THE WIRE, the HBO television drama about Baltimore and which just ended its fifth and final season, was a huge hit with critics who applauded its gritty depiction of urban life. But as John Atlas and I write in this article published in Dissent magazine, the show’s version of reality was only partly right. The Wire reinforced white middle-class stereotypes of inner-city life.
The show’s writers, producers, and directors believed that they were presenting a radical critique of American society and its neglect of its poor, its minorities, and its cities. But there’s nothing radical about a show that portrays nearly every character—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and/or ineffective. The show’s portrayal of Baltimore buttresses the myth that the poor are mostly drug dealers or users, eternally helpless victims, unable to engage in collective self-help.
THE WIRE’s unrelenting bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities — the significant number of working class people involved in grassroots community, union, and other forms of organizing. In fact, THE WIRE was the opposite of radical; it was hopeless and nihilistic.
In our article, we interview and describe the effective and inspiring work of activists from three of Baltimore’s effective grassroots organizations — BUILD, ACORN, and Justice for Janitors. These organizations and these people — committed activists, who have persisted in the organizing through victories and disappointments, but never succumb to cynicism or corruption—were nowhere to be found in THE WIRE.
Perhaps it is no accident that THE WIRE is ending its five-year run just as the Bush era is ending. As we usher the Bush era out the door, Americans may be ready to feel hopeful again. So the next time a major TV network decides to produce a show about America’s inner cities, some of it major characters will be activists and organizers!
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