Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
We Own This City (HBO mini-series)
developed and written by George Pelecanos and David Simon
directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Leap Day in 1968 bought the Kerner Commission time. Friday, March 1, was supposed to be the day when white Americans would learn from President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., why Black Americans had rebelled in hundreds of cities and towns across the country over the preceding years—from Los Angeles in 1965 and Chicago in 1966 to Newark and Detroit in 1967. But the final draft was still incomplete ahead of the commission’s last scheduled meeting, on February 27.
It was in that meeting that the commission finally approved its iconic conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The auspicious extra day allowed staff to coordinate messaging with reporters and to deliver a copy to the Chicago facilities of Bantam Books, the publisher that promised to print 30,000 paperbacks over the weekend. By Friday morning headlines etched these words into the country’s collective memory. Within a few months, millions of copies would sell bearing these words on its opening pages.
Two societies, separate and unequal: this incantation startled white liberals who were convinced that U.S. society was improving, pushed forward by the moral rectitude of the civil rights movement. As a publishing phenomenon, the Kerner report succeeded. As social science, however, it fell short. The nation was not “moving toward” two societies; it had always been one cleft society to begin with, even after the Civil War brought an end to chattel slavery, and even after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. Cleavage was the condition of American life, not an obstacle to it. Far from a portent of the future, the report’s prognosis was a portrait, of both past and present.
The report also failed politically: no one in the federal government acted upon its central conclusion. Washington would not attempt to ameliorate the poverty, alienation, social degradation, and bigotry the commission identified—at least not at a scale commensurate with the problem, or aiding the populations suffering the most. Johnson, who at the end of March announced his decision not to run for reelection, opted instead to continue the “war on crime” he had declared in 1965. In June he signed the massive Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which enabled Washington to deliver money to local police, prisons, and courts, to the tune of over $7 billion by 1982. In other words, Johnson opted to fund the police, to protect and insulate white society from the Black ghettos it had created. His successor, Richard Nixon, then campaigned on further bolstering law and order, even calling for a “war on drugs” too.
Johnson should have known the Omnibus bill would only make things worse. Louis Goldberg, a young graduate student in sociology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, had told the commission that there were three options going forward: maintaining the faltering status quo through white moderation and token conciliatory gestures, which would likely produce more disorders, as white flight and deindustrialization robbed cities of their tax base; “accelerated” change, which would focus above all on alleviating poverty and police abuse; or the creation of a “garrison state,” in which police operate as if civil war is imminent, as in Apartheid South Africa or during “military occupations.” Johnson, like most of white America, had chosen the garrison state. (Goldberg, for his part, was “undisciplined and sometimes manic,” according to David Boesel, one of his coauthors.)
Just over a month after the Kerner report was released, Baltimore was among the cities racked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Black neighborhoods that went up in flames on the east and west sides of the city have never really recovered—a fact on full display in The Wire (2002–08), the HBO series created by journalist David Simon examining the long aftereffects of Johnson’s war on crime. Celebrating its twentieth anniversary in June, The Wire is among the finest television dramas ever produced. Each of its five seasons focused on a particularly complex criminal enterprise in Baltimore, highlighting how a motley crew of detectives investigated and solved crimes, against a backdrop of political corruption, managerial malfeasance in the police department, and endemic poverty and desolation in the city’s Black neighborhoods. The Wire crafted brilliant scenes, set pieces of memorable dialogue—representing a compendium of poetic aphorisms about urban deindustrialization—spoken by charismatic and unique characters, including the cold-blooded butch lesbian killer, as well as the rumpled, half-sober but ingenious homicide investigator. Perhaps most remarkably, as Odell Hall notes in Ronda Racha Penrice’s recent collection Cracking the Wire During Black Lives Matter (2022), Black people were not just “diversity garnish” on the show; they “fueled The Wire. They were not just hapless victims shuttled between institutions in a perpetual cipher of failure. They were Baltimore’s lifeblood.”
The war on crime in Baltimore is now streaming once again in another of Simon’s creations for HBO. Far from a forgotten graduate student like Goldberg, Simon is the most famous chronicler of Baltimore’s police. His newest show—co-written with George Pelecanos and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green—is a fast-paced, complex, six-part mini-series,We Own This City, based on a book of the same name by journalist Justin Fenton. (There is another fabulous recent book covering similar ground, I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg.)
