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“America Divided”: New TV Series Explores Inequality from Water to Housing to Mass Incarceration

StoryOctober 06, 2016
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Image Credit: EPIX

With the presidential election less than five weeks away, the explosive new documentary “America Divided” explores inequality in America. The show follows high-profile correspondents as they explore aspects of inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and the political system. Oscar-winning hip-hop artist Common returns to his hometown of Chicago to examine disparities in the criminal justice system. Actress Rosario Dawson travels to Flint, Michigan, to investigate the man-made disaster behind the city’s water crisis. And legendary TV producer Norman Lear investigates gentrification and displacement in New York City and goes undercover to expose racial discrimination in housing. For more on this groundbreaking series, we speak with the three creators of “America Divided”: Rick Rowley, Solly Granatstein and Lucian Read.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do Rosario Dawson, Common, Norman Lear, Peter Sarsgaard, America Ferrera and Zach Galifianakis have in common? With the presidential election less than five weeks away, they have all teamed up for a new television series, America Divided, which explores inequality in the United States.

ROSARIO DAWSON: My name is Rosario Dawson. I’m conducting interviews about the water crisis here, and I would love to be able to speak to Governor Snyder.

America is in crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED: Did we invest in those communities? No, instead we declared war.

ROSARIO DAWSON: Our democracy threatened.

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: There’s a darker element to control the uneducated and the poor.

ROSARIO DAWSON: Our society, frayed. Our economy, split.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t feel that young people have the feeling they have that chance.

ROSARIO DAWSON: We inherited a promise of justice, democracy, equality under the law. But we live in an America divided.

NORMAN LEAR: This is America. Equal opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED: Nobody has a right to have our communities under siege and have people live in fear.

COMMON: Communities don’t feel safe, that the police are going to keep them safe.

AMERICA FERRERA: What about people who say, “Well, that’s not our problem. Why doesn’t—why don’t the governments in those countries deal with it?”

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: I see things, people getting taken advantage of. The rich guys, yeah, they get money. They get to hire people, lower-income. But where’s the middle people?

AMY POEHLER: What you don’t like about this bill is it is taking some control away from how you can operate your business.


AMY POEHLER: It’s about money.

ROSARIO DAWSON: When was the moment that you started to see an effect or that there might be something wrong?

TAMMY LOREN: They’re completely different kids. And these days, he can’t even get out of bed.

NORMAN LEAR: And he wants to go from $900 to $2,100 in one leap.

PETER SARSGAARD: So, if I want heroin right now, where do I go out there?

PRISONER: Go out here and take a left, then go up the street right there to the first gas station and stand there.

SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER: As a school resource officer, you have to have a desire and a love to work with young people.

JESSE WILLIAMS: What’s on your belt today? You have a—you have a gun. You have what? Some kind of mace. Same things you would have on the street. That’s pretty alarming.

PROTESTER: The way things are working aren’t working at all.

ROSARIO DAWSON: It’s time to cut through the noise. It’s time to uncover the roots of the problem and how it affects us all. Once in a generation, a window opens for a real conversation that cuts to the heart of who we are as a nation.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: If you just keep pushing, if you just keep trying, if you refuse to let the nightmares have the last say, eventually the dawn will break, the sun will come out, and you will be in a brand-new day.

ROSARIO DAWSON: The conversation starts now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s the trailer for the new five-part Epix network series America Divided. The show follows high-profile correspondents as they explore aspects of inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, the criminal justice system and the political system. Oscar-winning hip-hop artist Common returns to his hometown of Chicago to examine disparities in the criminal justice system. Actress Rosario Dawson travels to Flint, Michigan, to investigate the man-made disaster behind the city’s water crisis. And legendary TV producer Norman Lear investigates gentrification and displacement in New York City and goes undercover to expose racial discrimination in housing.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this groundbreaking series, we’re joined in our studio by three—the three creators of America Divided: Rick Rowley, Solly Granatstein and Lucian Read.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Solly, why don’t you talk about the overall concept? Then we’re going to quickly go through the clips of the different media personalities, actors, and as they delve into these critical issues.

