Tag Archives: The Wire

It’s Not You, It’s Me

11 Aug

A few weeks ago, Rachel Strohm wrote two exploratory pieces on the similarities between violence and its prevention in Iraq and Chicago and Boston and Mexico, respectively. The pieces got me thinking, because comparing domestic and foreign violence is a topic I really like and one I’ve written about before (here and here), but it’s taken me awhile to sort out my thoughts. This post is a bit scattered, but if you stay with it, I promise I have a point at the end.

Replicable violence prevention programs

I just finished David Kennedy‘s Don’t Shoot, which details the author’s experiences over many years of working to prevent inner-city gun violence. In the book, Kennedy argues that gun violence in inner-cities is really all about gangs. To stop homicides, you make it clear to gangs that if they kill anyone, law enforcement will come down with everything they got. The first gang that does kill anyone then gets decimated by raids and tough prosecution. Gangs then get the message that while they can continue operating, they absolutely cannot use murder to achieve their aims.

Kennedy was one of the major players in Operation Ceasefire, which was enormously effective in reducing gun homicides in Boston in the 90’s, and Strohm cites Ceasefire via this Dan Snyder piece that recommends a similar approach against Mexican cartels. At the end of Strohm’s piece, she asks whether Ceasefire-style tactics might work against rebel groups. In Mexico, there is an argument for Ceasefire-style tactics, but there are also reasons that we could expect it to be much less effective. Ceasefire relies on the issuing of credible threats by law enforcement, and since cartels frequently possess superior firepower than the Mexican state, delivering enforcement promises may be difficult. Additionally, Ceasefire relied heavily on changing social norms within cities’ tight-knit gang networks, but it’s unclear to me after reading Kennedy’s book if a similar approach could work in Mexico, where cartels are spread over vast areas.

For rebel groups in general, I don’t see how Ceasefire-style tactics could be effective. The government would have to have the ability to militarily combat the rebel group without engendering resistance through excessive brutality. Perhaps, focusing on the most violent actors within a rebel group could send a message to other members, but finding the right balance of force and restraint would be very challenging for states lacking the relative unity, force, and intelligence-gathering apparatuses of America’s police departments.

Perceptions of the transformative power of violence

Strohm’s post on Iraq and Chicago, which I haven’t really mentioned yet, ponders leaders’ perception of the ability of American violence to change societies, illuminating a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, many prominent American pundits continue to promote the idea that Iraq can be/could have been fundamentally altered through US military might (despite all evidence to the contrary), “What does interest me about all of this is why foreign policy hawks continue to believe that this type of transformation is possible.  I don’t just mean ‘why haven’t they read their history’ or ‘why are they so arrogant,’ but rather ‘through which causal mechanisms do they believe that American money and troops can overcome sectarian divides, build a strong state and prevent violent rebellion?'” On the other, there is a consensus that the violence on Chicago’s South Side is natural, impervious to outside intervention. These dual approaches represent a paradox. Strohm again, “The place where the US government should in principle have the most policy leverage is where violence is depicted as uncontrollable, while the place where US leverage is limited by Iraqi sovereignty and, oh yes, the fact of being an invading force, is where American policy is expected to be most transformative.”

Without any specialist knowledge, it seems likely to me that a belief in the military abroad but not the police at home stems from cognitive biases. The more familiar we are with a situation, the more likely we are to understand why it exists and expect it to continue in perpetuity. However, the less familiar we are with a country’s history, the more likely we are to see any action our side takes as decisive, because we don’t understand the other important players.

Out of Iraq, Mexico, and Chicago, the latter would seem the place most likely for an armed intervention to positively shape the situation. However, Chicago’s homicide rate remains startlingly high. Surely, as Kennedy argues persuasively in Don’t Shoot, there is nothing inherent about certain cities that make violence high. While set in the general context of urban poverty, it is relatively flexible gang networks that determine the murder rate.

The problems of our own institutions

While Kennedy’s stories certainly gave me hope that there is a realistic way to combat inner-city gun violence (which could certainly teach us more lessons about violence prevention in general than the few I sketched out above), the often optimistic tone of the book is undercut by some serious and repeated failures. The original Operation Ceasefire, for example, fell apart due to the crumbling of the inter-agency cooperation required to do Ceasefire effectively. Consequently, gun homicides shot up again in Boston. Boston is not alone in failing to maintain a Ceasefire-style program. In my reading, Kennedy doesn’t fully acknowledge the systematic nature of the initiatives’ failings. Many of the Ceasefire-style programs were held together by exceptional amounts of interpersonal work that left Kennedy exhausted. Kennedy is adamant that these types of initiatives can work anywhere in America, but he doesn’t propose a strategy other than relentless mediation that can sustain the necessary cooperation.