The series follows the true story of the rise and demise of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a plainclothes police unit dedicated to getting guns off the street, in an effort to slash the city’s eye-popping homicide rates. The GTTF, the series reveals, became a deeply corrupt operation, with members stealing money, guns, jewelry, and drugs; planting evidence; selling stolen drugs; and beating, running over, and otherwise brutalizing Baltimore residents. In 2017 seven members of the task force were indicted on federal racketeering charges, much like those sought against the drug crews depicted in The Wire. Six more were subsequently charged. Over 800 criminal cases resulting from GTTF operations have been affected as well, with charges dropped or convictions vacated.
With The Wire, Simon taught a generation of cable viewers that the way policing works today is bad for society. He was right. What he got wrong was the root cause of policing’s illegitimacy, which he took to be the war on drugs. This conceit runs through We Own This City as well. We get a documentary-like portrayal of the garrison state Goldberg feared; what we don’t get is an accurate representation of the forces of racial division that created and sustain it.
Times have changed since The Wire first aired twenty years ago. The show’s final season came amidst the 2008 financial crisis. Then came Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Freddie Gray, Korryn Gaines. After police killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, activists painted “Defund the Police” on the roadway in front of Baltimore City Hall two years ago. The police budget, accounting for over a quarter of city expenditures, did not decrease. In fact, the city spends more per capita on police than almost any other large city in the country, trailing only nearby Washington, D.C. Yet some neighborhoods of Baltimore are more violent than those of any other city. Baltimore clocked a homicide rate of 58.7 per 100,000 last year, second only to St. Louis, also a deeply segregated city with an unloved police department, and it exceeded 300 murders and 700 shootings.
On the heels of the Baltimore uprising after Gray’s death in 2015, Dave Zirin pointed out that the most noticeable absence in The Wire was social protest: the sense that social movements of Black people had shaped the city, or indeed that Black people had any political consciousness at all. Zirin admitted he had “fanatically loved” the show. The Wire “actually cared about the hopes, dreams, and lives of street criminals and not just cops felt more than radical,” he wrote. “It felt revolutionary.” (I felt the same way.) But in the wake of Gray’s death, he was now
asking a question that I wasn’t before: Why were those fighting for a better Baltimore invisible to David Simon? I don’t mean those fighting on behalf of Baltimore—the (often white) teachers, the social workers, and the good-natured cops who are at the heart of The Wire—but those fighting for their own liberation? Why was The Wire big on failed saviors and short on those trying to save themselves?
In a world of good cops and bad cops, good journalists and bad journalists, good addicts and bad dealers, dying unions and corrupt politicians, there was the truth and there were lies, but there was no motor for social change, for turning the lie of racism into the truth of justice. In fact, there was not much of the social in The Wire at all—just business, bureaucracy, and bullshit. Having become acquainted with Baltimore over the past few years, I can attest the city does feel like that much of the time. But it all has a cause: the maniac effort to make sure white and Black working-class people never unite.
Episodes of this unity have arisen in the past few years—in the campaigns for justice for Tyrone West or Keith Davis, Jr., for instance. But these are effervescent at best. Division is reliable. It’s built into the city, which was designed to make it impossible for white and Black people to co-exist, to intermingle, to cohere. You can read a great book—Paige Glotzer’s How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960 (2020), for example, or Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (2010)—to learn how this situation came about, but you have to walk the streets to learn what it feels like.
Goldberg had walked these streets. He was coauthor of “America on the Brink: White Racism and Black Rebellion,” the seventh and final chapter of a draft report, The Harvest of American Racism, written by a group of social scientists for the Kerner Commission. (The other authors were Boesel, Gary T. Marx, and David Sears, assisted by Betsy Jameson.) Its findings were not wholly incompatible with the final report’s “two societies” argument, but it would be suppressed, and the team fired, for its claim that the urban uprisings of the late ’60s had not been wanton “riots” but tactically sophisticated political rebellions.
Rebels in U.S. cities had a lot in common with national liberation fronts across the globe, these authors argued. Black “antagonism” was “directed at white dominance over Negroes rather than at white people per se,” Goldberg wrote. Yet “in the recurrent clashes between police and Negro youths, the shock troops of the white society meet those of the black.” The garrison state option would only intensify this antagonism:
We might expect to see young militant American-educated Negroes refusing to accept the military occupation of Negro areas. Preferring to ‘die on their feet, rather than live on their knees,’ they will, à la guerrilla movements in other developing areas, go underground, surfacing periodically to engage in terrorist activities.
