The Wire, Freddie Gray, and Collective Social Action

April 28, 2015
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protesting the death of Freddie GrayPost by Ashley Hinck, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested, and on April 19, 2015, he died in the hospital from severe spinal injuries. While it is unclear just how Gray sustained spinal cord injuries while in police custody and why he was arrested in the first place, it is clear that Baltimore police officers failed to get Gray the medical care he needed. Freddie Gray’s death has sparked protests in Baltimore as people question, critique, and protest the continued killings of unarmed black people at the hands of police in Baltimore and across the US.

But what has emerged differently in the protests and discussions around Baltimore is the contradiction between The Wire’s widespread popularity (1.8 million likes on Facebook) and the comparatively small support for the protests in honor of Freddie Gray (thousands protesting in the streets of Baltimore).

tweetsIn other words, why hasn’t The Wire, which showed us how structural racism and an abusive police department defines black life in Baltimore, translated into collective social action? Why are there only thousands in the streets? Where are the millions of fans of The Wire? And why aren’t they supporting black folks in Baltimore?

My dissertation research provides at least a partial answer to that question. Examining cases of fan-based citizenship (including activism, volunteerism, and political participation), I investigate how we connect popular culture to political participation in a way that invites collective action. Through cases across television, movies, books, and sports, I find that fan-based civic appeals take significant community work and rhetorical work—that is, popular culture media almost never leads directly to collective action on its own. Like any social activism and community organizing, it takes hard work, coordination, deliberation, and discussion. It makes sense then that without a group of fans of The Wire emerging as leaders, providing organizational groundwork and constructing arguments that invite us to see The Wire as connected to our lives today, we see little collective action emerging as a result of The Wire fandom.

Protesters and supporters have pointed out another part of the answer as to why fans of The Wire are not at the protests in large numbers. They explain how the racism of our media industry and culture discourage audience civic action:


As audience members, we are invited to consume a narrative of black suffering. The show invites us to be consumers first and foremost, complicit in the structural racism that undergirds the media industry and our own everyday lives. The bad news is that this is widespread. The good news is that we don’t have to accept this situation as permanent. We can change how we, as fans, engage the story of black suffering on The Wire. We can shift from consumption to solidarity. Of course, we will need to counter cultural scripts, norms, and discourse to do it. But such change is possible, and quite frankly, desperately needed.

We can find a model for this kind of work in the Harry Potter Alliance’s (HPA) Darfur campaign. Through two podcasts and a series of blog posts, the HPA argued that the Harry Potter story called Harry Potter fans to take action to end the Darfur genocide by calling government representatives, divesting from companies implicitly funding the genocide, and donating money to Civilian Protection. On the surface, the story of Harry Potter would seem to have little to do with Sudan, genocide, and geopolitics in Africa (and it would certainly seem to have much less in common with Sudan than The Wire has with the Freddie Gray tragedy and resulting protests). But through sophisticated arguments that connected Harry Potter characters and values to the crisis in Sudan, the Harry Potter Alliance made the Sudan genocide relevant for Harry Potter fans.

The HPA made this argument by drawing connections between Lily Potter (Harry’s mom) and the mothers in refugee camps. By connecting Lily Potter with Darfuri refugees, the HPA a) helped fans understand the lives of women in the camps and b) transferred importance from Lily to refugees, giving fans a reason to take action. Protecting Darfuri refugees became a way to honor and protect Lily Potter.

Andrew Slack uses Lily as a way to understand the risk and sacrifice Darfuri refugee women are taking. In the second Darfur podcast, HPA co-founder Slack says, “we’ll be talking about people like Lily Potter in our world, mothers in Darfur who continue to risk everything to protect their children.” In November 2007, the Janjaweed militia were continuing to circle UN refugee camps, killing any men and raping any women who ventured outside of the camp. The HPA explains that refugees were forced to leave the relative safety of the UN camps in order to gather firewood nearby. Slack explains that, despite knowing they will likely be raped when they leave the camp, Darfuri women choose to take the risk so that they could feed their families. The HPA compares Lily’s demonstration of motherly love to that of the Darfuri women’s. Lily too made a sacrifice for Harry, protecting him from Voldemort’s deadly power. Lily also becomes a reason to take civic action. PotterCast co-host Sue Upton says in the podcast, “What better way to show our love for Harry Potter than to stick up for the women in this world who are doing the same thing for their children just as Lily did for Harry.” Protecting women in Darfur becomes a matter of showing respect for Lily Potter and showing one’s love for Harry Potter. Through the campaign, the HPA helped fans see intervention in the Darfur genocide as a public issue that was both relevant and important.

We can never know exactly what it is like to be another person. But we can stand in solidarity with them. The HPA demonstrates how we can translate a commitment to Harry Potter to a commitment to action to intervene in genocide, and it offers lessons for how we might translate a commitment to The Wire into participation in protests in Baltimore.

Indeed, popular culture media holds great potential to show us new things. And fan commitments and identifications hold great potential to push us to take action. Fans are powerful. But failing to connect The Wire with protests in honor of Freddie Gray represents a missed opportunity—one that we, put frankly, cannot afford to miss.

Miss Packnett calls us to take action:


Freddie Gray is not Dukie. But we must love Freddie Gray like we loved Dukie. We must help write a Season 6 through our protests and actions that create a safer, fairer, and more just Baltimore for black folks. #BlackLivesMatter.


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2 Responses to “ The Wire, Freddie Gray, and Collective Social Action ”

  1. Noel Holston on May 4, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    While I can appreciate the ideas at the root of this argument, it does seem to me a lot to ask that a fictional series, powerful and unusually analogous to real-world situations though it is, be a focal point for protest seven years after its last new episode was shown. I admired it greatly and believe I learned something from it, but I am no more likely to drive to Baltimore to protest police brutality than I am to drive to New Jersey to march against Mafia control of the sanitation business.

  2. Ashley Hinck on May 5, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    Thanks for the comment, Noel. I think you’re right that it’s too much to expect a television show to prompt activism. The Wire was remarkably successful in showing us the problems existing in Baltimore, in detailed and powerful ways. But if we want social action to occur, we need to connect the fictional show to the real world. That connection can’t be made by the television show itself. The show did its job–what’s missing is rhetoric that connects it to the real world, that issues a call for action, that compels us to act.