HBO’s ‘We Own This City’ exposes police brutality in Baltimore

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In the fifth episode of “We Own This City,” David Simon’s televised return to Baltimore after the highly acclaimed “The Wire,” Nicole Steele, a Justice Department attorney assigned to investigate police abuses in Baltimore, meets Brian Grabler, a former police officer who is now a teacher at the police academy. At this point in the series, viewers have seen Baltimore police rob, beat, harass, and intimidate citizens. Grabler summarizes the cause. “Everything changed when they came up with this phrase, ‘the war on drugs’.” With these words, Grabler also sums up the thesis of the six-episode miniseries, the final episode of which aired Monday on HBO: Since the 1970s, the War on Drugs has fundamentally changed policing for the worse.

“We own this town” makes the case through the true story of the fall of the Firearms Tracing Working Group (GTTF), an elite unit created in 2007 to reduce the homicide rate. Instead of investigative work, the unit applies tactics learned in the fight against the war on drugs. In the 1990s and early 2000s, to prove they were tough on crime, politicians wanted high arrest numbers. The easiest way to do this was to conduct street sweeps focusing on low-level offenders and harassing black men in areas of known drug use. Between 2003 and 2006, 100,000 people were arrested every year, nearly one-sixth of Baltimore’s population. The GTTF transferred these tactics to get guns off the streets – both those used in the drug trade and those that weren’t.

Simon has made this argument before, both in the fictional series “The Wire” and in his nonfiction book, “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood,” in which he blames war against drugs for “slowly undermining the very nature of policing.

But there’s a problem with Simon’s argument: Black people in Baltimore complained and fought back against police harassment and violence decades before the war on drugs began. While this has contributed to the massive growth in the incarceration of black and Latino men since the 1970s, it cannot explain this long history of racist policing in Baltimore and cities like it.

As the United States fought fascism abroad during World War II, black Baltimoreans faced police brutality at home. On February 1, 1942, Thomas Broadus, an African-American soldier, and some friends were going to see Louis Armstrong perform at a club in West Baltimore. A white police officer, Edward Bender, intervened as they attempted to hail an unlicensed taxi. Bender assaulted Broadus, who may have retaliated. Nonetheless, as a commission from the governor discovered, Broadus was fleeing when Bender shot and killed him. While Bender was charged with murder by a grand jury, the charges were later dropped. Broadus was the second black person killed by Bender and the ninth killed during the administration of Police Commissioner Robert Stanton.

The NAACP, black press and other leading civil rights groups in Baltimore rallied against an injustice that particularly stinged because black soldiers like Broadus were risking their lives to fight for a government that refused to protect them from police brutality. Two thousand blacks joined a caravan in Annapolis to confront Governor Herbert R. O’Conor. (The Baltimore Police Department was controlled by the governor at the time.) They demanded the hiring of more black police officers, which they said would end such indiscriminate brutality – a belief that history s turned out to be false. At the time of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 after sustaining a serious neck injury in police custody, the Baltimore Police Department was 40 percent Black.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement embroiled police and Baltimore blacks in repeated public disputes, as police arrested protesters who put their bodies at risk against segregation. Although there were no clashes as dramatic as those in Birmingham, Alabama, where police threw fire hoses at peaceful protesters in 1963, these arrests made it clear that the police represented a state. racist who supported segregation.

Beyond those public interactions, the kind of police harassment that precipitated Broadus’ death remained common. We know this from a 1960s poetry magazine called Chicory in which black Baltimoreans documented such incidents.

In “Go homepublished in the first issue in 1966, a young black man, Horace “Turk” Hazelton, describes a random stop by Baltimore police long before the stop and search. Turk writes: “You got me a thing / with a cop / after I walked my girlfriend / home they picked me / on the street you go / at this time of night.”

When he wonders why he is being harassed just for being on the streets at night, the policeman shows his control over Turk’s body by searching it. “He kicked me and pushed me with his gun,” writes Turk. When the officer sheathes his gun, Turk runs for his life, “frenziedly banging into dark doors.” This poem and others, in which ordinary people described how officers intimidated them, ignored those who needed help, and used force inappropriately, offered a record of police harassment of black Baltimoreans.

Not all policing was on the street. Police have also used surveillance technology to track people suspected of involvement in illegal activities — or, as Baltimore’s history shows, completely legal activities like political protests and rallies. From 1966 to 1982, Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau created an elite task force within the Inspection Services Division (ISD) that monitored the supposedly subversive activities of 125 different groups, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Black Panther Party. Using wiretapping, photography, group infiltration and phone recordings, ISD agents were so over the top that one warned relatives never to stop at a political rally out of curiosity as they would be added to the division’s extensive data collection operation.

ISD heavily targeted black people and organizations; In 1970, 150 police raided the small headquarters of the Baltimore Black Panther Party. Pomerleau even briefly got a judge to ban the distribution of the group’s newspaper in the city. Black radicals were not the only victims. Police also surveilled liberal civil rights activists and even political leaders like Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) and State Sen. Clarence Mitchell III.

Like the gun-tracing task force described in “We Own This Town,” ISD victims have complained to authorities of overreach. But even after a state Senate committee released a report confirming the victims’ accusations, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D) and Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel (D) played down the findings, instead making the praise for Pomerleau, who remained commissioner until 1982. Then and now, politicians have courted the support of the police, standing by them even in the face of flagrant irregularities.

This story makes it clear that anti-black policing in Baltimore long predates the War on Drugs. But though Simon’s work missed – and in “We Own This City” misses again – that historical backstory, the show’s critique of the police is still critically important. Simon is more than a journalist or a television writer and producer. Given his huge platform on HBO and on Twitter, where he has over 332,000 followers, he is perhaps one of the most powerful liberal voices on urban issues today.

“The Wire” was the subject of college courses and scholarly books that see it as an acerbic critique of contemporary urban institutions. Simon himself wrote that he hoped “The Wire” could lead to “redress and reconsider certain policies and prioritiesby those in power. Excerpt from “The Corner” to “The Wire” on “We Own This City,” no political issue needed reconsideration for him more than the war on drugs. And Simon is absolutely right. The War on Drugs has been a disaster, especially for communities of color.

But if we ended the war on drugs tomorrow, Baltimore’s history shows us that it wouldn’t necessarily make policing better for Baltimoreans of color. To bring about real change, we must understand the historical role of the police as forces focused on controlling and monitoring black communities, which are still considered potentially criminal.

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