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The Drug War Has to End: David Simon on “The Wire” & Over-Policing of the Poor

StoryAugust 26, 2015
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In his acclaimed TV show “The Wire,” David Simon captured the city of Baltimore from the angles of street-level drug dealers, beat police officers and journalists covering corrupt politicians. Earlier this year, President Obama described “The Wire” as “one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art, in the last couple of decades.” Simon said he aimed to portray how “raw, unencumbered capitalism” devalues human beings. Nearly a decade ago in Slate, Jacob Weisberg wrote: “No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.”

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StoryAug 26, 2015Two Separate Americas: David Simon’s New Mini-Series Looks at “Hypersegregation” in Public Housing
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pogues’ Philip Chevron’s “Faithful Departed.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest for the hour is the acclaimed television writer, producer, journalist, David Simon. You like that song? You like The Pogues?

DAVID SIMON: I love The Pogues. I love Phil Chevron, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re doing a new project with—

DAVID SIMON: Phil Chevron actually was a fan of the American musical, of all things. And he came to myself and my wife, Laura Lippman, and George Pelecanos, writer I work with, and he was interested in seeing if The Pogues’ music could be adapted for an American musical and—for a musical, I should say. And we went to work on it. And the draft that we currently have, at least, has sufficient merit that The Public Theater here in New York has picked it up as a project to work on and try to develop.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, right now, let’s talk about The Wire, about the city of Baltimore, your city, which has been described—The Wire has been described as the best show on television, the best television series ever broadcast. USA Today called it “astounding.” It was known for creatively explaining some of the most complex principles of capitalism and industry. This is a conversation between three street-level drug dealers about who’s really profiting from McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.

WALLACE: [played by Michael B. Jordan] Man, these [bleep] is right, yo.

MALIKPOOTCARR: [played by Tray Chaney] Mm-hmm.

WALLACE: Mm, good with the hot sauce, too, yo.

MALIKPOOTCARR: Most definite.

WALLACE: Yo, D. You want some nuggets?

D’ANGELO BARKSDALE: [played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr.] Not really, man.

WALLACE: Man, whoever invented these, he off the hook.


WALLACE: Mm. [bleep] got the bone all the way out the damn chicken. 'Til he came along, [bleep] be chewin' on drumsticks and [bleep], gettin’ they fingers all greasy. He said, “Later for the bone. Let’s nugget that meat up and make some real money.”

MALIKPOOTCARR: You think the man got paid?


MALIKPOOTCARR: The man who invented these.

WALLACE: [bleep], he richer than a mother [bleep].

D’ANGELO BARKSDALE: Why? You think he get a percentage?

WALLACE: Why not?

D’ANGELO BARKSDALE: [bleep], please. The man who invented them things, just some sad ass down at the basement of McDonald’s, thinkin’ up some [bleep] to make some money for the real players.

MALIKPOOTCARR: Naw, man, that ain’t right.

D’ANGELO BARKSDALE: [bleep] “right.” It ain’t about right, it’s about money. Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down in that basement and say, “Hey, Mr. Nugget, you the bomb. We sellin’ chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I’m gonna write my clowny-ass name on this fat-ass check for you”?

WALLACE: [bleep].

D’ANGELO BARKSDALE: Man, the [bleep] who invented them things still workin’ in the basement for regular wage, thinkin’ up some [bleep] to make the fries taste better, some [bleep] like that. Believe.

WALLACE: Still had the idea though.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from The Wire.

DAVID SIMON: That’s pretty much macroeconomics. That’s—yeah, that’s capitalism as it actually exists.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you were doing with The Wire. For someone who has just come to this country, knows nothing about it, and it has a huge cult following.

DAVID SIMON: Yeah, it’s hard to sort of sum up 60 hours, but if I had to put it in a paragraph, it’s a city in which a rigged game is demonstrated, and power routes itself and money routes itself away from our characters. It’s a critique of modern capitalism, of our unencumbered capitalism or only modestly encumbered capitalism, as the case may be. And it’s also a—on a more practical sort of episode-to-episode level, it’s an argument against the drug war and the over-policing of the poor. And I thought if it could accomplish anything, maybe it could get an argument started about the drug war, because having covered it for most of my time as a reporter—it was probably the biggest issue I covered—there was nothing about it that was functional. It was the most dystopic policy. Everything it claimed to try to address, in terms of illegal drug use or the bad that drugs do, it had very little effect on, and instead it became a war on the poor. And I didn’t believe that at first. I came to it sort of innocently as a young reporter, but by the time I had finished covering it and written The Corner and done the work I had done, I was unalterably against it as policy. So, it was a critique of the drug war, specifically. But overlaying that was an argument that we’ve created, almost by will, these two separate Americas, and the economic rules that we apply to one don’t work in the other. And we know that, and we’re comfortable with that.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about two different Americas. You say your country, America, is a “horror show.” You’ve been quoted as saying that.