As in Algeria, guerrilla raids against the occupying force would become the norm. In other words, far from preventing crime, policing threatened to produce it.
The authors of The Harvest of American Racism knew the presidential commission would find their radical analysis unpalatable; they expected their language to be edited and toned down. After completing the first draft, the team partied, toasting Goldberg’s courage and excited at the prospect of a genuine shift in the way the riots were talked about. Yet it was not to be. The Department of Justice and Army rushed a riot-control curriculum into production, drawing from Algeria-inspired special-warfare manuals. For the police learning this newly standardized curriculum, riots were like the weather, their social causes like the climate. Riots might be predicted with intelligence operations, and their intensity could be controlled with tear gas and wedge formations, but no cop could regulate the underlying reasons in the short term. Large-scale riot control affirmed a fundamental principle of counterinsurgency, as one Cold War document put it: “the target is the people,” and it’s their own fault if they don’t fall in line.
Goldberg died young—“at the end of a troubled life,” in Boesel’s words. His chapter went virtually unread until University of Michigan Press published the suppressed draft report in book form fifty years after it was written. It is not insignificant, I like to think, that many of Harvest’s trenchant observations came from a Jewish sociology student at Hopkins, which since 1902 has had a primary campus on the Homewood estate—previously owned by slaveholder Charles Carroll, the richest man of colonial America. After the Holocaust, the university had implemented an enrollment quota on Jews under anti-Semitic president Isaiah Bowman. And of course, Baltimore offers an exquisite vantage point for studying racism and policing, with its apartheid-like levels of racial segregation and the imbalances of life chances that go along with them.
Today, mean life expectancy on either side of Greenmount Avenue at 39th Street, where Tupac Shakur once lived and joined the Young Communist League, declines by a decade as you go east from the white neighborhood to the Black neighborhood. The Wire made the city itself the protagonist of the whole drama—its racially segregated seasons mirroring the city’s racially segregated neighborhoods—but like the city’s elites, its creators were lulled into thinking that everyone would simply accommodate themselves to the garrison state. That the city would never explode. That its two societies, comprising one of the richest metropolitan areas as measured by median income, might remain separate and unequal forever.
In reality, Baltimore has always been a city on the brink of insurrection, with elites always tempted by the garrison state option. The tension began under slavery, when the city was home to a large number of free Black people. The police department was chartered as a state agency, lest Baltimore’s Republicans, Catholics, and free Black people get too cozy, or powerful.
One historian says Baltimore held an “amused tolerance” toward Communists in the 1930s. But the Communists had a goal, which was also a strategy: racial integration of the unions. By the war years, helped by Stalin’s disastrous pact with Hitler, the anticommunists turned their skepticism into a program. “Let’s make this a white man’s union” shouted one antagonist of the Communists in the shipyards. Adopting a line like what you’d hear in a Tucker Carlson rant about “replacement theory” today, the anticommunists argued that the Reds wanted “complete intermingling,” which really meant they wanted “to have all white men replaced by negroes.” (At the time, and even now, some would argue that the Communists were only cynically invested in anti-racism. Yet, as Vaughn Rasberry points out, if this was true, why did they let themselves get destroyed—deported, jailed, killed off—rather than give up a commitment to Black liberation?)
There weren’t too many Communists left by 1982, when Simon began chronicling the Baltimore police for one of the city’s main and mainly white newspapers, the Baltimore Sun. But two years before, a member of the Communist Workers Party did get arrested for writing graffiti on the 28th St. bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway: “Crash the Democr.” That was as far as he got before the cops showed up. (Had the Red Squad, which many thought had been disbanded by then, been following him?) Elsewhere on a decrepit wall, the full slogan read: “Serve Notice To Lying Politicians. Crash the Democratic Convention in New York. Communist Workers Party.” Not very rousing stuff, even in the Democrats’ one-party state of Baltimore, but five party members had been gunned down the prior year in Greensboro in a confrontation with the Klan. It was moot anyway. Reagan won in ’80, intensifying the Cold War. The special-warfare manuals used in riot police trainings in the 1960s would be resurrected in El Salvador. In the new climate, amused tolerance was out of the question, and the prosecutor sought jailtime for the graffiti writers. In the end, the Communist Workers Party member and two friends were forced to pay $1,500 restitution to the owner of an abandoned building. The judge might have explained, on the absentee landlord’s behalf, “we own this city.”
