Going Off Book

I’m going to make a detour from The Wire in order to talk about The Wire, so I hope you guys can stick with me. For those looking for some good conversations about #47, go here or here. For 46, here’s the archive.

I imagine that more than a few readers of this blog have seen Street Fight, the 2005 documentary by newcomer Marshall Curry that followed the 2002 Sharpe James/Cory Booker Newark mayoral race. I just watched it the other night, and it is absolutely amazing. I’m not spoiling anything when I say that, as you all do or should know, Booker lost that election, but went on to win in the biggest landslide in Newark history in 2006. Of course, his landslide got an extra edge when, eight weeks before the election, James dropped out the race.


James is the kind of political figure that you can’t even believe is real. As of 2002, the man had been in city politics for over 30 years and had held the mayoral seat for something like 16. He had the approval of the NJ Democratic machine as well as an endorsement from Al Sharpton. But he ran Newark like a mafia don. If businesses put Booker signs in their windows, they were closed down; Booker campaign volunteers kept their names secret for fear of reprisal. Their campaign trailer was broken into and books with names of supporters stolen; when the police came, they suggested that the place be swept for bugs. (During Booker’s term as a City Councilmen, his phone was tapped.)

But what was most astonishing was the lies. Sure, sure, I can hear you saying, Politicans lie. Get over it. But the lies James told in this campaign were beyond the pale and, because he also happened to control the city, were allowed without consequence. When Booker had 3 million in his coffers (the same amount as James), James would constantly reference his “10 million.” If you say something enough times, it becomes true; James supporters wound up wearing t-shirts saying “Newark is Not For Sale.” Booker was called a carpetbagger; James called him “white,” said he was in bed with the KKK, that he had Republican money. And most damagingly, that because Booker had had the nerve to go to a good college (Stanford) and get a law degree (Yale), and because he had the audacity to want to put those oppportunities to use by coming to Newark, a city he was not from, he was suspect. He wasn’t one of them. And, to top everything off, everytime Curry tried to film Sharpe James at a public event or rally, his people covered his camera and told him he wasn’t allowed to film James. Which is, of course, not the case. Curry was credentialed. He had every right to be there.


Booker’s campaign people were heartbreaking on this point. As one man said, it’s a disgrace to the Civil Rights struggle that people would not welcome leadership from someone because he had opportunities they did not have. As another woman said, why would you want to punish (okay, she said playa-hate, but as a white person I feel totally moronic saying so) on Booker? Isn’t the goal for everyone to have the chances he had?

A few weeks back, during a discussion of Carcetti and his goals, I posted an article here on Booker’s first 100 days in office. It showed how difficult it is for a politican to get anything done, even if he or she is truly well-intentioned: as Booker is, and as, in the fictional world that we are obsessed with, Carcetti is. Yet those good people go into a system that is deep, and deeply entrenched; a system whose only purpose is perpetuating itself. Sharpe James is corrupt as shit, and would lie himself yellow, but the real problem isn’t necessarily corruption, per se, and it’s not even bureaucracy. It’s the massive disconnect between people who are out of power and the professional political class—a river that is rough indeed. Look at how Clay Davis played Carcetti. Davis is corrupt, sure, but he’s representative (pun intended) of the political process itself, which has little to do with helping people and everything to do with preserving the structures of office, the media narrative, whatever. How could Sharpe James, who was making $200,000 a year and working another job on the side, convince the people of Newark that he was more like “them” than Booker, who was living in a housing project to be close to his constituents? Elections are someone’s job — D’Agostino liked Carcetti, and might have even believed in his cause, but she was there to help him win. It’s a game. And it’s a game built on sand… it’s not about what’s true or not true, it’s just about what the story is. And when more than half of people don’t vote, well, then there’s no pressure to represent the “people,” anyway. In fact, it’s easier if you don’t.

This season, The Wire is doing a really remarkable job of communicating that theme. Daniels deserves to be promoted all the way up, but you just know he’s going to wind up on the altar again… Burrell’s crummy but he’s not going anywhere… And this dance with Clay Davis for money isn’t just about Davis being devious, it’s about him being good — real good — at the game.

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18 Comments on “Going Off Book”

  1. megapickles Says:

    Not sure if this has been unraveled before, but what is Daniels’ mysterious past that keeps lurking in the shadows? It’s been mentioned on several occasions that he’s not the saint everybody thinks he is.

    Street Fight has been added to the Netflix queue.

