Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In his new HBO series “Problem Areas,” comedian-actor Wyatt Cenac takes a crack at solving police racism.
Wyatt Cenac, the comedian-actor perhaps best known for his sketches on “The Daily Show,” sits on a couch with the police chief of Elgin, Illinois, a small city just outside of Chicago. There’s about a cushion’s worth of space between them. They’re discussing the Neighborhood Officer Program of Elgin, aka “N.O.P.E.,” and the Residential Officer Program of Elgin, aka “R.O.P.E.,” the latter of which allows a police officer to live rent-free in a neighborhood that’s considered troubled. Both programs were create to improve relations between communities and the police. Cenac kinda eggs the chief, Jeff Swoboda, about the names, and then suggests a more innocuous acronym: Housing for Elgin Law Officers, or “H.E.L.O.” Swoboda gets a red-faced chuckle out of it, and for a moment the distance between them seems to disappear.
This is merely a snapshot of what Cenac is offering in his new HBO series, “Problem Areas,” where over ten episodes he’ll be examining how various cities are tackling complications around policing. He also ponders other issues like how to convert coal workers into solar workers, and poop into fuel, but policing is the primary thread that ties the chapters together. In some episodes, he offers up small solutions, and sometimes he realizes there is little to no solution to be had at all.
Such was the case in Elgin, where he was dispatched to discuss its community policing program only to later have to deal with the tragedy of a black woman named Decynthia Clements who was killed by a police officer while the episode was already in production. Cenac included a clip of the killing, which in the beginning shows the police officers discussing how to deal with Clements, who they suspect has a knife. She has locked herself in a minivan and is refusing to come out. The police consider using a rubber pellet gun or a Taser on her if she attacks them. But ultimately, an officer ends up just using a regular gun to shoot her as she exits the vehicle, which is on fire and filling with smoke.
Cenac employs comedy to talk about news throughout this series, similar to his approach at “The Daily Show,” but for this segment on Clements, he makes clear that this is no laughing matter. Pacing through his studio, which is set up like a local public broadcasting news show, he asks, “Why even discuss any of that other shit, if the response is just going to be the same, that you’re just going to pull out a gun and shoot somebody?” He situates Clements’ murder in the long-running narrative of police killings of African Americans, and later questions whether programs like N.O.P.E. and R.O.P.E., or videos of cops doing the Nae-Nae with kids and pulling people over to give them ice cream aren’t all just publicity stunts to obscure deeper problems that go unchecked within these departments.
Later in the Elgin episode, another video clip is shown of Swoboda yelling at black people who showed up at his department to protest his handling of Clements’ death: “You come at a police officer with a knife, you’re probably getting shot,” he shouts at them. And with that, the moment of closeness and jokery that Cenac shared with him earlier in the episode is erased, and the distance between them seems like a gulf. This is the range of emotions that Cenac’s “Problem Areas” captures and watching it is well worth the experience. CityLab spoke with Cenac about other things he picked up along the journey.
Welcome back to journalism! You’re like a real journalist now.
I feel like there are a lot of journalism schools that would argue with you and probably send me some really huge bill for student debt if I claimed it. No, there is a real desire to dig into stories and by going to various cities and spending time with people, it really is set up for us to paint as full of a picture as we can. With that in mind, we have real journalists working with me on this show who are making sure that we are not glossing over anything.
I haven't seen all 10 episodes, but I assume by the end of this season you will have solved racist policing.
That is what we promised HBO and I'm hoping that they don't hold us to it, and I'm hoping nobody else holds us to that. It really is about trying to look at this subject from a bunch of different perspectives knowing that even dedicating 10 episodes to this is a drop in the bucket. But hopefully by spending that much time on it, we've talked about it in a different way that is entertaining and also in a way that the audience may say, “Oh, wow that’s fascinating,” or, “Oh, that feels like something we should have in our city.”
You have this way of creating a climate where white people end up saying very racist things really casually, without you necessarily provoking them. Is that an intentional function of the kinda non-threatening approach you take in your interviews?
I don't know, I would like to think that I'm threatening in my own way. Don't we all want to feel a little threatening? I mean, not so threatening that you have to worry when you're behind the wheel of a car, but I feel my approach with everything has been to just be curious, and to talk to people. That's not to say that people haven't said things that I don't agree with, or haven't said things that aren't offensive. I'm going to approach a person and have a real conversation with them, and if they want to get bombastic and fiery or they want to get insensitive or racist, what value do I get in punching somebody in the face or shouting back at them? I often find myself thinking of that Bruce Lee quote: “Be like the water.”