Simon began covering the police in Baltimore before crack exploded but not before the city went to war on drug users. In fact, the war was over a decade old by the time the gumshoe reporter hit the streets. He never experienced a city where the police spent much of their time doing something other than arresting users for possession. By 1972 drug arrests in the city were eight times higher than they had been in 1966. Yet no Simon series is complete without the didactic scene where a crusty old cop with a thick Bawl’mer accent talks about the good old days—when the community trusted the police with information to solve crimes, before the war on drugs that ruined the job and turned an honorable endeavor into a numbers game measured by arrests, “dope on the table,” and guns seized. In We Own This City, the scene appears in the fifth episode, but the viewer has already gotten the point long before.
The new series’ focus, the GTTF, was designed above all to seize guns. The unit originated in 2007; it was created to follow investigatory leads, tracking how Baltimore, with its relatively strict gun regulations, became awash in firearms. At first the work was methodical and boring, requiring investigators to comb spreadsheets and receipts, to identify connections—a lot like the office work that The Wire’s sophisticated special details emphasized as the right way to unravel a criminal conspiracy. But over time the GTTF, as well as related plainclothes units in the city, came to operate only on the street, not tracing the origin point of a gun’s journey but focusing on the last moment, just before it might be used. In this period the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) became obsessed with numbers, boiling effectiveness down to a single metric of arrests. And by 2012, after shake-ups in the department, the most “productive” officers in the GTTF and related units all had questionable reputations. But the arrest imperative kept them on the street, engaged in high-adrenalin street stops and busting down doors. Their effectiveness insulated them from internal affairs investigations, and by 2016, the GTTF had become the home unit for a complement of cops who were actually robbers. These officers all eventually got sent to prison, and the department has been in a tailspin ever since.
We Own This City follows the career of Wayne Jenkins, for a decade one of the most corrupt cops the city has ever seen and one of the best—better than the rookie who refuses to skim at Jenkins’s suggestion, and better than the out-of-town detectives who initiated the investigation that would unravel it all. Simon doesn’t seem to know what to do with this fact. The BPD assembled its most elite and most effective unit by linking its most corrupt officers.
The GTTF proved so effective because the officers never needed to follow the threadbare Fourth Amendment. The unit’s goal was only incidentally to prosecute people; it was, above all, getting guns off the street. But once you are making seizures that don’t adhere to policy and procedure meant to make them stand up in court, you are simply stealing. Lucky for them, drug dealers don’t call the cops on cops who steal cash or drugs. And as for the rest, the regular Black folks robbed during street stops? Maryland’s civil asset forfeiture laws are on the side of cops. They don’t need to secure conviction for the state to keep seized assets. GTTF members simply chose to keep the state out of it.
Or at least out of possession of the stolen goods. Cops can’t really keep the state out of their actions: they are its most mundane embodiment. To say these cops went rogue lets the state, and the class relations it manages, off the hook. Commanders knew what would happen with Jenkins in charge of the GTTF; Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere had protected him. The state had issued his commission, which endowed him with the legitimate prerogative to claim a “monopoly on violence” in the streets of Baltimore, as Max Weber might have put it.
Jenkins was not the smartest cop, nor was he even the most racist. (Another top contender in the corruption contest, Daniel Hersl, eventually also on the GTTF, defended himself by mentioning his Black wife when the daughter of someone he robbed called him a racist.) In fact, We Own This City makes Jenkins into a somewhat lovable psychopath, insecure around his buddies and fond of strippers but a family man as devoted to his kids as to his brothers and sisters on the force. He is also a type City Hall knows well, because almost every mayor since the 1970s has fallen prey to them: the showman scammer who can plot out ten steps of a scam before the scammed even takes the bait. Usually these schemers are developers, promising to turn the city around, and City Hall usually gives them tax breaks. Jenkins was just a cop, but the city still gave him plenty of tax dollars—as overtime.
