Episode 9: Connections and Tensions

Trying to keep track of all the story lines and motives at play in the Wire is often tricky.  Every character could possibly be connected and probably will be over the course of the show. I tried various thought experiments to encapsulate and explain a theme of this episode. It didn’t work. There are tensions within the drug dealing community, tensions within the police, there is a cop shooting, there is a death in Hamsterdam. All have bearing on the problem of justice and injustice in different ways. This problem with narrowing down the information is definitely part of the problem with understanding justice.  With so many desires competing for attention, questions of right or wrong seem to get buried or set aside.

Having made that particular point, there is an excellent and clear example of the maxim “honour among thieves,” or in this case, drug dealers. Omar is on the wrong side of a Barksdale gun. Should be a simple equation. There’s one problem: it’s Sunday morning: Omar escorts his grandmother to a taxi in full confidence that no one would dare to break the Sunday morning truce. The Barksdale thug, nervous about breaking the Sunday truce phones a superior. Slim Charles is unavailable and the call is forwarded to Stringer Bell who gives the go ahead. They shoot the hat off Omar’s grandmother.  There is a universal sense that this is wrong. Omar is furious; Avon is equally furious.  Stringer Bell has broken the Sunday morning truce. This system that govers the drug dealers seems to be a parallel the justice system that non-criminals subscribe to. There are rules. But the rules are easily broken. And once one rule is broken the rest have no meaning. The house of cards comes sliding down.

A sense of the way a broken system works, or hobbles along can be seen in the rest of the episode. One theme emerges: jumping through hoops to serve justice. Dennis Wise, Lieutenant Daniels and Stringer Bell all have to get a permit for their respective next stages of operation. They want to be legitimate in the eyes of the community, so they each have to get a permit to fulfill the city standards of justice. Dennis wants to start a gym for youth of West Baltimore. He has a location, he has the ambition, but he’s not too savvy on permits. His trip to City Hall brings him nothing but a trip to the next desk. Every official requires some other form before he can begin to actually work on the gym itself. Lt. Daniels has to persuade the prepaid phone company to respond to their court orders for a wiretap in a timely manner. The phone company enjoys the profit from their phones and has no wish to have their operation shut down or limited because it is associated with crime. Stringer Bell needs a permit to become a contractor; his paperwork, prepared by his lawyer is inadequate.

To actually get something done in the system of permits that is a product of the just, or at least, litigious community, requires an underhand, or shady deal. Dennis needs to apply political pressure; the system is not available to serve an average person. The system requires a political figure to push forward an agenda before anything can happen. Alternatively, Lt. Daniels and Rhonda Pearlman apply their own pressure. They appeal to image and threaten to go to the media with a story that the phone company is aiding drug trafficking in Baltimore. Stringer Bell abandons political or public channels and resorts to violence. He drops his civilized demeanor and returns to being a thug, threatening violence to his lawyer if the paper work isn’t in order.

In Baltimore, it appears as though justice is never going to gain the upper hand because justice and the justice system cannot deliver what people desire. The illicit channels bring short term gains. Those with power and influence can make the system work. People like Dennis, who have turned deliberately away from a life of crime, have no recourse in the legal world.  Justice, in the way that the non-criminal society defines it, is unattainable to the average person.  My contention would then be that the blame should be placed on the system. Whatever we call justice is not working if it cannot legally furnish a man like Dennis with the paperwork to set up a gym. So I have just stated that justice and equality of opportunity are related. As I write this, I’m not sure that’s true. But what I feel sure about is that Dennis should be able to get his permit at City Hall without political representation. Or maybe it has to be explicit. For justice to be operating there should be a sign on the doors of city hall advising nobodies with a plan to appeal to a politician before entering City Hall in search of permits.

The other side of the story is that if Baltimore justice cannot cater to people’s desires it is being overworked. People’s desires cannot be satiated if people are demanding unreasonable things.  So, to be part of a system of justice people should rein in their desires. Both sides of the coin are true, I feel: the phone company executives have no sense of justice only of profit, but the municipal system should not force people towards underhand dealings to start a gym or become a developer.

Sarah M.

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