The Roots of Baltimore's Violence

As I watched the images of Baltimore's streets burning on my television screen over the last few days, I could not help but think of HBO's hit series, The Wire. Written by former police officer David Simon, the series was widely heralded as a breakthrough in American television. Its gritty portrayal of Baltimore and the lives of drug dealers, corrupt police officers and politicians, captured the imagination and attention of millions of viewers. Over the course of 60 episodes, the series won numerous awards and was featured as the subject of seminars at colleges and universities, including Harvard where Simon himself participated in a course on the series offered at the Kennedy School of Government.

Though the characters and story line were fictional, what made The Wire so compelling was that the basic plot seemed realistic: a major American city hopelessly trapped by pervasive drug trafficking, concentrated poverty, and horrific violence. Despite the grim reality depicted, the series was a sensation, and described by more than one critic as "the best television program ever made."

When considered in the context of the present unrest in Baltimore, much of which is occurring in the very neighborhood where The Wire was filmed, I'm forced to wonder why the media critics never asked what the long-term consequences might be for allowing the dire conditions in Baltimore to fester and persist for so long. Perhaps that is because The Wire was entertainment, and as long as the dismal plight of the community and its residents could be "enjoyed" voyeuristically as a television show, it may not have seemed so troubling, at least to many of the show's fans.

Now that the National Guard has been deployed and public officials are calling for calm in the hope of restoring order as outrage over the death of Freddie Gray (who died while in police custody) continues to simmer, it seems wise to ask: what can be done to prevent such a situation from occurring again?

As was true in Ferguson, police violence and misconduct is clearly the trigger for the unrest, but it would be a mistake to lose sight of the broader context in Baltimore, so aptly depicted on The Wire -- widespread poverty, chronic inter-personal violence, and a non-functioning economy where work is scarce and drug trafficking is pervasive. Should we be surprised that despair and anger flourish under these conditions? To those who are disturbed by the violence we should be even more troubled by the fact that similar conditions are present in many large and small cities throughout America today.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has called for calm and a return to normal. But "normal" in Baltimore is precisely the problem. What has passed for "normal" in Baltimore and countless other communities like it throughout America is unsustainable, and should be seen as unacceptable.

Many of his supporters (myself included), hoped President Obama would have been able to do more to address these issues. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The Great Recession of 2008, an obstructionist Congress, the complex nature of the problems themselves, and the President's reluctance to openly take on issues pertaining to racial inequality and injustice, have left us where we stand today: bewildered and perplexed about what to do with yet another American city in flames.

The violence we're watching on the streets of Baltimore today is undoubtedly more disturbing than The Wire because this is real life and only a sick individual would be entertained by the mayhem on the streets. However, unlike the TV series, this episode will not be wrapped up neatly in a season-ending finale. For that reason we cannot afford to wait for the next killing of an unarmed Black male by another police officer. We must take concerted action to address the injustice that fuels the anger in Baltimore and challenge the normalization of conditions that should be regarded as an abomination to our ideals.