The events in Baltimore have been the focus of the national news for the past few days, so naturally David Simon, the creator of the celebrated HBO series The Wire, and former Baltimore Sun police reporter has opinions that everyone is supposed to take seriously. His short blog post in response to the protests on Monday night calling on people in the streets to “go home” unless they plan on expressing their outrage in a manner everyone is comfortable with has been making the rounds since. But, as is often the case with his blog, one can learn more about him by observing how he responds to the objections of his readers. For example, when pressed on his own tactics in response to state repression of the people he claims to advocate for, Simon offered this as a potentially effective alternative:
I just attended a bipartisan conference on reforming sentencing culture so as to reduce the federal prison population by 50 percent. I met with President Obama who addressed the group, arguing for the agenda. On the left at my table was Newt Gingrich, who was one sponsor of the bipartisan effort, on my right was a vice president of Koch Industries. The keynote speaker was the Governor of the Great Red State of Georgia, who has undertaken exactly this agenda of abandoning mass incarceration. In that state, it has already happened without a corresponding rise in crime. The general sense in Washington is that sentencing reform on the federal level might actually be an achieveable reform because of the new sensibilities of libertarians, conservatives and liberals to the costs and brutalities of doing what we have been doing.
Not as much fun as burning down a North Avenue liquor store, I know. But we all do what we think might help, I suppose.
Another lesson in tactical alliances and the virtue of petitioning the state from a handwringing, declinist liberal? Who could have seen that coming? I suppose Simon will be relieved to hear that Hillary Clinton has announced a new commitment to criminal justice reform this morning. (For those who need it here’s, in part, a reminder of some of Obama’s record, which obviously contradicts many of the things he campaigned on, lest you take anything Hillary Clinton now says at face value.)
Elsewhere in the comments, the issue of Israel/Palestine came up, and Simon put his politics on full display:
The Israelis do indeed need to own their intransigence and their unwillingness to empower the Palestinean [sic] authority. But the critique of the Palestinean cause for much of the last sixty years is straight-up true: If the Palestinean cause had manufactured some version of a Mandela, a King, a Gandhi or even a Michael Collins — someone capable of using non-violence, compromise and moral suasion to truly challenge the Israeli policies where they are most vulnerable, there would by now be a Palestinean state on the West Bank.
You hear that Palestinians? Put down your arms, find a great man among you capable of compromise, and you’ll get your state. And who knows where we’d be in this country if the ensuing generations were able to produce another MLK…
Simon doesn’t stop there, but I’ll spare you the rest. I will, however, mention a few other things, just in case you think I’m lashing out randomly. Here’s a reminder of his notorious response to the initial Snowden disclosures that ended up being an early indication of the authoritarian stupidity that would dominate our national discourse even more than usual. More recently, he had a conversation with late-blooming critic of the drug war, President Barack Obama:
It should be self-evident by now, but in case it isn’t: You don’t get an audience with the president, much less receive praise for creating “one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple decades,” without being compromised in all the right ways. And of course, Simon plays ball and speaks of the damage done to “the other America” without addressing the possibility that the guy sitting across from him may be slightly more responsible for these problems than the rest of us. But why would he press it? As we saw recently with the attack on Cornel West, if you cross the line, you’re out, no matter who you are.
And now this morning, Simon is on the record once again weaving his declinist narrative in an interview with Bill Keller (yes, that one) for a non-profit called The Marshall Project. Simon spends most of it bemoaning the way “real policing” has largely disappeared since the inception of the drug war, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his work. But here’s a sample for the uninitiated:
For example, you look at the people that Baltimore was beating down in that list in THAT STORY THE SUN PUBLISHED LAST YEAR2 about municipal payouts for police brutality, and it shows no discernable or coherent pattern. There’s no code at all, it’s just, what side of the bed did I get up on this morning and who looked at me first? And that is a function of people failing to learn how to police. When you are beating on 15-year-old kids and elderly retirees – and you aren’t even managing to put even plausible misdemeanor charges on some arrestees, you’ve lost all professional ethos.
The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was MARTIN O’MALLEY3. He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart. Everyone thinks I’ve got a hard-on for Marty because we battled over “The Wire,” whether it was bad for the city, whether we’d be filming it in Baltimore. But it’s been years, and I mean, that’s over. I shook hands with him on the train last year and we buried it. And, hey, if he’s the Democratic nominee, I’m going to end up voting for him. It’s not personal and I admire some of his other stances on the death penalty and gay rights. But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.
And he concludes with the following:
I mean, I know there are still a good many Baltimore cops who know their jobs and do their jobs some real integrity and even precision. But if you look at why the city of Baltimore paid that $5.7 million for beating down people over the last few years, it’s clear that there are way too many others for whom no code exists. Anyone and everyone was a potential ass-whipping – even people that were never otherwise charged with any real crimes. It’s astonishing.
By the standard of that long list, Freddie Gray becomes almost plausible as a victim. He was a street guy. And before he came along, there were actual working people — citizens, taxpayers — who were indistinguishable from criminal suspects in the eyes of the police who were beating them down. Again, that’s a department that has a diminished capacity to actually respond to crime or investigate crime, or to even distinguish innocence or guilt. And that comes from too many officers who came up in a culture that taught them not the hard job of policing, but simply how to roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.
Here are some similar sentiments from The Wire:
One can cite statistics as evidence of a deviation from a “protect and serve” standard that used to define American police work, but I think the logic of our institutions hasn’t changed at all in this country. Progressive forces may have shifted some things over the years, but I think the assault on the underclass, as evidenced by the dystopian carceral state we’re living in, is not the result of a mistake, or an overreach, or a new institutional cynicism, instead, it’s the same power structure with the same imperatives responding to new conditions and seizing an opportunity that may not have been there before. But perhaps that’s an argument for another time.
People like Simon continue to attract attention in the mainstream by presenting what can seem like a uniquely aggressive and sophisticated critique of power, while maintaining their permissible status by directing anger and dissent into dead ends that serve the status quo. I’m not sure if these flare-ups in Baltimore and elsewhere are an indication of a larger, more radical response to unaccountable state violence, but I continue to think it’s important that everyone that cares about these things learns how to think and act outside the parameters laid down for us by the anointed members of the media class.