David Simon on Black Lives Matter and Why Bill Clinton Is To Blame For Mass Incarceration
The ex-journalist and creator of The Wire sat down to discuss his excellent new HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, Darren Wilson’s shoddy police work, and much more.
My fellow Americans, I am sad to report that, despite rumblings of a possible prequel and/or movie version of The Wire over the years, the series is done for good—this from the horse’s mouth himself.
“The Wire universe is done,” creator David Simon tells me definitively. “There are other ways to tell stories, and the artifice in bringing it back would dwarf any good that we could do with it.”
Fortunately for us, the 55-year-old Simon is far from finished. The ex-Baltimore Sun crime reporter behind the celebrated TV series’ The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme currently has two upcoming shows set up at HBO—The Deuce, a ’70s-set Times Square porn drama starring James Franco, and an untitled Capitol Hill drama he’s developing with Carl Bernstein. If that weren’t enough, this Sunday night the premium network will air the premiere of Simon’s superb six-episode miniseries Show Me a Hero.
The timely drama, based on the 1999 nonfiction book by Lisa Belkin and with all six episodes directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), chronicles a white middle-class neighborhood’s ferocious fight against the erection of a federally-mandated public housing development in Yonkers, New York. It’s 1987, and newly-elected Mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) must convince his constituents and city council to support efforts to desegregate public housing before the entire city of Yonkers is held in contempt. Told through the eyes of the politicians and residents on both sides of the divide, Simon’s series examines issues of race, segregation, and public housing via the highly dysfunctional arena of municipal politics.
The Daily Beast sat down with Simon for an in-depth interview on his new show and race relations in America.
Show Me a Hero is a fine series, but it also fills the viewer with anger, frustration, and sadness that the issue of predominately white communities vehemently opposing desegregation still goes on today.
It’s going on right now in Tarrytown. It’s incredible. It’s as if they didn’t learn a fucking thing! I’ve had conversations since the piece finished with people working on housing issues in the Obama administration, and they’ll tell you very frankly that Westchester County has never been one of the good and righteous players when it comes to remedying the situation. They’ve always been a bad player, always been incredibly resistant, and it didn’t end in 2007 when they settled this suit—it just moved a little further up the river. And Westchester is by no means indicative of something unique. In my own city of Baltimore, Scattered Site Housing and all those programs were battled voraciously in eastern Baltimore County. It happened in Dallas, it happened in Chicago, it happens everywhere. The rhetoric is always the same.
When you say you consulted officials in the Obama administration on housing issues, did you also consult with Obama directly?
So you don’t have the Jon Stewart/Obama special relationship where he consults with you on policy.
[Laughs] No, I speak when spoken to. I had that one [interview] encounter with him, and that was simply because I’m completely copasetic with his views on mass incarceration and ratcheting down the drug war, and given the opportunity, I was elated that he was willing to go there, and I was willing to be any kind of microphone stand that would help him. But when we had a cut of Show Me a Hero that we were happy with, we sent it down to the White House. We’re going to have a screening with the Housing Secretary [Julián Castro] next month in D.C., so it’s something that the administration is aware of and interested in.
And while the case in Yonkers has technically been “settled,” there’s still a degree of tension in the area regarding the housing settlements.
You talk to people in Yonkers and they’ll note the fact that they’re no longer 80 percent white—they’re now 55 percent white. Now, is that bad? On some level, the implication when they say that is that that’s not how they wanted it to go, but if you look at the transition in the New York area in the last 25 years, the entire area has gone more brown. The purposes of desegregation are not to keep these places 80 percent or 90 percent white—that’s not what the country is going to be. We are going to be more brown, and we’re headed towards a moment where whites as a whole are going to be a plurality. So the question is: Can we do this in such a way, and can we integrate in such a way, that doesn’t destabilize municipalities? I don’t think there’s any intelligent argument that says that those townhouses, which are still in use and should’ve—and have never been—a problem since they were built, are not successful.
The argument that the lawyers for the NAACP on the show make seems to be the right way—that you need to spread public housing units out instead of just sticking a massive public housing project in a segregated zone on the periphery.
That was the revolution in public housing that won—nobody’s building Cabrini-Green anymore. But the fears that you see being expressed are for the hyperbolic public housing policies of the ’60s and ’70s, which were: stack the poor on the other side of town and then forget about it. And of course, every study we have says that children who grow up in a hypersegregated America do poorly. The question is: Are we willing to share our society? Are we willing to share geographically and economically?
Right. Proximity is the key here, and it’s really proximity that has the power to tear down racism and discrimination.
And that’s really Mary Dorman’s journey in the piece. Her revelation is that, after she fought and fought, she came to the realization of “we lost, they’re coming.” Then it dawned on her: “These people are gonna be my neighbors, and they’ve heard everything I’ve said.” Fear is a powerful motivator and anger can take you to some ugly places, but deep down in Mary there was a notion that she was appalled of being thought of as a “bad neighbor.” So she started contemplating these prospective residents not as her political opponents, but as her neighbors-to-be, and that turned her around.
