The Theory of Code Relativity

You gonna at least give me a fair chance, right?–Bird

“One Arrest” begins with an illustration of literal codes and ends with a meditation of metaphorical codes. In the opening scene, Prez and Freamon walk us through the power of language to serve as a unifying force, both on a macro and micro level. Codes enable two or more people to communicate through the medium of (openly or tacitly) agreed upon meanings for certain words. So, when one person says the word “turtle,” it is generally accepted that any hearer will understand those letters or sounds to mean “a slow-moving reptile protected by a large shell on its back” (assuming the hearer speaks the same macro-language as the speaker).

The challenge, as illustrated in the opening scene, is when smaller groups form different understandings of what words mean. So, where in a typical conversation, “Black” means “the absence of all light,” in a conversation on the corners of Baltimore’s Westside, “Black” means “the Barksdale lieutenant named Stinkum.” For somebody in on the code, this creates no cause for confusion, but for somebody outside of the micro-language, it can be impossible to understand. Which, of course, is the whole point.

In the final minutes of “One Arrest,” we get introduced to a totally different type of code when Bunk utters the episode’s epigraph: “A man must have a code.” Here, in a conversation with Omar that occurs while the recently-arrested Bird gets beaten in a nearby interrogation room, Bunk evokes a totally different sense of the word. He is talking about a moral code, a set of rules that govern social behavior. On the surface, this may appear different from the type of code used to send a reup to the low rises, but both codes involve the same structures and the same conflicts.

Bunk’s line is actually a convergence of two different codes, with micro- and macro-levels within each one. The whole thing comes together over the arrest of Bird, the Barksdale hitman who, according to Omar, shot maintenance worker William Gant in the back of the head in retribution for testifying against D’Angelo. This murder brings together two worlds, each with its special code.

The Legal Code
The police are responsible for enforcing the legal code, the state laws that dictate the behavior of all citizens. In fact, that enforcement is the sole purpose of their existence. Because this is such a profound power to have, they are also subject to their own internal set of rules. Of course, one of those rules is the expectation that all police will themselves obey the law. More importantly, there is the code that determines the way they handle evidence and witnesses, ensuring that each citizen gets their constitutionally-guaranteed due process.

The Street Code
On the other side of the world of taxpayers, we find the world of the game. These gangsters, ranging from kingpin Avon to the lowest of hoppers like Poot and Wallace, all follow their own code of ethics. Of course, they are still subject to the official legal code, and in fact, the Street Code exists to protect them from arrest as they violate the Legal Code. The Street Code’s first commandment is “thou shalt not snitch.” This is the code that Gant violated, earning himself a bullet in the back of the head. In the projects, that’s all the due process they get.

But there are other rules at play. They are legislated by Avon and apply to all who work under him. While looking for Bird, Omar explains of few of these to McNulty and Kima. “He don’t pack down here. None of them do, and that’s the rule,” Omar explains, saying that the Towers are not the place to try to catch Bird armed with the gun he allegedly used to kill Gant.  And a second rule: “Avon ain’t having his people using. That’s another rule. Never get high on your own supply.” As with the snitching rule, it is clear to see how these rules are important to Avon’s code. Armed workers are more vulnerable to arrest, as are high workers, who are also more liable to make mistakes if they are using.

As powerful as these Macro codes are, they are constantly violated. That violation is justified with a more personal type of code.

Bird’s Code
Bird holds strictly to the snitching code (as apparent not only in his murder of Gant, but also his profanely-adamant refusal to talk to the detectives), but he violates both of Avon’s rules. In fact, it is that very violation that gets him arrested. Based on Omar’s information, the detail took the chance that he would be armed with the murder weapon. That turns out to be the case. More importantly, they are able to arrest him coming out of a shooting gallery, reflexes dulled by drugs, and left without support because he has to keep his addiction secret from his crew.

The Police Micro-code
Meanwhile, after Bird’s arrest, we see an example of how the police have their own more flexible interpretations of the rule of law. We have already seen this with the frequent drunk-driving. McNulty is a particularly flagrant offender of this, and it is an offence which Rawls threatens to use against him.

While waiting for the ballistics results on the gun (to see if it is the one used to kill Gant), Bird savagely berates and threatens Kima. Daniels suggests that McNulty go into the room. McNulty asks if she is in trouble, and Daniels responds “Kima? He keeps this up, she’ll cut his ass.”

This calls back to the earlier scene when Bodie punches Mahone. As much as Mahone may be a useless hump, he is still a cop, and the police micro-code says that anybody who harms a cop will get beaten for it. Even a detective as conscientious and law-abiding as Kima races across the Pit to get a few kicks in. Well, apparently the same goes for killing a witness, because as soon as the gun comes back a match and Bird once again refuses to testify, Daniels, Landsman and Kima close the door and have their way with the caged Bird of prey.

It is hard to feel sympathy for Bird at this moment, or any other. Omar speaks for everybody when he observes “Bird sure know how to bring it out of people, don’t he.” But as the door closes, we hear about another one of Bird’s personal codes. “Yo I’m cuffed, man. You gonna at least give me a fair chance, right?” Bird doesn’t deny his crime, and he is willing to take on the officers in a fair fight, but to him, getting beaten while cuffed is a major ethical violation.

One of the most interesting aspects of the scene is the fact that two of the people beating are Daniels and Landsman, Lieutenant and Sergeant respectively. This is not some hothead thug straight out of the academy. No, these are veterans who have risen through the police system and may continue to rise. In their code, the beating of a man who killed an innocent witness is perfectly justified, even if the macro-code doesn’t technically allow it.

As all of this goes on, we return to Omar and Bunk, who offer a perfect commentary on the whole situation. Bunk asks Omar why he gave Bird up. We know that part of it is revenge for Brandon. But it is also important to remember that, while Omar initially shows reluctance to snitch, he is not a part of Avon’s world, and so he gets to live by his own code. In fact, that is one of the advantages of being a lone wolf. Since he is not a part of a bigger group, he gets to live consistently according to his own set of rules.

Omar explains. “Bird trifling, basically. Kill an everyday working man and all. I mean, don’t get it twisted. I do some dirt too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.” He gives Bird up for the same reason the officers are currently beating him: Bird knowingly killed somebody who is not part of the drug game, and therefore should not be subject to its code.

The camera pulls in slowly as Bunk replies: “A man must have a code.” Omar agrees “Oh, no doubt,” but it seems like he misses Bunk’s point. In fact, it is even easy for the viewers to miss the point, particularly since Omar is such a likeable character. It is subtle, but Bunk says the line with just a hint of disdain, and he slowly shakes his head at Omar’s affirmation.

Bunk fails to accept Omar’s ethical justifications. The fact is, Omar, like all men with a code, draws a line that classifies all behavior into the acceptable and the unacceptable. If his refusal to hurt any taxpayers is noble, his decision to blast a young hopper’s knee off with a shotgun for personal profit is decidedly less noble. The only thing that gives Omar the high ground is the fact that his behavior fits into a code that he himself created.

That is the problem with codes. Everybody falls under the auspices of at least one macro-code, and nearly everybody makes their own personal exceptions to that code. But a personal code is often simply a relativistic justification for one’s own actions. Bird may have violated Omar’s code, but in the Barksdale world, the murder of Gant as wholly justified. Even if Gant wasn’t technically in the game, even D’Angelo suggests that the decision to testify brought him into the game (“Well he didn’t have to testify” he says in “The Detail.”).

And that is the biggest problem with codes. They are always changing, and most individuals end up adapting the code to fit their behavior and not the other way around.

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