Without denying the many successes of programs Kennedy participated in across the United States, his book also reads like a case study on the frequent dysfunction of American governmental institutions. It only gets mentioned once in the book, but nothing I’ve ever come across gets at this issue quite as well as The Wire. The show, while generous to its characters, is incredibly cynical about the possibilities for progressive change in America’s inner-cities. In season three, good-guy cop Colvin proposes his Hamsterdam plan to essentially legalize drug-dealing in a small area of Baltimore to stop the police wasting time and putting themselves in danger on low-level busts. The plan isn’t Ceasefire, but shares some similarities. The plan fails when the news reaches the media, forcing politicians to crack down in order to save face. Colvin’s plan was a sensible initiative that ran up against city politics institutionally incapable of supporting good drug policy.

Ceasefire suffers from some of the same vulnerabilities. It requires prosecutors and police to functionally crack down on some drug dealers and not others at particular times, and could feasibly be accused of containing Hamsterdam’s same fatal flaws. If politicians, cops, or prosecutors begin to doubt the program’s effectiveness, it can all fall apart. And while the Hamsterdam incident is revealing of The Wire‘s beliefs on political change, no episode is more crushing than the series finale. Without giving too much away, despite the best intentions of numerous individuals to break the negative cycle, it repeats itself, this time with new protagonists. For The Wire‘s creators, inner-city Baltimore is a machine that unceasingly produces poverty, corruption, and violence. Those wishing to change the cycle, including those coming from the outside, are quickly sucked in and co-opted by the machine. Fittingly, in the end of his Baltimore chapter, after suffering rampant in-fighting and ultimate failure in the city, Kennedy writes, “I don’t know how to control the good guys.”

This leads me to an important, if obvious point. Whether it be in Chicago or Iraq, the challenge of stopping violence is about both the intervener’s institutions and the difficulties presented by the target society. In Iraq, the problems presented by Iraqi society would have made it very difficult for any intervening force to make a difference, but American institutions also failed to create the internal conditions most conducive to making change. The same lesson holds true in Mexico. The cartel’s tactical superiority makes enforcement difficult, but the thorough corruption of the Mexican state makes even attempting enforcement challenging. In Chicago however, one could make a reasonable argument it is entirely about the intervener’s institutions. If what Kennedy proposes is true (and I’m strongly inclined to believe it is), then a fairly simple plan could drastically reduce gun violence in Chicago. Because that plan exists and is fairly well-known among US law enforcement, it is these formal institutions, as compared to the informal institutions of Chicago’s gangs, that carry the culpability for astronomical homicide rates. Now, obviously Chicago law enforcement is not the root cause of gun violence in Chicago. But if we’re talking in terms of making change, the breakdown is occurring with the intervener’s capacity to implement and carry-out a plan, rather than the target society’s pushback (even if the two are connected at some level).

When originally conceiving this post, I had thought about heavily citing James Scott’s theories on the limits of transformative state power. However, I realized Scott and Kennedy are coming at the same problem from different directions. For Scott, the inherent complexity of society makes it impossible for the state to control many things about society. For Kennedy, eliminating violence is impossible, but pulling certain levers within gang networks can lead to radical change. The challenges for the intervention are internal.

Scott’s work is certainly helpful for thinking about why states, or other organizations, fail to accomplish certain goals. However, without downplaying  the importance of Scott, his framework is a limited one. Scott defines failure in terms of programs that are implemented and do not accomplish their goals, but doesn’t examine why certain programs with transformative goals are sometimes never implemented at all (there’s also a case that Scott erroneously sees all government failure as due to external, and not internal, problems). The institutions themselves, rather than the society they serve, may be the primarily source of failure.

To fully understand why violence prevention initiatives fails, it’s necessary to combine the Kennedy approach and the Scott approach. However, academia seems to largely be on the right track. There are large bodies of work both on why societies are resistant to change, and literature like Young, Autesserre, and Ferguson on international institutions’ deficiencies.

Strohm’s post on Iraq focused on policymakers, and I think that the problems lie with this group. For example, policymakers regularly speak of a foreign policy toolbox, without examining the situation-specific effectiveness of those tools. Overcoming that barrier is just the first step, though. Policymakers and pundits, especially those recommending violence prevention plans or military interventions, should more strongly consider the possibility that “effectiveness” is a two-sided coin, requiring both effective institutions and societies conducive to deep change. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a grudging acceptance of the latter, but I fear few take the former seriously. By seriously, I mean that it is not just that the American governmental bureaucracy has some problems, but that government bureaucracies in the 21st century state-system are unprepared to launch effective interventions to prevent or mitigate violence, at home or abroad.