She experiences the so-called “not at my doorstep” liberal crisis of conscience, which was explored way back in, say, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Liberals like to see themselves as post-racial, but when they’re confronted with race head-on, many go into panic mode.
Right. One of the things Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his new book [Between the World and Me] is, “We can’t fix this—you fix this.” This is a fundamental dynamic for white people, about fixing this latent and motivating fear that mangles everything. He’s saying, “There’s nothing we can do as African-Americans to fix that if you won’t.” And he’s right. If you’re determined to hang on to your reasons for isolating yourself, hypersegregating your society, and having two Americas, you’ll find them. You’ll see everybody in the street angry at the latest police shooting as being a “thug.” You’ll read the newspaper and see whatever crime happened down the block and place it on an entire community instead of an individual.
You used the word “thug,” and that’s a charged word that the media tends to use with people of color. There have been interesting studies done on the language the media uses when they cover, say, a white shooter versus a black victim. The white shooter tends to be depicted as this “bright student who was led astray,” and the black victim is depicted as a “thug.”
Right. The white shooter is “disturbed” and the black victim is a “thug.”
So how complicit is the media in fostering these narratives, and this racial divide? When I was watching the initial protests in Ferguson, networks like CNN were using these bizarre split-screens and, it seemed, almost inviting a riot.
Well, maybe. Listen, I’m from Baltimore and I was elated to see the mass civil disobedience and mass protests—the marches on City Hall and the marches down Lombard Street—after Freddie Gray, because it was high time. It’s one of the most overpoliced cities in the country when it comes to the things that don’t matter, and ruthlessly underpoliced when it comes to things like solving black-on-black crime. So the idea of asking for a better term of engagement from the authorities was long overdue. And then I began to despair when the optics turned to a senior citizen site on fire and a liquor store being looted, because the optics matter. I don’t think calling something an “uprising” when clearly what you’re witnessing is now a riot—I’m not for the semantic game, I’m sorry. At that point, a guy is carrying a case of liquor out and that fucking store’s burning. Get over yourself. And saying that “we understand the rage and the reasons for it,” well, OK, but what are you asking for in reality here after Freddie Gray? You’re asking for an end to overpolicing, an end to mass incarceration, less police presence in the community that is oppressive army of occupation shit, and more respect for the community. And the optics you’re presenting to America at that point are not peaceful protest, “hands up,” “black lives matter,” and “I can’t breathe.” What you’re presenting now is an argument for more repression.
We saw that in Ferguson this week with the 18-year-old who allegedly opened fire on cops during an otherwise peaceful protest.
Right—or when you had the wounding of the cops previous in St. Louis, if you’ll remember back a few months. That stuff’s disastrous because what you’re asking people in the rest of America to do is abandon things like the drug war, abandon private prisons, and to walk that back after 30 years, so the optics matter.
We spoke about the “crisis of conscience” on the left in America when it comes to race, but at least liberals seem engaged in this conversation. Half of this country is not engaged in the conversation. If you watched the first round of GOP debates recently, the racial unrest in America was not brought up once.
And yet, I have some optimism here. First of all, I got into a conversation with the president of the United States about it where he was vocalizing the need to reduce the prison population for the first time in any administration going back to maybe Richard Nixon. Let’s face it—this is bipartisan. The administration that did the most damage in terms of jailing Americans for nonviolent offenses is the Clinton administration. By far.
Right. Clinton even tried to apologize for that a few months back.
Belatedly. Belatedly. And after there was no political gain in it, and by the way, after we reached 2 million people in prison—a rate of incarceration that, never mind nobody in the West, nobody in totalitarian states manages that rate except maybe North Korea, and we’re not even sure about that because we just don’t have enough information. But to answer your question about not being engaged, what’s the state that has done the most to reduce mass incarceration at this moment? Georgia—a red state with a Republican governor who’s absolutely committed to ending mass incarceration. [Nathan Deal’s] closing prisons and letting nonviolent drug offenders go. It began for him as an economic issue, but right now he is the poster child for political sanity when it comes to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Georgia is now leading the way—a red state. The fact that that has penetrated in that jurisdiction tells me that something is in the air, and that it can be fixed now.
Fox News does seem to be more divisive when it comes to issues of race than other networks, and it’s really become a highly influential mouthpiece for conservatives—
—Well, listen, there are people who think Donald Trump is an actual candidate for the highest office in the land.
He’s leading the polls by a lot. It’s crazy.
It is. What can you do?
Although Herman Cain once led in the polls by a wide margin, too.
Listen, you can go back to Jefferson and Madison, read the newspapers, and the demagoguery of our time certainly has historical antecedents going back to the beginning of the Republic. You can fool a lot of the people for a pretty long time. But right and wrong have their own power. A guy dying in the back of a wagon because you rode him around for 45 minutes—there’s clearly an issue of custodial responsibility and negligence that needs to be addressed by a court. And Staten Island is appalling. To the extent that these incidents, one after another, and the newfound power of the smartphone—because it’s a camera—exerts itself and brings it to the fore, this is—
—But even in light of these technological advancements, there still doesn’t seem to be a great deal of accountability here—even when these incidents are caught on camera.
