America’s most informed
roots of tragic events
America’s expert on the Baltimore strife David Simon.
To truly understand the recent tragic events in Baltimore, one need consult only America’s foremost expert on the thoroughly corrupt criminal justice system in that city – and others throughout the country.
Former Baltimore Sun police reporter and acclaimed television producer David Simon – who has since become a prominent crusader for an end to the “war on drugs” – minces no words.
“[The police are] an army of occupation. And once it’s that, then everybody’s the enemy,” he said in an interview published April 29.
“The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.”
Watch a video of Simon chatting with President Obama below the fold.
Simon almost predicted an explosion of resentment in Baltimore in his acclaimed five-season HBO dramatic series The Wire in which the brutal and corrupt police war on drugs was portrayed as the chief villain.
We have been following his crusade periodically since our May, 2013 post Noted TV producer blasts war on drugs in which he described it as “a holocaust in slow motion.”
“Drugs are the only industry left in places such as Baltimore and East St. Louis,” Simon said in an appearance then in the UK covered by The Observer newspaper.
President Obama chats with “The Wire” producer David Simon at The White House in March. Click image to enlarge.
To understand the roots of the troubles that have engulfed Baltimore – and Ferguson, MI and North Charlestown, S.C. among other places – spend a few minutes reading Simon’s riveting interview with Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish at The Marshall Project.
It is a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system in America today.
“It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny,” Simon told Keller. “Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street.
“Probable cause was whatever [the police] thought [they] could safely lie about when [they] got into district court,” he says.
The ubiquity of video cameras may have begun to change that, Simon notes optimistically, as the charges against police officers in Baltimore and N. Charlestown seem to bear out.
However, Simon never framed his critique in racial terms, as many have done recently, but rather in social and economic terms.
“… [A]t some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism….
“What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down … And the city (Baltimore) willingly and legally gave itself over to that.”
Barely a month ago, Simon visited with President Obama in the White House to discuss the war on drugs and its impact on inner cities.
In the televised March 26 event A Conversation with President Obama and The Wire Creator David Simon, he says that when he was a reporter there Baltimore was a drug-saturated city.
“People thought they could arrest their way out of the drug problem. But it doesn’t work. It’s draconian and it doesn’t work,” he said.
“I watched the police department in Baltimore and then I noticed it in other cities with the same sort of problems … they stopped doing police work,” he told the president.
Instead, they focused on minor drug offenders as serious crimes went unsolved, he said.
Although the war on drugs is the most pernicious problem, it is not happening in a vacuum, Simon noted. “These are the places in America where deindustrialization is having the most effect. Where the actual unemployment rate among black males in my city bears no resemblance to the unemployment rate nationally.”
In his thoughtful response, President Obama obviously got the message.
“Here’s the good news,” Obama said. “There is an increasing realization … politically that what we’re doing is counter-productive. We are all responsible for at least finding a solution to this.”
The president recognizes the social and economic dimensions to the problems. “Ultimately you’re going to have to address some of the environmental issues…we’re going to have to think about schools, and counselors and mental health and ultimately jobs and re-industrialization. We understand all that,” he said.
Simon is not a newcomer to the crusade to reform the criminal justice system. As long ago as 2009 he eloquently stated the case in an Interview with Bill Moyers which Moyers set up this way:
Bill Moyers interviews David Simon at the end of the fifth season of “The Wire” in 2009. Click image to enlarge.
“David Simon and his creative team, including Ed Burns, a cop turned teacher, used the City of Baltimore and the drug wars there as a metaphor for America’s urban underbelly.
“Through storytelling brutally honest and dramatic, Simon and crew created a tale of corruption, despair and betrayal as devastating as any Greek tragedy.”
Simon’s critique was as sharp then as it is today, framing the issue in socio-economic terms.
“The fact that these really are the excess people in America,” he said in 2009. “We – our economy doesn’t need them. We don’t need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it.”
Even six years ago, Simon was unequivocal about the solution.
“I would decriminalize drugs in a heartbeat. I would put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it, as fast as I could, into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs.”
He repeated this in his March conversation with the president.
“To undo [the harm], taking the overlay that is the drug war and at least ratcheting it down and making it proportional in some way is essential because right now what drugs don’t destroy the war against them is ripping apart,” he told Obama.
Simon is onto something.
Until Baltimore erupted in flames a week ago, the videotaped police misconduct – from Rodney King in 1992 through Walter Scott in North Charlestown in early April – has been framed in racial terms: it involved white officers and black victims.
But the events in Baltimore show that police abuse knows no racial boundaries: the mayor and police chief are both black, as are three of the officers facing charges in the death of Freddie Gray.
As David Simon has convincingly argued, the criminal justice system itself is on trial. For more than 40 years, since President Nixon declared it, the “war on drugs,” has exerted a corrupt and corrupting influence on police departments everywhere.
It is not the only cause, but a major contributing factor. Until real police work and the social and economic collapse of the inner cities are prioritized, the root cause of the police abuse will continue to remain unaddressed.
We can – and must – do better.
Watch David Simon’s conversation with President Obama
and his 2009 interview with Bill Moyers below.
The Moyers interview
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