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: Well, we felt like the country is really at a crisis point when it comes to inequality. The fruits of the economic recovery were going, as we all know, to the 1 percent, and not to most of the people. And we wanted to examine different aspects of inequality in people’s daily lives. And so, we went to different parts of the country. Each one explored a different aspect of inequality. And each of these stories was presented and explored by a high-profile correspondent, who each have their own entrée into the different stories. So, you have Jesse Williams, for instance, who used to be a high school teacher, exploring a story about segregation in education. And the—

AMY GOODMAN: Before he starred in Grey’s Anatomy and was a fake doctor.

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: Before—before he was a fake doctor, he was a teacher. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: A real teacher.

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: And so, he—so, rather than do a, you know, sort of medical inequality, he did education inequality, and so forth and so on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the high-profile correspondents in America Divided is Oscar-winning hip-hop artist Common, who was both an executive producer and a correspondent for the series. He returned to his hometown of Chicago to examine disparities in the criminal justice system there. In this clip, he speaks with Ben Breit, an official at Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

COMMON: Police shootings are only the most visible symptoms of a violence that runs much deeper, infecting the entire criminal justice system. And so I’ve come here to the network of tunnels beneath America’s largest single jail: Cook County.

BEN BREIT: We move a thousand people per day to their court hearings and back through this tunnel system. It connects the entire compound. So, we’re below Cook County Jail right now.

COMMON: Wait. You said sometimes it’s thousands of people—

BEN BREIT: Per day.

COMMON: Per day?

BEN BREIT: Per day, yeah.

COMMON: Coming through these tunnels?

BEN BREIT: Coming through these tunnels. So, what we’re walking into now is morning intake. Everyone you see around you, they’re not inmates yet. They’ve all been arrested last night in the city of Chicago. So the next stop for these guys is bond court. That’s the moment of truth, where could be walking at the door, could be here for two, three, four years with a bond that they simply can’t afford to pay.

COMMON: You can be here just because you can’t pay the bond.

BEN BREIT: Absolutely.

COMMON: For that many—that amount of years.

BEN BREIT: We have a couple hundred people in our jail right now who could walk out if they had $500. People are here because they’re poor. And it’s a perpetual cycle.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s a clip from America Divided with hip-hop artist Common. So, Rick Rowley, can you talk about this?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. So, you know, I mean, these are really exciting, kind of volatile times that we’re living. I mean, we are seeing dangers and also possibilities that I haven’t seen in my lifetime here. There’s—you know, as Solly was saying, there’s levels of inequality that we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age and the eve of the Great Depression. There are populist movements on the left and right that are emerging around it. There’s an electoral season that is more polarized and insurgent than any one I can remember. And so, you know, this series is really trying to take head-on the kind of the issues around race, class, and gender that are at the heart of the American experience, and have been for the last 200 years.

And Chicago has really become the epicenter of a growing national debate around race, policing and the criminal justice system. So Common returned to Chicago in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the police video of the killing of Laquan McDonald, and began an investigation of that killing, that led into a look at the entire criminal justice system. So we talked to everyone from Garry McCarthy, the former police superintendent, to the sheriff of Cook County and the jail, to the state’s attorney. And every person at every level of the criminal justice system in Chicago agrees, no matter what their position is, no matter what their politics are, that the system is completely broken, that it’s not keeping people safer, that it is—

AMY GOODMAN: That these people would get out of jail—they’re held for years because they don’t have $500 bond.

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. Cook County was the most intense, I think, shoot that we had with Common. I mean, traveling through those hundred-year-old tunnels beneath an acre-wide compound—

AMY GOODMAN: Made me think of Gorée Island.


AMY GOODMAN: Right? I mean, the slave trade, when you have a thousand people that are going through each day.