Some of them are being charged. Listen, the one guy is charged with murder, and the other ones… I happen to know from being a police reporter that the standards by which a police officer can exert his authority are pretty loose. “Did you reasonably fear for your safety or that of others?” is arguing a state of mind more than a reality, and that’s a standard that, in front of a grand jury, you can drive a huge truck through. At some point, with this level of police violence, we have to reconsider that in a very delicate way because the truth is we live in a society where, with this level of firearms and militarized police, even if you ratchet all of that down, the real horror show is that these guys go to the range once or twice a year, so let’s take the quintessential good cop who’s just trying to police a city post, and he makes a decision within a second or two to fire his weapon or not—he’s going to make mistakes.
There does seem to be a sort of action hero mentality in effect though among some cops. If you watch the McKinney pool party video, at the beginning this cop runs through and literally does a tactical roll for no reason whatsoever. This guy thinks he’s a cowboy.
Oh, absolutely. I think we’re recruiting and training a level of militarism. The best cops I knew had contempt for that, and things that really work to make a city safer, like solving crimes? We’re getting worse and worse at that because we’re busy jacking everyone on the corner up and busting down doors. The best cops I knew put people in jail with typewriters, and then you go into their bedroom at 4 in the morning and say, “You’re under arrest,” and it’s not about violence.
The police are so militarized now. They really look like an occupying army in some cities.
We’ve exalted the militaristic aspect of police work in such a way that it’s become incredibly destructive, and that starts at the top—that starts with the FBI. The FBI has justified every single shooting by an FBI agent in the last 20 years. They’ve never made a wrong shooting in history! And I can tell you that they’ve made some terrible shootings around the country. There are some shootings in Baltimore that are just appalling. So, two things are true: inner-city communities and people of color have been overpoliced brutally by the drug war, and that overlay has to be taken away or you’re never going to establish trust again—people in these communities are never going to be witnesses for the cops or trust the criminal justice system. And these communities are hideously underpoliced in terms of black life not mattering. When you kill somebody in Compton, in West Baltimore, or East St. Louis, the clearance rate is invariably about 30 percent—and that means that maybe one-in-ten or two-in-ten people who actually kill, by the time you shake it out of the courthouse, are actually being punished. Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, nailed it. What she’s saying is she’s going the opposite way: The police have a real role in making these communities safer that they’re not doing because they’re busy with this shit—chasing people around and brutalizing them over nothing. Both things have to be acknowledged here. I’m not interested in anybody who’s arguing one thing or the other; the middle is where the police department and law enforcement have to stand, and they’ve ceded that morally.
Did you read the New Yorker’s profile of Darren Wilson?
No, I haven’t read that yet. By the way: Worst traffic stop in the history of traffic stops. Backing his car up and staying in his seat? I certainly don’t buy the notion that—look, the initial versions of shooting him down like a dog in the street for the sheer joy of it have not materialized. I can tell you this: As a police reporter, every single police shooting that I covered in Baltimore, and this is dozens and dozens of police shootings over the course of several years, every single one where I stood outside the police tape, the people would say “there was no gun, they shot him down like a dog” every single time. There was never a clean police shooting. And then the stuff would come back from the morgue, the corroborating evidence, and there were a lot of good police shootings. There were people who got shot where they’d dig a bullet out of the parked car where the cop was standing. It was standard behavior to say, “They shot him down like a dog in the street,” but if those same people were witnesses put in front of a grand jury, they’d tell the truth. What you tell a reporter on the street is very different. Having said that, there were also bad shootings that police were able to write their way out of using, like I said earlier, that hole that you can drive a truck through in front of a grand jury—“I thought I saw this,” “I saw something shiny.” So again, I start to believe people in the middle.
So what of Darren Wilson?
The one thing I know is they teach how to do a car stop. You want to stop a pedestrian, he’s jaywalking, and you think you have probable cause—which is a whole question unto itself, but if you do—you’re [not] going to stay in your car, call him over, back up over him when he’s trying to walk away using your vehicle, put you in a position where you’re vulnerable and you’re fighting for your gun. Look, they got the guy’s DNA inside the vehicle. OK, you were fighting for the gun. Why are you sitting in your fucking car fighting for your gun? I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely the worst fucking police work I’ve ever seen.
The media narrative surrounding that incident was also strange. I don’t think I even learned how big Darren Wilson was until the DOJ report was released, and the media, at least to my knowledge, had been painting it as this giant young black man who’d overtaken a small white cop, when in reality, while Brown had weight on Wilson, they were the exact same height.
Right. I mean, I’m interested in the middle because that’s where we all have to live. Any cop who’s working an inner city right now given the overlay of the drug war, which basically turns any police agency into an army of occupation that’s completely alienated from the community, the fights are going to happen because they’re being told to clear corners of an industry that’s completely out of control, yet dominates the economy of these inner-city neighborhoods in a tragic way. So it’s Gaza, it’s Soweto, and the idea that these cops are going to figure this out without some new paradigm, and that we’re going to be able to reduce the violence and establish a level of trust between the communities and law enforcement, is insane. That has to end right away.