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Wyatt Cenac on the Lessons of ‘Problem Areas’ and How We Can Rethink Policing in America

Both seasons — now available on YouTube for free — show how the problems facing America are all interconnected, and addressing them starts with asking different kinds of questions.

Wyatt Cenac Problem Areas HBO

“Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas”

HBO

After the wave of public protests following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, HBO made both seasons of “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” available for free on YouTube.

When it aired in 2018 and 2019, the show was a fresh spin on the kind of accessible, joke-filled explainer series that had gained popularity in the wake of the 2016 election. “Problem Areas” used on-the-ground interviews, heavily sourced segments, and host Wyatt Cenac’s skills as a communicator to examine deep-seated issues in a number of areas of American life.

Renewed attention to the show and its availability on a new platform largely comes from the overarching subject of the show’s first season: policing. Through the lens of gun violence, sexual violence, homelessness, use of force, and officer training, “Problem Areas” was able to show how police-related issues directly intersect with so many others.

(That idea is reinforced in Season 2, which discussed many of those same ideas in relation to the American education system. Both seasons of the show will be on YouTube for a month in addition to HBOGO and HBO Max, where they remain available on-demand.)

Watching the first episode, it’s both striking and disheartening how much these conversations pointed toward what would remain 24 months later. The opening episode of “Problem Areas” also addresses glaring issues of inequality in the next chapter of space travel. It’s a disconnect that came into focus when, the Saturday after Floyd and Taylor’s killings, a rocket as part of a joint venture between NASA and the Elon Musk-founded SpaceX launched on the same day that protestors marched to demand justice. It’s one small sign amongst many others readily apparent over the past weeks that this nation faces more than just one kind of systemic problem, none of them new.

“Everything is linked. And I feel like the more that we worked on the show, the more evident that became to all of us, if it hadn’t been prior to that,” Cenac told IndieWire. “You really start to see just how interconnected these things are. If you’re putting all of your budget into policing, you’re taking it away from something else. And if you’re taking it away from education, what does that mean for those communities when you’re taking it out of schools? Those things then become connected in ways that can have detrimental effects on communities.”

With so many roots of ineffective policing that extend through different areas of American life, “Problem Areas” emphasizes the fact that there isn’t one simple, easy solution. While there are certain systemic issues that are present in cities across the country, the current inequities between various communities makes transforming current structures of policing an inherently different task depending on where it’s being implemented.

“If you’re a person who truly is invested in doing the work, I think some of it begins with asking, ‘When you’re talking about something like policing, what is safety?’ What is safety in my neighborhood? And how do I define it? Do I define it as a huge presence of police? Or do I define it as quality education and a farmers market and businesses that are thriving on every corner? If that’s how I define my safety, why don’t I define that as safety for other communities? Why do I define safety as ‘Send cops there?'” Cenac said.

If asking those questions leads to a better understanding of the dissonance that has fueled this problem for generations, Cenac hopes that acknowledgment will come with a new way of talking about how we address it.

“We talk a lot about the idea of equality. Equality is just saying, ‘This one neighborhood has a school? Let’s give this other neighborhood a school.’ But when you don’t look at the fact that the median household income in one neighborhood is $20,000 and another house in this other area, it’s $200,000 — just having a school in each of those neighborhoods, that’s equal, but is it equitable?” Cenac said. “This $200,000 median income community, they have more tax dollars to put into a school to pay teachers, to upgrade facilities, to do field trips. The $20,000 neighborhood doesn’t have that kind of money. So the school infrastructure starts to crumble. Teachers aren’t as excited about teaching there, they’re taking pay cuts, classrooms are getting overcrowded. The more you get into it, the more this becomes a question of, ‘How do we spend our money? And what do we prioritize?'”

One of Season 1’s most powerful episodes tells the story of Elgin, Illinois, one of the cities that laid the groundwork for a community policing program. Tracking the incremental advancements in relationships between the police and the communities they both belong to and serve does offer a glimmer of hope. But the end of that episode changed when a police shooting during a traffic stop led to the death of Elgin resident Decynthia Clements. The same police chief that was holding up the city’s resident officer program as a success was now facing public scrutiny from the people of Elgin. By the time the episode aired, he had already taken a police chief position in Colorado.

