“We Own This City,” written and created by David Simon, now streaming on HBO Max, represents an evolution of public sentiment toward law enforcement. Television, it seems, is finally depicting the abuse of power minority communities have experienced from police for decades.
Things have certainly come a long way since fawning post-9/11 police dramas like “The Wire.” The former depicted cops as counter-jumping, rough-‘em-up heroes, but “We Own This City,” takes place after the murder of Freddie Gray and casts law enforcement as a muddled wash of gray areas, particularly when it comes to brutality and corruption.
At the heart of “We Own This City” is civil rights attorney Nicole Steele, played by powerful Nigerian-born actress Wunmi Mosaku, of “Lovecraft Country” and “Loki.” Steele unfurls layer after layer of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department and mirrors Americans’ frustrations over the steady trickle of police shooting victims like Gray, Eric Gardner, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, and George Floyd.
The show pulls back the curtain on nothing new. State sanctioned violence has been around since Southern police hunted escaped slaves and were members of the Klan. Freddie Gray was murdered during the Obama presidency, but police brutality is bipartisan and persistent. When half the country responds to the latest report of brutality with calls for reform a sycophantic second half of society reacts with ambivalence or argues that the victim deserved it. But if the message of “We Own This City” is any judge, society’s post-9/11 love affair with cops is clearly over.
It never existed for many of us. Steele’s experience brought me back to my own brush with the law. In 2011, I was arrested on an outstanding warrant after another driver ran a red light and flipped my car. I barely got out alive, and rescued another driver in the process, but I still had to face intense police questioning. My four-year-old warrant for driving with expired registration got me handcuffed, lifted by the back of my shirt, and thrown into a squad car while still bleeding. As I lay face down in the backseat, I could see the driver reach 75 MPH. I asked him to slow down, but he ignored me and turned up the radio, sending Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” bouncing throughout the squad car.
I was booked and thrown into a cell with two other inmates, and together we watched a drunk white guy elbow a cop and get thrown to the ground and beat unconscious. My cellmates and I banged on our cell bars to get them to stop while the rest of the cops stayed at their computers, unfazed by the violence in front of them. To them, it must have been just another day at the office.
It was a scene right out of “We Own This City” when Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, played with sleaze by Jon Bernthal, gets caught for his decade’s worth of crime. Jenkins’ own co-workers throw him against a wall minutes after his arrest and Jenkins shouts, “I’m one of the good guys!” The scene captures cops’ knee-jerk self-righteousness in the face of getting caught. Shock turns into defense, which turns to anger and outrage. But they do not extend that same presumption of innocence to noncops. When I was arrested in a bloody daze, there was zero conversation around my warrant or my situation. I was assumed—and treated–as guilty.
If only justice was as true in real life as it is on television. For Black and brown victims of police brutality and murder, the bad cop rarely gets his comeuppance. The show strikes its truest chord when Steele questions police union officials who are covering cops’ bad behavior and discouraging accountability and oversight.
Steele: Could there ever be a moment where a police officer performed their job in such a manner that you would agree with a finding that he or she should be fired for abusive behavior or brutality? Could that ever happen in Baltimore?
Union President: Certainly.
Steele: Has it ever happened?
The union president remains silent, which speaks louder than any answer the show could have scripted.