March 10, 2008
Lucky me — because I think premium cable TV is a waste of money, I’ve held off from watching The Wire even as it had everybody around me doing John the Baptist imitations. Instead, I waited for the DVD season box sets to come out. Now, while all y’all have to go cold turkey on Bubbles, Bodie and Wallace, I get to wallow in season after season without knowing what’s going to happen.
I’m not yet done with the first season, but I can see what everybody’s been yelling about — The Wire is easily the best, more ambitious and clear-eyed crime series ever shown on television.
Since “clear-eyed” is a big part of the show’s appeal, it’s no surprise to see that the creators of The Wire have written an op-ed piece denouncing the drug war. Apparently the show’s skepticism has struck a chord with viewers:
These viewers, admittedly a small shard of the TV universe, deluge us with one question: What can we do? If there are two Americas — separate and unequal — and if the drug war has helped produce a psychic chasm between them, how can well-meaning, well-intentioned people begin to bridge those worlds?
And for five seasons, we answered lamely, offering arguments about economic priorities or drug policy, debating theoreticals within our tangled little drama. We were storytellers, not advocates; we ducked the question as best we could.
Yet this war grinds on, flooding our prisons, devouring resources, turning city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. To what end? State and federal prisons are packed with victims of the drug conflict. A new report by the Pew Center shows that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. — and 1 in 15 black men over 18 — is currently incarcerated. That’s the world’s highest rate of imprisonment.
The drug war has ravaged law enforcement too. In cities where police agencies commit the most resources to arresting their way out of their drug problems, the arrest rates for violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault — have declined. In Baltimore, where we set The Wire, drug arrests have skyrocketed over the past three decades, yet in that same span, arrest rates for murder have gone from 80% and 90% to half that. Lost in an unwinnable drug war, a new generation of law officers is no longer capable of investigating crime properly, having learned only to make court pay by grabbing cheap, meaningless drug arrests off the nearest corner.
What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago, we’ve been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.
Our leaders? There aren’t any politicians — Democrat or Republican — willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America’s most profound and enduring policy failure.
The letter ends by endorsing jury nullification in drug trials — jurors voting to acquit on any drug charge not involving violence or the intent to commit violence. Since the overwhelming majority of drug cases never come to trial — they’re usually plea-bargained — I’m not sure what relevance the idea will have. But anyone who’s willing to talk sense on this issue deserves attention.
Dennis Lehane talks about the letter with NPR.