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The current climate is inviting us to conceive of Baltimore as an example of Italian legal philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s ‘state of exception’. EPA/John Taggart

Reviewing Baltimore through Serial, The Wire and race riots

In the American imaginary, Baltimore has come to signify a space in which the law routinely fails to protect and represent its denizens.

We know this from TV shows such as The Wire (2002-2008) and that show’s “war on drugs”, as waged by law enforcement against the city’s most disenfranchised.

We remember the destruction of predominantly black communities to make way for Johns Hopkins University over the last decade.

We know that Baltimore was notorious for its “white flight,” and the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

And we can look to the work of political geographer David Harvey to get a sense of the city’s uneven urban development and its wave of foreclosures in the 1990s.

But in the wake of the Baltimore riots in recent weeks, I’d like to reconsider the hugely successful 2014 podcast Serial, by National Public Radio.

Set in Baltimore, Serial was a journalistic exploration by Sarah Koenig of the 1999 investigation and trial of high school student Adnan Masud Syed, found guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Syed was convicted to a life sentence and is currently serving time in Maryland State Prison. Earlier this week, however, the Maryland Court Of Special Appeals passed a ruling in Syed’s favour that effectively grants him a new evidentiary hearing.

Similar to The Wire, Serial purports to demystify the law through its unwavering commitment to “realism,” unravelling the legal fiction of “due” process.

Week by week it exposed, or so it seemed, an evidentiary process gone awry, details perjured testimony after perjured testimony, speculates on leads that weren’t followed or considered, and probes into the gaping holes in the narrative and timeline of the alleged murder.

Koenig and her two producers adopted an utterly disarming conversational tone. Listeners – of whom there were millions – were promptly swept up in the mystery of the case, feeling, perhaps, deputised.

Koenig and co interviewed Adnan and Hae’s friends, family, and lawyers, played recordings from the trial and police interviews. For the most part, the remarkably entertaining stream of voices made it unclear to the listener when Koenig and co were wearing their “responsible journalism” hats, their “legal” hats, and when the women are just being human: confused, bemused, goofy, gossipy.

Presenting those roles in a way that was entangled and simultaneous suggests that the narratives they created and recreated moved through, enacted and embodied (and modified through their own embodiment) had, or ought to have had, some bearing on the official legal narrative.

As we listened to these women work through their frustration at not just the indecipherability of the scant, often contradictory “facts,” but, more importantly, the ways in which these “facts” found expression and containment in the prosecution’s narrative, we were struck with a sense of profound injustice.

That was – at best – irresponsible on the part of the production. The feeling of injustice is very different from its narrow legal construction, especially in respect of procedure (and there is, in fact, comparatively little proof to warrant an appeal).

True Crime, as a genre, begs for visibility: we want to see the evidence, or at least interact with the tactility of words on a page as verifiable source material: transcripts, interviews, newspaper articles.

We want to read the letters and diaries, and get a sense of the case’s spatiality.

Instead, in Serial, we heard Koenig’s mellifluous voice, and envisioned each character as filtered through a diffuse pop cultural consciousness: Jay was both “Dennis Rodman” and “Scooby Doo,” Adnan had big brown cartoon eyes “like a dairy cow,” and Nisha was a “chipmunk.”

While Koenig continued to emphasise place and proximity, DNA and physical evidence, denying the listener direct access to this material seemed to encourage the listener to conflate the affective response that comes from listening (falling in love with Adnan is not uncommon!) and the legal narratives that could have acquitted Adnan or secured a conviction.

Despite itself, Serial examined a racialised time, place and case, but did so via a medium that forces its listener to displace the materiality of these concerns, thereby depoliticising the case, and relocalising Adnan’s story as some kind of imaginative quest for justice.

Admittedly Koenig spent a couple of minutes here and there on the relationship between race, class and policing. In Episode 7, for example, she rather half-heartedly suggested that racial profiling was a “concern” at trial.

When she did spend a few seconds wondering aloud whether the police could have done more, she never questioned their integrity or professionalism (they were “cautious and methodical”) – or, more significantly, the historical function of police as gatekeepers of hierarchical order in the polis.

This is even more astonishing, because, post-The Wire, Baltimore has become a metonym for police corruption.

There is, furthermore, something deeply problematic in Serial’s suggestion that the law had failed Adnan: Serial separated Adnan’s case from the political, social, racial realities of Baltimore, chiefly through the podcast medium, and instead focused on the quest for legal justice as mediated through quirky and charismatic personalities. Law in America becomes, once again, commodified spectacle.

This refocus on the ever-regenerative quest for justice is in fact deeply conservative, complicit with those forces that continue to affirm a picture of American sovereignty and federalism even in the face of the continued exercise of arbitrary state power against the people of Baltimore.

Serial’s narrative attempted to lay bare the law’s most troubling flaws but, importantly, upheld the rule of law by preventing the kind of radical scrutiny that would see the law’s wholesale suspension in Baltimore.

If the current climate is inviting us to conceive of Baltimore not as a place where the law doesn’t work but, more radically, as an example of Italian legal philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception,” then Serial reminded us of the persisting power of mainstream hegemonic thought in respect of rule of law. It must apply equally to all men, and, if it doesn’t then it is, rather than a fiction to be re-written, a work in progress.

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