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. And on top of that, aside from being the largest single site jail in America—I mean, Los Angeles County is a bigger jail system, but has multiple jails. This, in one sort of compound, is the largest jail. It also, as a result, is the largest—the largest mental health facility in the country, because all the mental health clinics have been shut down, and so we are imprisoning people instead of dealing with those problems. Basically, social problems that we can’t come up with the collective political will to handle, we throw the criminal justice system at, and the jail is the warehouse for those people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to another clip from America Divided. Actress Rosario Dawson traveled to Flint, Michigan, to investigate the man-made disaster behind the city’s water crisis. She speaks with Tammy Loren, whose family was affected.

TAMMY LOREN: We have completely different kids. They went from straight-A students to failing. Jeremiah, he’s been to school 44 days this year, because he’s so sick. Elijah has been fighting a bacterial infection from the water for two years. These days, he can’t even get out of bed. Sorry I’m getting all teary.


TAMMY LOREN: You know, it’s devastating knowing we’re going through this, as well, but to have to see our kids go through it? It’s heartbreaking. If a neighbor poisoned and killed his wife, he’d be in prison.


TAMMY LOREN: And we have an entire city that’s been poisoned.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Rosario Dawson in America Divided, a clip from America Divided, talking to someone in Flint, Michigan, about the water crisis. So, Solly Granatstein, can you talk about that?

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: Yeah. You know, the Flint water crisis is certainly one of the most heartbreaking sagas, you know, in recent memory. And, you know, Rosario Dawson went there to investigate what had happened. And I would say the two themes that came out, one was that this was a community that was battered and had—and really nobody had any idea what was going on. And it was down to the actual citizens of the community, citizen scientists, launching their own investigation in the face of an official denial that anything was wrong, that really turned this story into sort of a national—a national story and a catastrophe that we all know about.

And then, you know, as was shown in that clip, no one knows exactly how much damage was done. And no one will know for years how much damage was done by the lead in the water, because lead poisoning is invisible, and it’s something that only can come out, you know, years hence. And it affects—it affects—when children are exposed to it, it can affect the rest of their lives in terms of their psychology, in terms of their ability to control impulses and their functioning in society. So it’s really—

AMY GOODMAN: And as the clip said, I mean, if a man poisoned his kid—


AMY GOODMAN: —he would go to jail—


AMY GOODMAN: —for a very long time.


AMY GOODMAN: This is the poisoning of an entire American city—


AMY GOODMAN: —an African-American city.

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: Absolutely, and had everything to do with the austerity policies of a succession of state governments, but especially the government of Rick Snyder, the Republican governor.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of actor and activist Peter Sarsgaard, who explored the addiction crisis in rural Ohio. Here he speaks to women held in a prison in Ohio.

ADDICT 1: I’m 22. I don’t have my GED. I didn’t graduate from high school. I’ve lost everything and everybody that I loved. I don’t have anything.

ADDICT 2: I learned just by my boyfriend. It just started out recreational. Before I knew it, I was a full-blown addict.

ADDICT 3: My husband has lifelong health issues, and then he couldn’t get his painkillers, so he went and got heroin. I’m probably on the verge of losing two of my children, and I’m in here and can’t do a damn thing about it.

ADDICT 2: I have four kids. I hadn’t seen them in six months, and their dad finally brought them to see me last week here. And my 10-year-old daughter looked at me and said, “I thought you were dead in a ditch.” My youngest children just don’t understand. For them, everything is just scary. So that’s rough. And that’s something that not only I have to deal with, but they have to live with. I’ve done that to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of the America Divided series. Lucian Read, you followed Peter Sarsgaard into this prison.

LUCIAN READ: Yes. So, the sort of the wider story is about the opioid epidemic in the country, and we chose to focus on Dayton, Ohio, sort of a Heartland American city that’s really been just ravaged by this addiction crisis. It’s, from time to time, listed as the city in America with the highest rates of overdose deaths. And so, you know, we approached Peter. Peter was very interested in the story. He’s got sort of addiction issues in his own past, for himself and in his family, and was very engaged and really wanted to understand this crisis. And so, we took him through, you know, sort of the series of steps of the crisis, in terms of where it came from and the people it affects in Dayton.