Irregular Conflict and Cartel Dynamics in The Wire

5 Mar

The Wire, praised as the best TV series of all time, has inspired its fair share of academic analysis.  Multiple universities have devoted entire classes to exploring themes such as poverty and drug policy through the medium of David Simon’s creation.  The journal darkmatter even published an entire issue devoted to analysis of The Wire.  Recently, Joseph Young rightly nominated The Wire as one of the three best TV series in its portrayal of political violence.  However, I have not come across any blog posts or articles that analyze the show’s depiction of the dynamics of violence.  The show is chalk-full of useful examples, but because a complete study of violence in the Wire would require an entire book, I’ll limit myself to four examples that speak to broader themes of irregular conflict and cartel dynamics.

The first example comes from Season 3.  Stringer Bell, the archetypal illicit businessman, realizes that competition for corners among various gangs is driving down drug quality and decreasing overall income.  He proposes a drug co-op, with the goal of providing access to the best quality drugs for multiple gangs.[1]  Income levels are then high enough that gangs no longer need to fight over corners, and disputes are encouraged to be aired before the groups, lest violence ruin the money-making enterprise.  Mexican drug cartels often  pursue a similar strategy.  Especially when it’s unclear who would win a violent encounter, it makes perfect business sense to work together.  The need to resolve disputes peacefully and internally occurs in other contexts.  For civilians living through insurgencies, if they are to escape large-scale violence, they must prevent internal disputes from leading to a divided community siding with different armed actors.  For Kaplan, dispute resolution leads to civilian protection.  For Stringer, it’s all about business.

The problem for Stringer is that the motives of others, and mostly importantly his boss Avon Barksdale, do not correspond simply to business.[2]  In a revealing exchange, Avon says to Stringer, “I ain’t no suit-man business-man like you.  You know I’m just a gangster, I suppose.  And I want my corners.”  Barksdale is less driven by a desire to simply make money than a personal code that dictates how the leader of a drug organization should act.  A co-op might make economic sense, but for Barksdale, it’s uncharted territory he doesn’t fully understand.  Cartels often face this dilemma.  While they are ostensibly business entities, they recruit individuals for their violent ability.  These individuals often choose to pursue violence for its own sake rather than using violence to achieve specific economic objectives.  Secondly, the co-op causes its own problem.  Stringer does his best to create a veneer of legitimacy through money laundering, real estate development, and political connections, but this forces him into conflict with a whole new set of characters.  When corrupt State Senator Clay Davis fails to come through for Stringer, Stringer orders Slim Charles to kill him.  Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale successfully object because of the chaos killing a senator would cause, leading to serious friction within the gang.  Bell describes himself as a businessman, but he fails to recognize the potential consequences of his actions when his ambitions are stymied.

One of the series’ most terrifying characters is Snoop, a young hitwoman for the Stanfield organization (which largely replaces the Barksdale organization as the dominant drug-dealing force at the end of the third season).  Her proclivity for violence is sometimes as asset for Stanfield’s crew, but it also occasionally gets her into trouble.[3]  Following the demise of the Barksdale organization, some drug dealers from New York move down the coast and take up residence in Baltimore.  Snoop, and her partner in crime Chris, are directed to violently eliminate the New York dealers, partly out of an economic logic and partly because of a “tribal” desire to keep outsiders from making money in Baltimore.  However, because Snoop and Chris do not personally know every street-level dealer they devise a strategy to tell Baltimore and New York corner boys apart.  Chris proposes they ask unknown dealers questions about Baltimore-specific music to figure out their origin.  They first time they try this tactic, the dealer in question answers Snoop’s query about a particular DJ, but doesn’t give the answer Chris had earlier stated.  Snoop quickly puts the gun to his head and is about to pull the trigger when Chris stops her.  The named DJ is another Baltimore DJ that Snoop herself had never heard of.

While Chris’ and Snoop’s tactic is certainly fraught with problems, it also demonstrates the identification problem perfectly, the central dilemma for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Soldiers fighting irregular wars face a chronic lack of information, and are therefore usually unable to figure out with certainty who is collaborating with whom.  Combatants rarely even have the ability to tell if the denunciations they receive are truthful.  Kalyvas writes that the majority of collaborators during civil wars escape denunciation, while the majority of those punished for collaboration are innocent.  Even though Snoop and Chris are able to tell drug-dealers (combatants) and non-drug-dealers (noncombatants) apart, they are nonetheless unable to correctly evaluate intelligence (see footnoote three) or differentiate between allies and enemies.

