Current Drug Policy, Jurisprudence, Race

“War on the Underclass”

Chances are decent that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the HBO program The Wire.

I say this because if you find yourself on this blog you are either: (a) Interested in drug policy, which is a central inquiry of The Wire, or (b) A friend or family member of mine, which means that I’ve likely tried to foist the series on you at some point.

The Wire ran from 2002-2008, and it was television at its finest. I would be hard-pressed to qualify that statement.

Last week, an actress who played a criminal character on The Wire, Felicia Pearson, was one of 64 people charged in a federal drug raid in Baltimore. Here are two of the many Baltimore Sun articles detailing the event and Pearson’s connection:

The raid, generally

With a focus on Pearson

There are likely dozens of commentaries out right now detailing the bust and the tragic art/life connection thereby manifested. Pearson was fantastic on the show, in no small part because the content of The Wire was but a pinky’s stretch away from her real-life circumstances.

As much as this interests me, I admit it has little to do with the history of drug law. However, David Simon, creator of The Wire and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, released an incisive statement through HBO commenting on Pearson’s arrest that I feel is connected to early drug law. Here is that statement:

Simon on Pearson Bust

Additionally, here’s a equally incisive piece Simon and the other Wire writers wrote a few years back on drug policy that directly talks about legal history:

The Drug War & The Wire, Time Magazine

One of the snippets of my conversation with Professor Reuel Schiller that didn’t get published was a musing by Schiller on the possibility that modern drug reform movements falter in part because they fail to successfully make the connection between the dubious current state of American drug policy and it’s equally dubious beginnings. He posited that the “inertia” of drug legislation rolls over new ideas, and keeps it going strong. Obviously, I agree with this. This belief is why I found a line from Simon in his Pearson statement particularly dejecting:

“…we believe the war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass…”

(He’s referring to the Time piece in this quote.)

Given that Simon is, in some sense, a public expert on the sad state of current drug policy, it troubles me that the “devolved” argument is what he has to resort to.

As I hope some of the cases I’ve discussed on this blog show, our country’s drug policy has not devolved into a war on the underclass (i.e. minority groups) –  it has never been anything but.

There are obviously political motivations here that I am hilariously under-qualified to assess, but I question the tactic of arguing that the war on drugs has “gotten out of control,” as opposed to just insisting/admitting that it never was under control. I think the misstep is that the former seems to imply that it can be wrangled back in – which is difficult to do with a beast that was never tame or well-behaved to begin with. (Probably too much with that metaphor, but I hope you get what I’m saying.)

As I’ve mentioned before, when I first learned about the ridiculous sources of drug law, it immediately changed my perspective on the current state of drug policy (or at least cemented my leanings). And so I wonder, in a self-serving way, if more light on the origins couldn’t help illuminate the path away a little better. Which is why I established this blog.

In some ways, it’s clear that history doesn’t make a lick of difference in legal debates. For example, take the debate on including the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Despite being widely publicized, the historical fact that those words were added to the original pledge during a reactionary anti-Communist period seems to have little effect on what current Americans think about their inclusion. People who want the words out generally seem to want them out for reasons besides just the outdated historical context of their insertion, and people who want the words in generally seem to want them in for reasons beyond just a mythical longstanding tradition.

Which leads me to an incredibly depressing quote from Simon, which he gave in an interview with Vice magazine just over a year ago. Here’s the reporter’s question preceding the quote, about Simon’s take on the impact of the  The Wire:

It seems that wrapping up these commentaries on American society within fictions might be the only way to get a lot of people to engage with problems like poverty and drugs and the disappearance of industry. Have you seen the messages in The Wire resonate for viewers beyond the level of entertainment?

And then here’s Simon’s no-holds-barred, self-deprecating answer:

“No. I think that some people got it and they may react differently the next time some shit-spitting politician shows up to say that with a little bit more of a business base and more cops and more lawyers we can win the war on drugs. There may be a little bit more dissent on some of the points we hit the hardest. But I don’t believe that a television show or, for that matter, even the systemic efforts of journalism can change the dynamic. Not even very good journalism, of which there is less and less.”

Yech. Just leaves a full-on stink in your mustache, that thought does.

But I can’t say I don’t see his point. Especially with the notion of “the dynamic,” being much more static and outside of the finer points of the issue. It is hard for people to internalize a narrative from a dynamic of today and honestly have it change their dynamics for tomorrow. I think there’s a general idea that “Well, I kind of knew that was going on, it sucks, but it’s who we are.” I think this is the “inertia” that Schiller was talking about.

What I wonder, though, having experienced it myself, is if a narrative from yesterday is more effective at stopping that inertia. You know, more backward yank? Something like how when you stand on the edge of a teeter-totter you exert way more force on it than when you stand closer to the fulcrum? Right? I’m just saying, I wonder.

(Note: Anytime “I wonder,” is used in this post, what I actually mean is “I hope to God for the non-trivialness of this blog.”)

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