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Editorial Points for This Week
April 10, 2008
Will "The Wire" change our take on the drug war?

The HBO series 'The Wire' ended its final season last month. The show - which deconstructed the drug war in the city of Baltimore in sweeping form over five seasons - was a perennial disappointment in Nielsen ratings. Even the much-hyped final episode drew only one-tenth of the viewers who tuned in for Tony Soprano's swan song.

But, there are a growing number of fiercely devoted fans. Count Boston's police commissioner, Ed Davis, among them. Davis took a front row seat to watch a forum devoted to the show and its themes last Friday afternoon at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, along with 300 others. In the waning days of the show's run, co-creator David Simon has become sought-after as a speaker on college campuses. Simon took a buyout amid a rash of cutbacks at the Baltimore Sun in 1995 and landed in television.

At right: "The Wire" forum at Harvard's Kennedy School last Friday included, left to right, Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson, series co-creator David Simon, Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston, Harlem Children's Zone President Geoffrey Canada, and Columbia University Professor Sudhir Venkatesh. Photo by Michael Casey

And perhaps it's for the good: A Baltimore native, Simon is as outspoken as he is pessimistic. In his Harvard remarks, Simon railed against the "war on drugs" in American cities; he castigated newspapers - the Sun in particular - for abandoning real journalism as they hustle for Pulitzers; and he proclaimed that the American republic - he calls it an "oligarchy" - is effectively on the steep downhill.

Why does a Harvard audience - let alone Ed Davis, - care what Simon, a self-described "TV hack," thinks about anything? Fans of "The Wire" understand. For five consecutive seasons, the series' cameras panned across the underbelly of Maryland's old port city; they scoured low-rise tenements, dockyards and police precincts for some rhyme or reason in the "war" against narcotics. It's damning verdict, if it must be narrowed down to one: America's drug-enforcement policies are a failure and a fraud. More to the point, they are amoral, largely preying upon ghettoized people of color for whom, Simon argues, the drug trade is the only viable hope of upward mobility. The system - or the "game" in the show's street-accurate parlance - depends on the willing participation of all sides to perpetuate an endless cycle of addiction, violence, and prosecution.

Meanwhile, Simon argues, police in places like Baltimore have either forgotten how to be "real police," or were never taught what that means in the first place. We are so consumed with wiping out the scourge of drugs through arrests and incarceration, Simon says, that we have taken our collective eye off the ball on the real crimes, like homicides, which proceed at a record pace in his hometown, despite large-scale drug sweeps. The bottom line: We can't arrest our way out of the drug problem. And while we try, in vain, to do so our cities are drowning amid entrenched poverty, unsolved murders and a pervasive culture of death.

When pressed for his advice to policy-makers, Simon is characteristically pessimistic. Politicians won't change anything, he says, because they'll end up like Bunny, the fictional Baltimore police captain who clandestinely "legalizes" dope sales in one block of his district in hopes of saving the rest of the neighborhood: They'll get drummed out of office.

Simon's one hope, he says, is that more Americans join him in a pledge that he outlined in a column in Time magazine in March 2008. Alongside Dorchester's own Dennis Lehane - who scripted two episodes of "The Wire" - Simon and several other authors declared their intention to invoke a form of perfectly legal protest: jury nullification.

Simon and Lehane say that - if seated on a jury - they will refuse to convict any defendant for a non-violent drug offense, no matter what the evidence says about their guilt. Juries have the right to disagree with the morality of any law, though judges rarely admit it.

"Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will ... no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war," Simon and Lehane wrote. "No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens."

Simon half-joked to the forum audience that his public pledge has probably done nothing more than ensure he'll never again be called for jury duty. We're not so sure. If nothing else, "The Wire" has sown seeds of doubt among the million or so Americans who've been addicted to the program for the last five years. And they are just the beginning. As most critics have noted, "The Wire" - no matter what your take on Simon's philosophies, is likely to live on as a piece of television royalty, a document of our times. That distinction, surely, is worth far more than the Emmys that Simon and his team never won.

Commissioner Davis remains a Wire fan, although he did look a bit perplexed by the end of Simon's talk.

"I can't afford to be a pessimist," Davis told us as the forum emptied.

-Bill Forry

 

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