DAVID SIMON: You know, in terms of—you know, my country is a lot of different things. I’m not speaking of the entire—you know, I’m an American. I wish to affirm as an American. But economically and politically and socially, the fact that we are these two separate Americas traveling distinctly different paths—you know, I live in one—I live in Baltimore. I live in a city that I love. I live 20 blocks away from the world of The Wire. And, you know, I mean, just on a level of violence, my chance of being murdered in Baltimore, being white, is the same as if I was living in Omaha, Nebraska, right now. Same—it doesn’t matter that I live in Baltimore. I live in, you know, downtown Baltimore—does not matter. If I was a black male between the ages of 16 and 45, I think homicide would be the second leading cause of death. You know, it’s the outcomes in these different places that are so predicated on the economic privations and on lack of power and the fact that the entire industrial base which used to support my city has moved elsewhere and is not part of our economy anymore. And what remains behind, you know, the sort of vestigial service economy, it serves some of us, and it doesn’t even reach—it has no remote connection to the lives of other of us. So, we are building these two separate societies in incredible proximity to each other. It’s amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to your meeting with President Obama at the White House. After he praised your work on The Wire, saying it was his favorite television show, President Obama discussed the fallout from the U.S. crackdown on nonviolent drug offenses.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A consequence of that was this massive trend towards incarceration, even of nonviolent drug offenders. And I saw this—during the period that you were reporting and then, you know, starting to write for television, I saw this from the perspective of a state legislator, this just explosion of incarcerations, disproportionately African-American and Latino.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And the challenge, which, you know, you depict in your show, is, folks go in, at great expense to the state, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable—


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: —and end up looping back in.

DAVID SIMON: Permanently a part of the other America—


DAVID SIMON: —and can’t be pulled back. Nobody incarcerates their population at this level.


DAVID SIMON: And to look at it, when I came in as a police reporter, the federal prison population was about 34 percent violent offenders.


DAVID SIMON: When I left as a police reporter 13 years later, it was about 7 percent.


DAVID SIMON: So these were less violent people getting longer sentences. Of course, there was the elimination of parole and good time. You know, all you had was good time. And so, people were staying in.


DAVID SIMON: And you’re absolutely right: They come back out completely tarred. They can’t vote. They can’t participate in their community. They’ve lost track of families. Families have been destroyed. Communities have been upended. And if it was this draconian and it worked, then maybe we could have a discussion that said, “What we’re doing is working.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The trade-off’s more worth it.

DAVID SIMON: Yeah, “It’s terrible, and we’re losing a lot of humanity, but, hey, it’s working.” But it doesn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: David Simon at the White House with President Obama. How did that meeting come about?

DAVID SIMON: It was a shock to me. I had agreed, almost sort of reluctantly, to participate in a bipartisan seminar on reducing federal—I guess all prison population by 50 percent, that had been sponsored not only by some Democratic factions, but by Newt Gingrich, by the Koch Industries people. I mean, it had—it has the chance, actually, in this next 18 months of getting some traction on Capitol Hill, simply because every side realizes for different reasons that this level of incarceration is insane, that we can’t sustain it. You know, the conservatives are looking at it because the cost, this much prison construction. You know, we’ve been led so astray by the privatization of the prisons and the prison-industrial complex and by the drug war that even some conservatives are getting off the train now. And they’re willing to give the Obama administration the victory because it’s a lame-duck—you know, it won’t extend to the next admin—you know, they’re willing to let it happen now. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think Obama is doing things that he wasn’t willing to do before because of legacy?

DAVID SIMON: I don’t—yeah, I don’t think you mess with the drug war until you’re in the last—in the last term, and I don’t think you do it until after the midterms. And I think now you’re seeing—you know, this is a loss leader in terms of political capital. You know, nobody wants to be portrayed as being soft on crime. So I think now is the time to do it. Now is the window. So they asked me to do this. And once I agreed, all of a sudden—I think the president was going to send some remarks, some videotaped remarks, to this event that I was going at. Instead, I was invited to the White House to have this 15-minute discussion with him. And, you know, I wore a tie. I wore a sport—

AMY GOODMAN: I noticed.

DAVID SIMON: I wore a suit for the first time in—you know, I mean, yeah, like the next time, I might be being buried the next time you see me in a suit. But I did everything I could, because, you know, listen, I was happy to be a microphone stand for this, which I—you know, if I have an opinion about anything, after all these years of reporting and storytelling and narrative, the drug war has to end, just has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to The Wire to the main theme in The Wire, which is that relationship between the police and, I mean, especially looking at Freddie Gray today, between the police and the guys—the kids, often—on the corner.

