While the first time visiting the Chautauqua Institution—a non-for-profit, 750-acre educational center set up as an experimental, out-of-school educational spot for vacation learning—David Simon was very much aware of its existence and mission towards the “American spirit”. Bolstered by an anecdote to prove as much, the former Baltimore Sun beat reporter turned TV icon shared how his father once told him to promise never to use profanity if he was ever invited to speak at the venerated, historical site. It stemmed from him taking a red pen to his son’s original draft of novel Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, going to town on the vulgarities used to instill an authenticity to how cops spoke. David’s favorite edit: turning “piss drunk” into “drunk to the point of urination”.
Once this connective tissue to the amphitheater’s locale concluded and a joke about the venue probably not being conducive to an hour talking about how awesome Omar Little was in his masterpiece “The Wire” earned laughs, Simon segued into the real point of contention he felt necessary to speak on: the Drug War. As someone who spent years of his life entrenched on the front lines in Baltimore, hanging with the dealers on corners for story information when not befriending the cops chasing them, this is a man who understands exactly what has and hasn’t worked. Whether or not you agree with his insights, politics, or delivery doesn’t negate the fact that he has more right than most to say it simply isn’t working and why.
Buzz phrases came out in full force with “We’re all complicit”, “Police work has become a thing of the past”, “No one works harder in America than a drug addict”, and “We met a lot of lost souls [on the streets], but very few fools”. He credited a Baltimore PD officer Donald Warden for saying, “Stupid criminals make for stupid cops” and in turn explained how the war on drug’s statistical focus used to commoditize a once hardworking manufacturing class rendered the skill sets necessary to solve violent crimes extinct. When the only factory left to serve these lost souls is the corner, they can’t help but gravitate towards it. And as policing became handcuffing one hundred non-violent loiterers a month, we bred “a generation of [cops] and supervisors who couldn’t work a federal case to save their lives”.
Simon’s “The Wire” speaks on this fact with its depiction of actual police work being punished because a month’s worth of case building only results in the incarceration of one church robber instead of ten times the amount in young unarmed kids peddling at the corner for a clientele estimated to be 60% suburbanites driving down on payday for a fix. The guys who play the system get promoted and the chain of command waters down until no hope is left. The prisons became for-profit institutions; governments began labeling crack as more lethal than cocaine because blacks use the former and whites use the latter despite their chemical equality; and our nation started “prosecuting with discretion” after it dehumanized and flipped the moneymaking switch the quickest way it could.
Simon’s passion on the subject makes him biased, but he has good reason. It’s hard not to agree after learning how the African American members of his crew shooting late on Baltimore streets got picked up for loitering with the drug dealers and how Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson became a scapegoat. Her tale is tragic because she rehabilitated herself after a stint in jail, but found local fame brining old friends back for favors. And once her celebrity is caught on a wiretap, it doesn’t really matter what was said. A wire meant a minimum two years awaiting trial, but instead of granting bail they told her freedom cost $400 a week to have a third party corporation affix her with an ankle bracelet. A year rendered her so broke she had to take a plea.
From here Simon spoke on how quieter cities around America still think the war can be won while those in the thick of things have acknowledged its futility. He lambasted Bill Clinton for being the worst culprit as far as negating civil liberties during the drug war, calling him lethal in comparison to the Bushs—a statement surely surprising to a mostly liberal audience quick to take shots at Dubya. And he posited that we must use the money we’re losing the war with to instead increase treatment and education options, something no president since Richard Nixon cared to do. Calling people who turn a blind eye to ruining whole communities by justifying it keeps “their kids safe” cowards, Simon justly relays that your kids will always find drugs if they really want them.
So what can we do as citizens to help turn things around? For Simon the answer is jury nullification—something he says goes back to the English Commonwealth and the Zenger Trial in the US. It’s a legal action wherein a jury acquits a defendant they believe guilty of the charges against them because they disagree with the law itself. Simon says this is how Prohibition ended; that no court could find twelve people to sentence the newest bootlegger to prison. If he’s ever on a jury with a non-violent criminal charged with possession when so many violent cases run cold due to a lack of manpower and interest, he’ll declare “not guilty”. Personally I think this is a gross simplification of the problem at hand, but conceptually I agree with the thought process behind it.
Simon followed this idea with a few more soundbytes in a welcome Q&A. He spoke on how “The Wire” could only show the drug war as farce because drama can’t be prescriptive. Once you start preaching you’ll lose your audience, so you can only depict what’s happening by refusing to “pull punches or exaggerate”. He called out folks against universal healthcare not because he necessarily agrees with it, but because he hates people who only want to scream socialism when it starts applying to the masses rather than just themselves. With a majority of hands raised after being asked the question of who supports group healthcare, Simon called everyone Communist pigs. If you can’t abide by socialism, “pay the doctor out of your pocket and stop playing games”.
He says there is a compulsion in America that has every person falling prey to “tolerable addictions”. The war on drugs hasn’t stopped or increased addiction—it pretty much has stayed consistent across the board. The issue instead is how the government willingly uses this fight to line pockets at the expense of an entire population now fully conscious of the fact they are no longer necessary beyond a statistical role. Simon says we’re not training “them” for “our” America; we’re training “them” for “theirs”. The only way to fix what’s broke is to go back to living as a society with one singular goal towards equality for all—not some. “Incarceration should be our endgame, our failure”. It should never be our first reaction.
Oh, and for those who say New Orleans wasn’t worth saving? The “Treme” creator says, “They can go fuck themselves”. America has given the world many things, but in his mind the one people will remember most is African American music—jazz to soul and beyond. It was born in that small part of Louisiana and that alone makes it imperative.