street, or beyond that, a hard ride to the lockup?
I’m talking in the vernacular of cops, not my own — but even in the vernacular of what cops secretly think is fair, this is bullshit, this is a horror show. There doesn’t seem to be much code anymore — not that the code was always entirely clean or valid to anyone other than street cops, and maybe the hardcore corner players, but still it was something at least.”
Yet the code has not only been degraded, but completely abandoned. Baltimore cops are now so off the chain that residents without any rap sheet whatsoever are being routinely brutalized. Referring to a Baltimore Sun report from 2014, Simon said:
“For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in that story The Sun published last year about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There’s no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees — and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.”
In The Wire, Simon’s cop characters distinguished between mere “mopes” (or as Simon says in the interview, “corner folk”) and “citizens” or “taxpayers.” For example, in one interrogation scene, two detectives try to convey the gravity of the situation to a suspect by comparing the murder of a maintenance worker and states witness with the suspect’s previous “inconsequential” murder of another “mope.”
McNulty: And it’s not like you did anything real bad — throwing a couple of hot ones at Pooh Blanchard. No one’s gonna miss that motherfucker.
Bunk: But you know the man who got killed this time? You know who that poor son of a bitch was?
McNulty: A citizen.
This is the context in which Simon uses the terms “citizen” and “taxpayer” in the following quote:
“But if you look at why the city of Baltimore paid that $5.7 million for beating down people over the last few years, it’s clear that there are way too many [cops] for whom no code exists. Anyone and everyone was a potential ass-whipping — even people that were never otherwise charged with any real crimes. It’s astonishing.
By the standard of that long list, Freddie Gray becomes almost plausible as a victim. He was a street guy. And before he came along, there were actual working people — citizens, taxpayers — who were indistinguishable from criminal suspects in the eyes of the police who were beating them down.”
Simon blames the abandonment of the code on the drug war, which “gives everybody permission to do anything.”
“It gives cops permission to stop anybody, to go in anyone’s pockets, to manufacture any lie when they get to district court.”
It was the drug war that led to the police practice of harrying the inner city populace with constant petty arrests.
“What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble.”
But according to Simon, “the stake through the heart” of the code was Martin O’Malley, mayor of Baltimore from 1999–2007. O’Malley, considered a possible contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, was an inspiration for The Wire’s Mayor Tommy Carcetti. Like Carcetti, O’Malley started as a reformer, but ended in an unscrupulous, single-minded pursuit of seemingly-improved crime statistics. To “clean up the streets,” under O’Malley:
“…the department began sweeping the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month.”
According to Simon, this policy is what led to the BPD declaring open season on all Baltimore residents, “citizen” and “mope” alike:
“…what it taught the police department was that they could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause, and the drug-free zones and the humbles — the targeting of suspects through less-than-constitutional procedure. Now, the mass arrests made clear, we can lock up anybody, we don’t have to figure out who’s committing crimes, we don’t have to investigate anything, we just gather all the bodies — everybody goes to jail. And yet people were scared enough of crime in those years that O’Malley had his supporters for this policy, council members and community leaders who thought, They’re all just thugs.
But they weren’t. They were anybody who was slow to clear the sidewalk or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think I’m exaggerating look it up. It was an amazing performance by the city’s mayor and his administration.”
As a result, according to Simon, BPD is no longer a police force, but an “army of occupation.”
“…they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods — which were indeed drug-saturated because that’s the only industry left — become just hunting grounds. They weren’t protecting anything. They weren’t serving anyone. They were collecting bodies, treating corner folk and citizens alike as an Israeli patrol would treat the West Bank, or as the Afrikaners would have treated Soweto back in the day. They’re an army of occupation. And once it’s that, then everybody’s the enemy.”
This is all a characteristically trenchant analysis on the part of Simon, but what he misses (believing as he does that "There is no alternative to a modern police force") is that the police in America have always been an army of occupation.
American police have two key points of origin. One is the New York Police Department, the first true police force in the US. The NYPD was modeled on the London Metropolitan Police Force, which in turn was modeled on a unit in an occupying army. As Will Grigg writes in part 2 of his upcoming series on “The Rise of the American Police State”:
“Even before “local” police agencies were effectively satellitized by the federal government they were paramilitary bodies designed to operate as occupation forces, rather than as a protective service.
Robert Peel, creator of the London Metropolitan Police Force that is the template for all modern police agencies, adapted the model he had employed in creating the “Peace Preservation Force,” a specialized unit within the 20,000-man military contingent Peel had commanded as military governor of occupied Ireland.
Writing in the December 1961 Journal of Modern History, Galen Broeker observed that when Peel was appointed governor in 1814, his objective in creating the Peace Preservation Force was “`pacifying’ a recalcitrant population.” (…)
The “Peace Preservation Force” — which was the prototype for every modern police agency — wasn’t designed to protect person and property from criminal aggression, but rather to protect a political elite.
This is why Peel’s London Metropolitan Police Force was initially greeted with hostility by conservatives in the British Parliament and the public at large, who often referred to officers as “Blue Locusts.” Within a decade, however, Peel’s model was firmly entrenched in London, and migrated across the Atlantic to New York City.”