Accountability is the strongest throughline of “Problem Areas.” It’s accountability for those in uniform tasked with serving the public, for elected officials who make verbal commitments to reform but don’t follow through, and for individual citizens to understand how publicly-funded institutions are spending in their name.

“I think people just stop at, ‘Well, I voted for the mayor who was aligned with my party.’ But it goes beyond that. It’s looking at headlines and seeing in New York, the governor has approved a subway budget that will put 500 more police officers into the New York City subways,” Cenac said. “It’s asking questions like, ‘At a time when everyone else is having to scale back because of a pandemic, and you have businesses that are shuttering, you have people losing houses in a city that already has a housing crisis, why is it that just this month the mayor has agreed to give raises to the LAPD?’ And if I voted for that mayor, why am I not more outraged about that? And if I’m someone who has a larger voice, maybe I’m a donor, maybe I’m an L.A.-based celebrity with a larger platform. Maybe I even know the mayor. Why am I not going and using my voice? Because the people who have been using those voices don’t have that access like some wealthier, more powerful people do.”

That disconnect between statements and action is maybe most evident in one particular “Problem Areas” participant. Amidst a cross-section of people from current and former police officers, activists, civil rights attorneys, and other various advocates of reform was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. In recent weeks, de Blasio has faced a widespread wave of criticism over his handling of not just the city’s curfew and public statements about NYPD conduct, but decisions around the evolving pandemic.

On “Problem Areas,” de Blasio tried to project a better understanding of systemic causes and meaningful steps to curb police violence. Cenac says that even though the mayor’s relative inaction is disappointing, it’s not particularly surprising.

“I kind of always felt like this is how he was going to respond. Some of that is because we never get into these conversations of who has the ear of a mayor or a governor, and who has the political pressure to apply on these people. There’s something in the structure of politics that will make a person lose their convictions real quick. The police union has been able to put a lot of pressure on these politicians, to give them the freedom to do what they want,” Cenac said. “One of the stories we wanted to do and couldn’t get access — we wanted to go visit the training facility that the NYPD has here in New York that cost $950 million. That’s $950 million of city taxpayer money. And I think anybody who lives in the city, if you were to ask them how to spend a billion dollars, I feel like many would be like, ‘Well, wait a minute. Why are we spending it here when there’s so many other things we could spend it on?'”

Much of the public conversation around policing — and potential immediate action — is now centered on that idea of resources. With calls for reallocating police budgets toward other public programs, “Problem Areas” offers a window into one possible future avenue. The idea of restorative justice presents a path to reconciliation that doesn’t use prescriptive sentencing practices as a primary foundation. The episode below offers one such case.

As Cenac points out in that episode, it’s far from an automatic alternative. It’s one that requires active, ongoing participation. While implementing similar options would take time to grow in scale, it’s one of the key ways we can start to rethink an institution at large.

“There’s a problem within the criminal justice system as it’s currently constructed and we need to figure out why is this the system that we’ve chosen. Why is the model that we’ve chosen one that is so punitive?” Cenac said. “Instead, maybe there’s something we could be doing in our criminal justice system that allows people who have committed crimes to take responsibility early on, to do something that can perhaps provide solace to the person who had a crime committed against them. Different people may have different solutions. But it feels like the bigger problem is, there is a criminal justice system that, currently as constructed, incentivizes people who commit crimes to not want to take responsibility for those crimes they’ve committed.”

From police shootings in Sacramento to the idea that teachers have to take second jobs to make ends meet, “Problem Areas” is very much aware of how many of the fundamental issues of today have precedent. Those past cases didn’t go unnoticed at the time, either.

“With both seasons, I found myself wanting to just go back and look at old magazines, and how these stories were reported in archival footage. I find myself looking at this cyclical nature, that this moment that we’re in feels very similar to the moment we were in two years ago,” Cenac said. “It feels similar to the moment that people in Cincinnati were in in 2000, after the deaths of Timothy Thomas and Roger Owensby, Jr. They feel very similar to moments from the ’80s and ’70s and ’60s. Unfortunately, the cycle will continue. What you hope is that at each point in the cycle, people get a little bit smarter, people become a little more empathetic. This will most likely happen again in the next few years, but can we be better than we were in this moment and in the moments before it?”

Both seasons of “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” are now available on both YouTube and HBOGO.

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