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.