Another key point of origin of the American police was the slave patrol. As Radley Balko wrote in his Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (and as quoted by Anthony Gregory in his review of the book):
“By the middle of the eighteenth century, every Southern colony had passed laws formalizing slave patrols. . . . In many jurisdictions — most notably Charleston, South Carolina — slave patrols would eventually morph into the official police force”
This too is a military origin, since all the slaves either descended from or were themselves captives of petty conquerors.
“Protect and serve” has always been a cover story. Policing in America has always been about “social control,” as well as parasitic extraction. The military occupation has simply been more blatant and severe in certain districts. The breakdown of the “code” that Simon describes is not a perversion of policing. Quite the opposite, it is that institution dropping its masquerade and becoming more true to itself.
The police are simply doing what armies of occupation always do. They are trying to “pacify” the subject population through acts of brutality that are intended as an object lesson in “learned helplessness.” Through brutality, the occupying state tries to teach its subjects: “You do not even own your self. Your ass is mine. I will dispose of your body as I please. It is mine to frisk, mine to drag, mine to shackle, mine to cage, mine to ‘collect.’ If you try to move your body contrary to my wishes or try to deny my access to it, I will strike, club, stomp, crush, zap, or even perforate it. I will permanently cripple or even destroy its functioning. If I can’t have it, neither of us can. And if you die, I'll even hand-cuff your corpse. That's how much I own you.”
This lesson has been imparted by occupiers since time immemorial. It is as old as the Spartan rite of passage by which a youth had to ambush and kill one of Sparta’s colonized Helots before he was considered a man. And it is as modern as the routine brutal manhandling of Palestinians by Israeli Defense Force soldiers in the Occupied Territories, and American house-to-house sweeps of fighting-age males in Iraq (like O’Malley’s similar sweeps in Baltimore).
And it is this same lesson imparted “domestically” by…
…the BPD when, upon seeing Freddie Gray look at them too long, they buried him under a thugscrum, hauled him to the transport vehicle and threw him in like a sack of rice, and smashed him against the walls like they were shaking a bug in a jar. (This “instruction” was also conveyed throughout The Wire by the cops’ routine manhandling of mopes.)
…the Tampa Police Department when one of its officers hog-tied a homeless woman and then dragged her limp body through a parking lot by one arm as if she were a cheap piece of carry-on luggage.
…the NYPD when its officers squeezed the life out of Eric Garner as he repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t breathe.”
…and the Tulsa Sheriff’s Office when one of its deputies shot Eric Harris while he was prone on the ground, another deputy ground his face into the pavement with his knee, and a third deputy responded to the dying victim’s cry of “I’m losing my breath” by grunting, “Fuck your breath!”
“Get a load of this Helot over here. He thinks he’s people! You think you can even breathe without my permission, you little mope? Fuck your breath.”
"Fuck your breath" is a perfect motto for the state. Lungs perforated by bullets? Airway compressed by a tatted up forearm? Entire pulmonary system burst by a 1-ton bomb? Economically suffocated by fines, taxes, and regulations? Fuck your breath.
While the police murder of Eric Harris provided an extremely representative motto for the state, the police murder of Walter Scott provided an extremely representative image. A dead man lying prostrate with his face in the dirt, as a cop, having cuffed the corpse, stands over him, indolently regarding his kill.
This blatantly colonial brutality has long been the norm for many communities in America. It is only receiving more attention now because of three factors. For one, the brutality is becoming even more lethal for its usual targets. Secondly, that lethality is being captured by ubiquitous cameraphones and propagated through social media (just as is happening with the brutality of the Israeli occupation). As Simon put it:
“…the documented litany of police violence is now out in the open. There’s an actual theme here that’s being made evident by the digital revolution. It used to be our word against yours. It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street. The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.”
Finally, as Simon stressed, the brutality is expanding to ever higher-status “citizens.” For example, according to the Sun report discussed by Simon, this was the treatment BPD gave an 87-year-old grandmother:
“He shoved Green against the wall. She hit the wooden floor.
‘Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up,’ Green recalled the officer saying as he stood over her. ‘He pulled me up, pushed me in the dining room over the couch, put his knees in my back, twisted my arms and wrist and put handcuffs on my hands and threw me face down on the couch.’”
And P.O.P. is even becoming a capital offense for white male honor roll university students, with Judge Dredd-style summary capital punishment being meted out by even the lowly campus cop. This was the case with Cameron Remus who incredulously asked the university officer who assaulted and then drew down on him: “You’re going to fucking shoot me? For trying to make you not choke me right now?” The officer answered in the affirmative by fatally shooting him in the chest, back, eye, elbow and hip.
We are all living under occupation. Some of us have just been slower to feel it.
Thank you for reading. I work at the Mises Institute where I run the Mises Academy, an e-learning program for Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. I am a columnist for Antiwar.com and my essays have appeared at Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, The Ron Paul Institute, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I have given lectures and conducted interviews for the Mises Institute and appeared on The Scott Horton Show and The Tom Woods Show. You can find all of my essays, lectures, and interviews at DanSanchez.me, you can follow me via Twitter, Facebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at dan-at-mises.org.