Baltimore Ballet

May 5, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Someone should tell David Brooks that policing is not ballet.

When I first read Brooks’s column about Baltimore,“The Nature of Povery” (here), I thought he was just singing the same personal-responsibility-and-family anthem so beloved of conservatives everywhere.  Brooks writes of
“the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” 
Objective conditions, especially the job market, are not even a grace note.*

But I didn’t realize how deliberately Brooks was ignoring important facts until I checked one of the works he cites.  Here is Brooks writing about the nature of city life.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

As Philip Cohen points out (here), ballet is about the most inept a metaphor anyone might come up with. ry imagining“The Wire” in tutu and on point.

For Brooks, Baltimore’s problems have arisen because, alas, the delicate pas-de-deux between cop and kid has broken down.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved.

“The code dissolved.”  All by itself.

If you read the Simon interview (here), you get a much better picture of the code. You won’t mistake it for “Swan Lake.” The typical arabesque consists of cops arbitrarily arresting and jailing people for a couple of days for reasons that have little to do with the law and much to do with the cop’s personal whim. As Simon says, it’s called a “humble.” The goal is humiliation.

This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’

A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner.  You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn't like somebody who's looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it.

As rotten as the code was, it did break down. But Simon leaves no doubt as to who broke it.

For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in that story the Sun published last year about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernible or coherent pattern. There's no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees – and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.

Cops “beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees” don’t find their way into Le Ballet Brooks. But Simon extends the context further, to the brass and the politicians, who, in his view, are ultimately responsible for the breakdown of decent police work . (If you’ve seen “The Wire,” you’ll know that in Simon’s view both the drug dealers the street cops have a certain integrity. The true bad guys are the more powerful and ambitious figures far removed from life on the streets.)

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O’Malley. He destroyed police work in some real respects. . . . . But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.

Martin O’Malley did become governor, and as we speak he seems to be running for the Democratic nomination for president. He surely knows that, as Mr. Dooley said, politics ain’t beanbag. And Baltimore policing ain’t ballet.

* Brooks gets much wrong factually about poverty and anti-poverty programs. For details, see this corrective by Matt Breunig.

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