And in the scene we just watched, we went to the Montgomery County Jail, which has been just kind of overwhelmed by the number of addicts who have been sort of caught in the system and brought in there, many of them repeatedly, and increasingly women, young women, you know, so that we—the sheriff of Montgomery County, who’s actually a very conservative law enforcement officer, was like, “You know, you really need to see this to understand that this is not—that, you know, we can’t arrest our way out of this. You need to hear the stories of the women in here who have been caught up in this because of economic dislocation, who have been caught up in it because of, you know, sort of being led into this crisis by their addiction, by their family members, by loved ones, by husbands, by boyfriends.” You know, it’s very consistent across their stories. And to really sort of see that, you know, you have this idea of addicts, you know, sort of the criminality and the sort of shame and all that, and that really, you know, in this place, in the prison, where people are sort of—have been taken out of that—out of that life and kind of have a moment of clarity to really go in there and be able to let Peter tell their—hear their stories. And it was—I mean, it was, you know, incredibly, incredibly moving, incredibly powerful.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Grey’s Anatomy star and former teacher Jesse Williams goes back to the classroom in America Divided. He visited the Gulf Coast town of St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, Florida, to study the battle to fix inequality in education. In this clip, he speaks with school board member Mary Brown, who repeatedly tried to sound the alarm about a loss of funding for children of color.

MARY BROWN: Each year, of course, you look at the budget and see where you can cut costs.


MARY BROWN: The school board felt, well, we have a budget cut that we have to make, and we’ve got to cut out busing some children.

JESSE WILLIAMS: So we are talking about a vote on whether we end busing.

MARY BROWN: The vote was that we would go back to neighborhood schools.

JESSE WILLIAMS: And now, you call the neighborhood schools—

MARY BROWN: They’re segregated schools.

JESSE WILLIAMS: It’s segregated schools.

MARY BROWN: Yeah, that’s the bottom line. They’re segregated schools. The parents thought that they would get everything they needed. Some of the people in the black community thought, oh, the money has to come with the children.


MARY BROWN: And the money should go with the children.


MARY BROWN: But the money didn’t quite go with the children.

JESSE WILLIAMS: Why do you think the money never came, never went to where it was promised to go?

MARY BROWN: Because it went to other schools where they felt the need was greater.

JESSE WILLIAMS: Why might they think the need is greater? What are some differences between South County and those other schools?

MARY BROWN: Well, North County has more white children. South County has more minority children.


MARY BROWN: And therefore, you can—you can take that and think of it in any way you want to. Funds didn’t come like they were supposed to come.


MARY BROWN: I just see a whole decade of children losing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Jesse Williams speaking to someone in the—

RICK ROWLEY: Mary Brown.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, that’s right, Mary Brown. Rick, can you talk about that?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, just very quickly, we—our attention was drawn to the Pinellas County, Florida, because of a great series of reports in the Tampa Bay Times about a cluster of schools where the educational standards had collapsed in the course of seven years. They were in the poor black neighborhood of Pinellas County, five schools in a five-square-mile radius that had gone from A and B schools in the Florida system to F schools in seven years. And quickly, it became apparent, when Jesse went down there and started meeting with activists and organizers and school board, teachers, that it all began—the problems began in 2007, when the school board voted to resegregate the school system. They ended the busing program, and the school system collapsed. And this is a problem that actually is happening across the country. Desegregation pushes that began during the civil rights era peaked in the '80s, and now they've been eroded, as Brown v. Board has been eroded.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve done this series for Epix network. Where can people see it?

SOLLY GRANATSTEIN: Well, the easiest way to see the whole series is to go to Epix.com, E-P-I-X.com-slash-freetrial. It’s a premium cable channel like HBO and Showtime; you have to subscribe. But, actually, you can stream the whole thing online, and actually, right now, you can do it for free.

AMY GOODMAN: This is incredible and explosive, and to be here in the midst of the election season raising all of these issues. We’re going to continue the conversation, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. Solly Granatstein, Rick Rowley and Lucian Read, an astounding series you have done. I was just at the big opening for the one on housing in New York. You’ll be, Rick, today at NYU at 6:00 as you show another part of the series. It’s called America Divided.

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