We Own This City illustrates the consequences of Jenkins’s and Hersl’s cavalier approach. They rob one drug dealer of cash that he owes to another; he is shot dead as a result. During the 2015 uprising, Jenkins, always on the scent of opportunity, stops two kids who are robbing a pharmacy. He frightens them into leaving their bounty behind. Jenkins then funnels two garbage bags full of pills onto the black market, a massive amount of opioids in a city with an unquenchable taste for them. Around 315,000 drug doses went missing during the uprising, according to an official investigation into the GTTF. Harder to prove is the long tail: the users overdosing on fentanyl after the supply of pills has run out or the people gunned down a decade later, after coming home from a bid in state prison, over a debt never repaid because of a theft for which Jenkins or Hersl never got caught.
Anyone can understand why all of this corruption was wrong. In fact, the Department of Justice’s civil rights team was already on the ground in Baltimore as the GTTF’s scheme played out, trying to determine whether there was a “pattern and practice” of racist, unconstitutional policing in the city. There was, the DOJ found, and it led to a “consent decree,” which the city signed in 2017 but which Jeff Sessions didn’t care to enforce. Its effects remain unclear to this day, though the current commissioner believes it has meant “substantial progress.”
We Own This City weaves the DOJ investigation together with the story of the GTTF. In reality, although the DOJ knew about Hersl, it was not really aware of the GTTF, and no one in the department deigned to enlighten the investigators. Some critics of the consent decree use this absence to discredit the DOJ report, released in August 2016, as if the DOJ needed more evidence of malfeasance. The report pointed out that at the peak of the BPD’s effort to imitate Michael Bloomberg’s NYPD, it made over 300,000 pedestrian stops in a city of 600,000, with 124,000 stops in 2014 alone, the year before the uprising. The idea was to make it more likely that you got frisked or arrested than shot when you stepped outside your home. These stops, which were the foundation upon which the GTTF was built, did have an effect on “crime.” It went down, unless you count unconstitutional stops as crime. And the GTTF did make crime decline—unless you count stealing drugs, planting evidence, and killing bystanders.
The point of We Own This City is that the focus on numbers led the BPD astray, away from its proper focus on stopping crime. Yet the GTTF itself did not invent the strategy of investigations with no goal of conviction, of warrantless wiretaps and targeted harassment. Instead, the intelligence unit of the Baltimore police department’s Inspectional Services Division (ISD) did, taking cues from J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Created in the late 1960s, the ISD answered to the police commissioner, Donald D. Pomerleau, a former Marine. Its purpose was to intimidate journalists and other critics and to disrupt political organizing, both across Baltimore’s racial lines and among more moderate and more radical Black organizations. Pomerleau even used it on the police department itself, as organizers tried to form an AFL-CIO–affiliated union in the early 1970s.
There was thus no halcyon period for Baltimore police, when cops obtained the trust of Black Baltimore. The governor brought in Pomerleau because the department’s numbers were both unreliable and abysmal. His primary task was to change the crime stats. First, he needed to make them accurate, then he needed to make them go down. Instead, he claimed that as long as they kept going up, they were still inaccurate.
Baltimore remains in Pomerleau’s shadow. It often feels like it is composed of two societies, separate and unequal, perhaps declining together but at different rates. But as long as the city remains captive to a narrative of decline that casts the police department, now led by a Black commissioner, as innocent victim, rather than willing catalyst, it will be trapped, unable to resolve the problem. The BPD, We Own This City almost shows us, does not exist to stop crime or keep us safe, even if Simon’s favorite officers believe that is why they suit up in uniform. For well over a hundred years, it has existed to prevent a rebellion it cannot name because it cannot imagine it within the contours of the existing city: a desegregated rebellion; a rebellion against segregation; desegregation as rebellion.
In the final episode of the series, a white male DOJ lawyer asks the right question to an exasperated Black female colleague, but the show never answers it: What is the point of the war on drugs? Simon would have us believe that cracking down on drugs is the main thing police do nowadays, and if only they left that goal behind, policing would become more just, and police would be more accountable to Black Baltimore. It seems like Simon needs the war on drugs more than the cops do. It is his master explanation of what is wrong with policing, even though it was not the GTTF’s primary campaign. Why did the Baltimore Police Department not improve after the rebellion of April 1968? The war on drugs. Why did it not improve after 2015? The war on drugs. Take that away and you could fix the problem.