Sometimes if you let people talk, they'll say some crazy stuff. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with them, but I feel like there are ways to do that—once it devolves into a shouting match, nobody's listening and there's no space for that person to even then try to understand how what they are saying could be seen as offensive or misguided.
What were your assumptions about policing going into this show, and how might they have changed throughout this experience?
The biggest take away that I got from doing this was just recognizing how much change requires buy-in on all sides. You have a police officer in your city and you as a taxpayer pay money for that law enforcement agency, so you should have a say in how that law enforcement treats you. The challenge of that is you have to stay on your local politicians and legislators to make sure that this agency that you are paying for to protect your neighborhood is doing so in a way that you see fit, and you're not getting paid to do that. You have to make sure that you are aware of what that law enforcement agency is doing, how it is training its officers, and make sure it's happening in a way that you feel is a good allocation of your resources.
In that way, it felt like, oh this is such a massive and challenging thing that’s built with a power dynamic where there are people who have state-sanctioned power to do things that regular citizens do not. So, how do we make sure that money is being spent in ways we want it to be spent? The amount of work and effort that goes into that speaks so much to changing some of the conversation around what policing can look like from city to city and state to state.
You filmed that episode in Elgin, Illinois, on community policing and then months later, an Elgin police officer shot and killed Clements. How did that change the tone or the conclusion of the show you intended to do?
Decynthia Clements was shot and killed after we had already gone to Elgin and sat with community members and law enforcement. We were already working on the story but this definitely changed certain aspects of it because we felt like we needed to include it. One of the things about Elgin that was interesting was its community policing program, which was held up as a national model. It seemed like the community had a positive interaction with it and there had not been an officer-involved shooting for like 20 years or so. But then ultimately Decynthia Clements was shot and we felt we had to address that and not just simply tell the story like, “Hey here's this cool program,” and then just walk away.
However, there was always an aspect that was about what community policing looks like but also examining if that’s really an answer or is it just a different form of PR. Also, if a program like this is a good way to address community relations with law enforcement, then why is this not a thing that exists in every neighborhood? Why are certain neighborhoods being singled out as being in need of this? I think Johnetta Elzie speaks to it very well when she asks why safety means police having to move into her neighborhood—why is that the only version of safety being presented to her?
What did you learn throughout this series that most disappointed you?
Aside from you telling me I'm a non-threatening person? Just kidding. All of these have been challenging stories, and more challenging than the ones I did at “The Daily Show.” There are so many stories you wind up hearing and so many things that come across our desks that I feel like for everyone in the office there is definitely a heaviness. Whether it’s hearing stories of children being arrested and criminalized, or going to Skid Row and spending time with people there. But even if it weighed on me, for those individuals, they live with the realities of what exists in those cities.
By focusing on their stories I found that the one unifying thing from city to city—from community members to legislators to law enforcement—there’s a hope that exists and a desire for things to get better. Even talking to people who lost family members to police violence, or who were themselves victims of police violence, or incarcerated, or who are social workers having to work with people in mental distress on a daily basis, what I found was all of those people have a hope and a sense that things can be better.
Can they, though? I mean after spending so much time with police in various cities, and hearing all of these horrible stories of police brutality and cover-ups and false promises, did you struggle at all with a pessimism that police-race problems will just never get better?
Yeah, but at the same time—look, I'm black, I've grown up black and one thing I've always known from being black is that change isn't overnight. It’s never been. I think any minority group understands that change is slow. It’s not just African Americans getting killed by police. Native Americans are killed at a higher percentage than any other minority group. So, justice for Native Americans who have faced and seen police brutality, and immigrant communities who have faced stop-and-frisk after 9/11—there are so many groups and individuals in this country who have a stake in making that dynamic that exists between law enforcement and communities better and one that works for everybody that it feels like I can't not be hopeful on some level. But I also have to be pragmatic enough to know that it's not an overnight thing.
We’re talking about over 17,000 police agencies and the issues that exist in one city are not the same issues as another city, so correcting and fixing that won’t be a one solution-for-all situation. But when I meet someone like Edwin Raymond, a black police officer who grew up in East New York and was a victim of over-policing himself, but who says, “OK, I'm going to try to make change from the inside;” and then I meet someone like Darian Agostini who also grew up in East New York, who also faced over-policing, but says, “OK, I'm going to work on this from the community side and try to empower people to make this better.” I can't help but feel hopeful. Because the alternative is to curl up in a ball and say what's the point?
To see people like that who are approaching it from totally different points of view but with the same goal of making things better for the kids that grew up in the exact same neighborhood they came out of, I feel you have to have some level of hope.
Below is a trailer of the next episode of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas that will air this weekend on HBO: