HBO's "We Own This City" and Baltimore's Long History of Police BrutalityRoundup
tags: African American history, Baltimore, urban history, police brutality, policing
Mary Rizzo is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire.
In the fifth episode of “We Own This City,” David Simon’s television return to Baltimore after the much acclaimed “The Wire,” Nicole Steele, a Justice Department attorney assigned to investigate improper policing in Baltimore, meets with Brian Grabler, a former police officer who is now a teacher at the police academy. By this point in the series, viewers have watched Baltimore police rob, beat, harass and intimidate citizens. Grabler sums up the cause. “Everything changed when they came up with that phrase, ‘the war on drugs.’” With these words, Grabler also summarizes the thesis of the six-episode miniseries, whose last installment aired on Monday on HBO: Since the 1970s, the war on drugs fundamentally changed policing for the worse.
“We Own This City” makes the case through the true story of the downfall of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), an elite unit created in 2007 to reduce the homicide rate. Instead of investigative work, the unit applies tactics learned in fighting the drug war. In the 1990s and early 2000s, to prove they were tough on crime, politicians wanted high arrest numbers. The easiest way to accomplish this was through street sweeps focused on low-level offenders and harassing Black men in known drug areas. Between 2003 to 2006, 100,000 people were arrested annually, nearly one-sixth of Baltimore’s population. The GTTF transferred these tactics to getting guns off the street — both those used in the drug trade and those that were not.
Simon has presented 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 blamed the war on drugs for “slowly undermining the nature of police work itself.”
But there is a problem with Simon’s argument: Black people in Baltimore complained about and fought back against harassment and violence by the police decades before the start of the drug war. While it helped cause the massive growth in the incarceration of Black and Latino men since the 1970s, it cannot explain this longer history of racist policing in Baltimore and cities like it.
While the United States fought World War II against fascism abroad, Black Baltimoreans contended with police brutality at home. On Feb. 1, 1942, Thomas Broadus, an African American soldier, and some friends were going to see Louis Armstrong perform in a West Baltimore club. A White police officer, Edward Bender, intervened as they tried to hail an unlicensed cab. Bender assaulted Broadus, who may have retaliated. Nevertheless, as a gubernatorial commission found, Broadus was fleeing when Bender shot and killed him. While Bender was charged by a grand jury with murder, the charges were later dropped. Broadus was the second Black person killed by Bender and the ninth killed under the administration of police commissioner Robert Stanton.
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