But the war on drugs was and is merely a pretext for what police would do anyway. It was an invention, on a global scale, to transform what became illegitimate amid the upheavals of the 1960s—brute repression—into something that everyone could basically agree on, uniting police and military, foreign policy and domestic governance. Control narcotics at the source, and you can control peasants in the global countryside. Control narcotics at the point of demand, and you can control the alienated urban masses. The war on drugs: just counterinsurgency by another name.
The Harvest of American Racism advised against the creation of a garrison state because of the rebels it would produce. Right after the Kerner report came out, Baltimore’s garrison state did produce a militant Black underground for a short while. The Black Panther Party’s Baltimore chapter organized for self-determination and faced overwhelming repression as a result. (The chapter’s original sin? It was founded by an informant.) Those years before the war on drugs that drives Simon mad were when Pomerleau’s ISD helped to destroy the Baltimore Panthers.
The Black Panther Party became world famous for its willingness, articulated initially by Huey P. Newton, to read into the Constitution a right to armed self-defense against the police. The Panthers contested the state’s claim to the legitimate monopolization of instruments of violence. In city after city, they were largely eliminated as a result: killed, jailed, forced into exile, converted to neoconservatism. Today the easy lure of the gun remains, devoid of the organizing ideology that animated the Panthers. Perhaps Goldberg was right: dying on your feet is preferable to living on your knees.
The cry heard nowadays at protests isn’t “We own this city” but “Whose streets? Our streets!” During the Baltimore uprising of 2015, it meant the refusal to accept the police department’s ongoing occupation of the city. It meant popular approval among the dispossessed of West Baltimore for behaviors that the police coded as disorder; what they tried to suppress in grabbing Freddie Gray off the corner was an everyday form of fugitivity and resistance that became criminalized in the context of this occupation. Like the French military that Goldberg was considering, most Baltimore cops live far outside the city. They drive the streets in oversized trucks with tinted windows and Pennsylvania plates—yes, like they own it—running red lights, flexcuffs hanging from their rearview mirrors as a taunt.
This is what We Own The City misunderstands about history. Jenkins’s phrase “we own this city” could have been flipped into a rallying cry for self-determination; the series could have been about a contestation over who has a “right to the city,” in the words of Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Instead the antagonists are the well-meaning lawyers working for the Department of Justice. The disorganized and hell-raising teens of West Baltimore depicted in The Wire are mostly invisible here outside scenes of uprising, which appear to come out of nowhere. (Goldberg might have been thinking of these kids when he wrote, in a different publication, about Black rioters of the 1960s: “they are interested not in killing policemen, but in humiliating them.”) In fact, the police suspected the uprising was coming and even encouraged it, hoping to contain it to West Baltimore, miles from the city center. The scenes we get are mostly a vehicle for showing Jenkins’s complexity—his willingness to step to the front of the police line, his generosity in buying food for the exhausted troops, his opportunism at the looted pharmacy. We see the city through police eyes.
The concept of the “garrison state,” originally developed by political scientist Harold Lasswell, has fallen out of favor. Today we might speak instead of police militarization—or simply, fascism. But the GTTF wasn’t really militarized. With limitless discretion, the GTTF was a police unit through and through.
Lasswell was a liberal, who hoped that social conflict could be eliminated progressively. As he saw it, the garrison state was a situation where social conflict had been largely eradicated, but at the expense of liberal values. What We Own This City gets right is that these values have been eroded across parts of Baltimore. But it is wrong to suggest that they could ever have been the boon of policing, or that corrupt individuals like Jenkins are to blame for its demise. The intensity of the police response to the racial justice rallies and protests across the country in 2020 was not only a function of their core demand—to defund the police—but of their multiracial, multiclass character, and their appearance in small towns as much as in cities. In short, their democratic popularity beckoned illiberalism.
We Own This City illustrates the United States in microcosm today: a society in collapse because the security forces entrusted to protect its core liberal values—tolerance, freedom of association and speech, the consent of the governed—actually reject them as threats to security. Since the late 1960s, across the country, capital and state have put up caution tape, anxious to keep white and Black America apart: POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS. That is the more fundamental and systemic crime that should be Simon’s story—maintaining a social order by dividing it in two, still separate and unequal. Yet the police line will never be only a quarantine. It is also a tether.
Stuart Schrader is Associate Research Professor at the Center for Africana Studies and Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, & Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (2019).
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.