In “Unconfirmed Reports”, the second episode of the fifth season, Snoop and the young hitman Michael have one of the most interesting exchanges in the series.  They are on a mission to kill June Bug, who has been spreading rumors about Marlo Stanfield being a homosexual.[4]  Michael, who has a gentle side, questions Snoop over why the killing is necessary if Marlo is not in fact gay.  Snoop replies that it’s not about whether Stanfield is actually gay, but whether people think he’s gay.  On one hand, Snoop grasps that need for reputational violence.  If Marlo Stanfield is perceived as weak, then rivals are more likely to cooperate to target him.  On the other hand, Snoop’s comment demonstrates the extremely violent and paranoid nature of the Stanfield organization.  Any backtalk or perceived disloyalty is lethally punished.  Stringer, for example, was more willing to tolerate small deviations from the Barksdale line if it didn’t result in a loss of revenue.  For the Stanfield organization, loyalty is a black and white issue, but ultimately this harms its business interests.  Some of its best dealers, like Bodie, are killed for (incorrectly) perceived collaboration with the police, while the co-op starts to fall apart because of Marlo’s inability to share power.

Eventually, the Stanfield organization falls apart as a direct consequence of its extremely violent nature.  Unlike Mexico’s Los Zetas, which have the ability to publicly demonstrate their brutality, the Stanfield organization is unable to successfully execute the same tactic.  Los Zetas’ tactical superiority over the Mexican armed forces and their extensive corruption network provide them protection not afforded to Marlo Stanfield.  Ultimately, brutal violence attracts the attention of law enforcement, and they don’t have the ability to fend off the police.

The last episode of the series centers around the demise of the Stanfield organization.  Marlo’s fall, however, opens up opportunities for personal promotion through violence.  We see Michael, now freed from his organizational shackles, violently rob another drug dealer, while Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff as Baltimore’s drug dealers try to re-institute the co-op.  This is no accident.  Cartel fragmentation is a major cause of drug violence in Mexico, and the writers of The Wire get the dynamics of gang breakup spot-on.  Every viewer of the series was rooting for Detectives McNulty and Freamon in their seemingly impossible battle against the Stanfield organization, but ultimately, as the series unflinchingly shows, their efforts are entirely in vain.  Other dealers and organizations pop up to take their place, and significant violence occurs during the transition.  McNulty and Freamon, despite their heroic qualities, are agents of a counterproductive drug policy.  The irony of this is certainly not lost on David Simon.

The genius of the Wire is that it is able to compellingly demonstrate the corrosive organizational effects of violence and the many drivers of human behaviors.  No individual is completely free from cultural, normative, and institutional effects or is singularly good or evil.  The result is a cast of complex characters grappling with their often incredibly challenging circumstances.  Its portrayal of violence is an extension of its nuanced characters, and few TV shows or movies can plausibly claim to come close to its excellence.[5]  The dynamics of violence for the drug gangs is fascinating, but it would certainly take at least another 1700-word blog post to sufficiently examine the dynamics and politics of police action in the series.  For example, the portrayal of Colvin’s attempt to end the War on Drugs is brutally crushed by city politics which is unable to tolerate a sensible drug policy.[6]  Wish I had time to write that piece as well.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] It’s fascinating that the co-op always meets in a fancy hotel’s conference room.  Though Stringer Bell angrily tears up meeting minutes taken by a younger drug dealer, they never seem to have serious security concerns.  In fact, they are probably more secure meeting outside of the neighborhoods they deal in because rivals will be less comfortable attacking them there (think Omar robbing Marlo Stanfield at a back-room poker game) and police can less feasibly arrest them on dubious charges.

[2] Much later in the series, a new incarnation of the co-op is imperiled when Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff.   Again, a co-op makes economic sense, but a desire for revenge supersedes greed.

[3] It also gets her killed.  She and Chris assume that it must be Michael snitching on them, even though in reality information was obtained through a semi-legal wiretap.  Perhaps it was a reasonable assumption with imperfect information, but it also fits into a general pattern in which Snoop shot first and asked questions later.

[4] The politics of gender here are also really interesting, because while calling Marlo gay is a slur, Snoop is a lesbian.

[5] Personally, I’m undecided on whether The Wire or Friday Night Lights is better.

[6] Ellis Carver says of the War on Drugs, “You can’t even call this shit a war.  Wars end.”