  2. jetsetjunta Says:

    This came up in previous seasons, I believe not before 2, but I could be wrong. There was some scandal Daniels was involved with during his early days in the Eastern District, a scandal Burrell kept bringing up, and that I believe McNulty’s friend at the FBI vaguely alluded to when warning McNulty not to trust his boss too much. Nothing was ever made of it, but Burrell is clearly still hanging onto it.

  3. Shoals Says:

    this is what i was looking for. from wikipedia:

    McNulty’s FBI contact also alerted him that Daniels had several hundred thousand dollars of questionable liquid assets; it is later implied that these were picked up during Daniels’ tenure in the poorly-supervised Eastern district

  4. shah8 Says:

    One thing to note…Booker isn’t really anything all that much, and there are strong comparisons to be made between Booker and Ray Nagin, for example. It isn’t really so much as one man against the machine, but two machines duking it out, with one being more entrenched and corrupt.

  5. Brian Says:

    Just to elaborate further on the issue of Daniels’ background – it’s never specifically addressed, but it is something to do with money. In addition to the things addressed above, there is an instance in Season 1 where he is sitting at the dinner table with his then-wife Marla and he says something like, “Burrell knows about the money.”

    I have a feeling we may find out just what happened if Carcetti tries to bump Daniels again and Burrell starts to feel the pressure.

  6. Gavrilo Says:

    I’ve halfway through the Street Fight DVD, and it really reminds me of Carcetti-Royce. Although, if the Wire campaign was inspired even in part by James-Booker, they had to tone down reality to make it believable on TV. Personal favorite slur: James going on the Today show to accuse the (Baptist) Booker of being Jewish. Mazel tov!

  7. Gavrilo Says:

    Also–shah8, when you say that Booker “isn’t really anything,” what are you basing that on? Listen to him talk for thirty seconds and he seems considerably more intelligent than Nagin.

  8. gotcha Says:

    yeah I was wondering about shah8’s comment as well. I’m going to second the Street Fight suggestion. It ties in so nicely with this current season of The Wire. And I, as someone who grew up in the Ironbound section of Newark and in Elizabeth, begin to really see the effect that trickles down on the common person. As a child, I distinctly remember “squads” coming through the neighborhood of James supporters and just spouting inflammatory shit against whoever their opponent was at the time. Not your regular political mudslinging, but CRAZY shit.

    The best part about Street Fight is the “fake” stories that get let out, and Booker scrambling to defend himself, the consistent uphill battle that Carcetti was portrayed as fighting.

  9. christycash Says:

    I third the query to shah8 — if there’s something that makes Booker Nagin-esque, I definitely want to know, because from Street Fight and the the coverage of the 2006 campaign, I’d grown to be quite a fan of his.

    and gotcha, that’s nuts. It’s like the way politics works in Newark is somehow out of time. I just can’t believe that kind of stuff is permitted to pass. Or maybe, it’s just revealing the same machinations underneath all of our more “above board” campaigns — the ones with Harold Ford smear ads and the like.

    Something else that someone said in the movie that I thought was fascinating is that James is kind of like a Marion Barry figure. He’s someone who is obviously so bad, but yet, he’s “one of us” and so the people move in to circle the wagon, so to speak. Criticizing him because criticizing the city.

  10. gotcha Says:

    at least barry had crack-cocaine as an excuse…

  11. SP Says:

    “American democracy, let’s show those third world fucks how it’s done.”

    It’d be nice if there wasn’t such a wide gulf between American democracy and the actual definition of democracy. But I guess if you’re in a position of power in our society, this is definitely the best democracy money can buy.

  12. Sahu Says:

    “there is an instance in Season 1 where he is sitting at the dinner table with his then-wife Marla and he says something like, ‘Burrell knows about the money.'”

    I also recall Daniels saying something that he had dirt on Burrell. Not sure if Burrell was also involved or Daniels had differnt dirt on Burrell.

  13. Gavrilo Says:

    A propos of nothing–there is a thing on the Wire on ESPN.com’s Page 2 re:, among other things, the show’s popularity among pro athletes. “Half the [Baltimore Ravens] squad TiVo’s it.” What? Half the squad *doesn’t*?

  14. Dennis Says:

    Given the footage that surfaced of Melo a couple of offseasons ago…I’d say he knows this characters all too well;)

    And yes I think Jimmy’s FBI guy was the first one who alerted us to Daniel’s “green” past. It seems like almost everything comes back on everyone in The Wire, well outside of Clay Davis and his dealings with String, so I’d imagine this bit of info will eventfully haunt Cedric.

  15. Shoals Says:

    that article should’ve been the highlight of my week, and instead it made me both very sad and very bored. maybe the footage of simon with the ravens will salvage things.

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    good diet weight loss pills

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