David Simon is tired of losing.
On the stage of Bucknell University's Weis Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 18, the executive producer and head writer of acclaimed television series The Wire described the brutality America's War on Drugs has wreaked on poor communities in cities like Baltimore, the setting of The Wire and Simon's home.
"I want to win," Simon said. "I was a police reporter for 30 years of losing. It would be nice to see it all roll back."
But for Simon, victory in the War on Drugs doesn't mean ramping up the same tactics that have helped endow America with the largest prison population in the world, increasingly militarized police forces, and exacerbated divisions along race and class lines. It means putting an end to that failed approach altogether.
Simon, a journalist, author, screenwriter and producer whose credits also include NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, and HBO's Treme, The Corner, Generation Kill and Show me a Hero, was the latest speaker in the 2014-16 Bucknell Forum speaker series, Revolution Redefined.
The series explores social change and how it has — or has not — evolved over time. Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum has brought to campus nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators examining various issues from multidisciplinary and diverse viewpoints. The Revolution Redefined series previously featured musician and actor Common, actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox and anthropologist Jane Goodall.
As a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper from 1983 to 1995, Simon got a ground-level view of the drug trade in one of America's most impoverished cities. He described how he began to see the economic motivation of those involved in drug trafficking in a city whose manufacturing economy had collapsed, and the improbability of drug prohibition stopping it. The drug trade offered a source of income for a sector of the population left with few alternatives.
"The drug trade is the largest employer in my city by far — second is Johns Hopkins University," Simon said. "And we were saying to [Baltimore residents], don't go take that job. ... We might have been in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948 and saying don't go work in the steel mills, or in southern West Virginia in 1930 and saying don't go down in the mines."
Simon said he supports good police work, but also said the shakedown approach to policing the War on Drugs ushered in has been devastating not only for the residents of cities like Baltimore, but also for those charged with policing them.
"It was such an impractical policy," Simon said. "It was so contrary to what police needed to be doing, it was getting in their way. ... We trained a generation of cops how not to do police work."
He described how communities of color, and poor communities in particular, have been both over-policed for minor, nonviolent infractions at the expense of devoting resources to solving more serious crimes — creating tension and distrust between residents and police that has come to a head in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. Simon said he began noticing signs of that rift some 35 years ago, when the drug war was only beginning to ratchet up.
In 1988, a year Simon spent embedded with homicide detectives in Baltimore (an experience he chronicled in his book Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets, and fictionalized in The Wire), the clearance rate — the rate at which a suspect is charged with a crime — for homicide cases in Baltimore was 70 percent, above the national average, Simon said. Even then, detectives complained that "the phone sure doesn't ring like it used to." Today the clearance rate has dropped to 30 percent, and only a little better than 1 in 10 of those who murder in the city ever see punishment through the legal system, he said.
"At that point you've lost the deterrent," he said. "You're not actually policing what you're trying to police, but the neighborhood is no longer with you. The drug war did that. ... The phone today ... in the homicide division doesn't ring at all."
The situation has grown so dire that some of the most conservative policy framers have come to recognize it as a problem — Simon noted that during a recent meeting on the issue at the White House, he sat next to Newt Gingrich and a representative from a Koch brothers-backed group. But Simon said he has little faith that Congress, beholden to big money interests such as the private prison industry, will take the hard stand needed to end the War on Drugs. So what can those outside the halls of power do about it?
Simon encouraged audience members to vote for candidates who "are for one America, not for two," and, should they ever find themselves on a jury for a non-violent drug-related crime, to seriously consider an unorthodox tactic that helped end America's 13-year prohibition of alcohol: to simply refuse to convict regardless of the evidence presented.
"The only people who can get us out of this is us," Simon said. "I've come here ... to urge that you to be part of the solution, and [that] you send a message back to this government that there can only be one America."