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: [played by Benjamin Busch] Hands on the wall, [bleep]

KID ON THE CORNER 1: We ain’t done nothing!

KID ON THE CORNER 2: Seriously. I was just sitting in my chair reading a magazine, is all.

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: And watching your crew work a ground stash, you mean? What the [bleep]? Y’all still taking a charge for this, you know that? You’re a truant.

KID ON THE CORNER 1: Today’s Saturday.


KID ON THE CORNER 2: Why you don’t page truancy? Why y’all locking me up? Hey, Colicio.

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: Officer Colicchio, [bleep].

SGT. ELLIS CARVER: [played by Seth Gilliam] We need to block every lane here?

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: Hey, shut it down. It’s a police operation here.

SGT. ELLIS CARVER: Just get back to your post. Let’s back these vehicles up.

DRIVER: Excuse me, officer.

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: I’m not telling you again.

SGT. ELLIS CARVER: Tony, calm down.

DRIVER: Officer, if you could just move your car forward just a little bit, I’m gonna get right down the road.

OFFICER ANTHONY COLICCHIO: Who do you think we are? We’re the police!

AMY GOODMAN: “We’re the police.” In that scene from The Wire, the officer throws one of the young men into the back of a police van, a pretty chilling scene given what’s transpired in Baltimore with the death of Freddie Gray. But this was a regular practice during the years of zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore between '99 and 2007, when Martin O'Malley—that’s right, the presidential candidate—was mayor. In 2005 alone, the police department made more than 100,000 arrests in a city of just 640,000 people. How did zero tolerance affect the city, and what are your views of Martin O’Malley running for president?

DAVID SIMON: Poor Marty. Well, the first thing is, you know, the drug war as a whole, when you fight a war, you need an enemy. If you’re going to go on a war footing, then you have an enemy. And that’s what the drug war did. It basically took a—you know, there were always fundamental problems of policing in the inner city between the Baltimore department and communities, but there was at least some basic code of logic as to who went in the back of a police van. The drug war slowly eroded that, even before Marty became mayor.

And then, Marty’s first year as mayor, I was impressed his first year. His first year, he had a very good police commissioner named Eddie Norris, who was very good at locking the right people up. And locking the right people up, taking out the right trash, that’s what a good police department does. And Jill Leovy—I don’t know if you know Jill Leovy’s book out of L.A. that came out last year, Ghettoside, but she makes a very powerful argument that, in some ways, the inner city is both under-policed and over-policed. It’s over-policed on all the stuff that is—it is much like that, that is basically harassment and sort of a beleaguered community that is being sort of affronted on all sides over small stuff that is related to sort of clearing corners in the drug war. And when it comes to, you know, again, Black Lives Matter, in the most fundamental sense, in terms of the rate of homicide and the rate of violence, those crimes don’t get solved, they don’t get attended to. The clearance rates for murder in places like Compton or West Baltimore are extraordinarily low. They’re in the thirties. Whereas in the rest of America they’d be in the sixties or seventies. So they don’t get the policing they need; they get the policing they don’t need.

And with Marty, he came in. That first year was very admirable. And then Norris left, for reasons, you know, that are complicated. But it was almost as if he couldn’t get the reductions in the murder rate that he had promised as a candidate, and the next three or four years were: “Let’s just throw everybody in the back of a van.” And if you think I’m exaggerating, all you have to do is read the ACLU’s suit that the city eventually settled, because it didn’t matter who you were. It didn’t matter if you were somebody sitting on your own stoop or a schoolteacher or somebody coming home from work. If you looked at a cop the wrong way in Baltimore in about those three central years when Marty was trying to become governor, you went in the back of a police van, you were taken down to the city jail, you know, held overnight. They were just trying to clear the corners, because they had lost the framework for actual police work. They didn’t know how to actually solve crimes anymore, but they did know how to fill the wagons. You would go downtown to the city jail, and they’d ask you to sign a form saying “I won’t sue.” If I don’t sue—”Oh, we’ll let you go now if you sign the form. But if you don’t sign the form, we’re keeping you for longer, until you see a court commissioner.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, your sense of him running for president? We have five seconds.

DAVID SIMON: Well, listen, he’s done some things I admire—gay rights and ending the death penalty. But, you know, the notion that he reduced crime by doing that is just a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: David Simon, I want to thank you for spending this time, journalist, television writer, best known for creating the HBO series The Wire and Treme. Now, his latest project, Show Me a Hero on HBO.

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Two Separate Americas: David Simon’s New Mini-Series Looks at “Hypersegregation” in Public Housing

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