Out of all of the episode titles from throughout The Wire’s run, “One Arrest” is undoubtedly the most puzzling. It suggests a decisive moment when, after months of painstaking labor, the detail finally takes down one of the players in the Barksdale crew. This should be the moment where the wiretaps finally start yielding tangible results. The problem is that there are clearly two arrests in the episode: Kevin Johnston and Bird.
In fact, those two arrests shape most of the episode, with the Johnston arrest occupying the first half and the Bird arrest dominating the second. Neither arrest is given any more weight than the other, and neither seems to be particularly devastating to the Barksdale organization, so it is almost impossible to say which of the two is the “one” arrest of the title.
There are other possible explanations for the title. There is the imminent arrest for the Denise Redding murder, the one that will save Santangelo’s career and keep him from having to betray McNulty, all based on information provided by Omar. There is also the possibility that the titular arrest is Stinkum, who the detectives don’t physically arrest, but who they now have tied to the four G-packs carried by Kevin Johnston. He is a valuable target who they can arrest any time they want.
Or maybe it is a reference to something more abstract, like the very act of arrest. If that is the case, then this episode can give a true understanding of what happens when police arrest somebody. We get two detailed looks at three parts of an arrest: the lead up, the physical arrest, and the aftermath. By examining them in greater detail, we can get a real sense of the common structure behind all such arrests.
From a legal standpoint, police need probable cause to arrest somebody, but that PC can take many different forms. The Johnston arrest involves several types of PC. At its core, it is based on information gleaned from the wire, the first time they have been able to convert such information into something actionable. Based on the series of phone calls and pages that Prez and Freamon decipher in the opening scene, they know the specifics of a reup that is on its way to the pit. They know the time, the place, and the person bringing the new supply.
In fact, the only thing they don’t know is the identity of the man they end up arresting. “Stinkum will have a runner with him,” Kima explains as they plan the bust. “The runner’s going to be holding the package.” While the real target of the bust is the high-ranked Stinkum, the generic runner is the one they are going to physically arrest.
Kima explains why. “We didn’t set all this up for two day’s worth of coke vials, did we?” This is an important aspect of the arrest. They want to take product off the streets, but they can’t reveal too much. If they arrest Stinkum, they have to give up probable cause, which alerts the Barksdales to the wire. Instead, they pick up Johnston by covering up the real, hidden PC with the more obvious, indisputable PC: possession of the drugs.
Bird’s arrest, on the other hand, is based on the more informal eyewitness information provided by Omar. It is a much riskier move, particularly since they have such little information on Bird, (especially when compared to the precision of the Johnston arrest). In fact, they really go on faith: faith that Bird will show up at the “Red Dilly” to get high like Omar said, faith that he will have the gun on him, and faith that the gun will match the one used to kill Gant. This all makes the arrest riskier, but there is one advantage for the detail. Since the information doesn’t come from the wire itself, they don’t have to worry about spooking the Barksdales with the arrest.
The Actual Arrest
If the preparation for arrest revolves around strategic and legal concerns, the arrest itself is far more physical. It requires the actual apprehension and suppression of a human being who has been (hopefully) taken by surprise, and may well be in survival mode. This last fact makes it the most potentially-dangerous part of the job for the detectives, who put themselves at risk against against a possibly-violent criminal.
That said, the Johnson arrest actually plays out in an entertaining, lighthearted way. It has the slapstick feel of the Keystone Cops. As Herc and Carver, and later Kima and Sydnor chase the bagman back and forth throughout the pit, it takes on the feel of a fan who gets on the field during a sporting event. The perp is clearly outnumbered and surrounded, but the open space enables him to keep running, staying free for as long as possible. In fact, D’Angelo, Bodie, and Poot watch the chase as if they are watching a sporting event, calling out encouragement to Johnston (“step, shorty”) and juking their shoulders along with him.
When the detectives finally subdue him (with a pretty nice open-field tackle by Sydnor), they are all winded and out of breath from the sheer physicality of the act.
The viewer can’t help but come back to this scene later, when Omar helps Kima and McNulty plan the arrest of Bird. “I know one thing,” Omar warns. “When you all run up on him, you best be more…” and after a measured pause, he finishes “careful, that is.” He then explains that “Bird will throw down without thinking for sure.” Where Kevin Johnston is a scared kid, desperately hoping to get away (the very name of his role is “runner”), Bird is a killer who could turn his gun on a detective as easily as he killed an unarmed state’s witness.
So the detectives take Omar at his word, both in number and caution. We see them surrounding the Red Dilly in full force: McNulty and Daniels in one car, Herc and Carver in another, Kima watching the back door, Freamon and Sydnor in full dopefiend disguise out on the corner, and even Bubbles out there with his hats. Even with the eight-person team, they leave nothing to chance. When Bubbles identifies Bird with the red hat, Freamon gives a signal, shouting “hey shorty!” before smashing the 40 bottle across Bird’s face. In a flash, Sydnor is on him and the others all swarm in. It is so tight and careful that the only motion Bird makes is a little bit of squirming and cursing. Freamon finds the gun and gloats “Oh yeah, look what we have here. Ooh baby!”
The arrests yield very different results, especially considering the practical and ethical implications for the Barksdale case. Kevin Johnston is a mere pawn in the drug game. That is the reason why he is the runner to begin with–he needs to be somebody insignificant so he can be sacrificed to the police if things get bad. His arrest is of no concern to the Barksdales, even if the details of the bust are. Johnston is just a kid, so he won’t face that heavy of a penalty anyway. On top of that, he takes on an ethical superiority over the cops when he spots Prez and stares him down with his one remaining eye. There is a recognition: this is the boy Prez senselessly blinded at the Tower Riots. His cold, one-eyed staredown is a reminder of the earlier brutality, and when Daniels tries to make it right, Johnston challenges him, saying “whose fault is that?” Daniels gives a helpless reply: “his, ours…mine maybe.” When Daniels offers to help, Johnston coldly rejects the offer. Another arrest that amounts to nothing.
Bird’s arrest is much more valuable, even if, like Johnston, they have no chance of flipping him. The gain here is the simple fact that they are removing an unrepentant killer from the streets, weakening the Barksdales in their ability to take and hold corners (this becomes more apparent in the next episode). More important, they are executing one of the most important functions of law enforcement: they get retribution for a vicious murder.
As I ponder the riddle of the title, I keep coming back to a cool moment from this past summer. I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Roger Waters perform The Wall, and during “Run Like Hell,” he projected various images of graffiti on the wall behind him. At one point, in red spray paint, there was the following line: “Somebody must have been slandering Josef K, because without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one morning.” It is the opening line of Kafka’s The Trial.
The conjunction of song and novel is interesting. As Waters sang about the futile flight from one’s own inner guilt, the Kafka quote spoke of a deeper, more existential guilt. K gets arrested without being told what he is being arrested for, and he soon finds his identity blotted out by a bizarre, faceless legal system. These absurd institutions reduce him to a dog, blindly flailing out of pure survival instinct.
For Kafka, this is the universal state of being, the one arrest that faces us all, be we artists or bankers, detectives or drug kingpins. The authorities are always running after us, trying to capture us for some unspoken act that may or may not actually be wrong.
On a literal level, is the most profound right that the police have. They enact this existential state of affairs in a literal context of the legal system. They are endowed with the singular power to arrest, the power to take away a person’s freedom and feed them into the criminal justice machine.
In the world of The Wire, everything moves towards that one arrest, that one potential perfect moment when McNulty and company get to put the handcuffs on Avon Barksdale. But each character is arrested in their own way, their personal motives brought down to the ground with an open-field tackle from the larger institutions and social forces of Baltimore.