Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Wire ends. Thinking about drug war violence.

One of contemporary television's most acclaimed programs, HBO's The Wire, concludes this month. The producers have rivetingly depicted the drug problem in all it ugliness and violence.

Should they have done so? According to the guidelines of some professional anti-drug and anti-violence propagandists, no. But first, the producer's of The Wire. They have lived with the ideas and drama of our urban drug phenomenon for more than six years and spell out a profound understanding of the problem. To address the problem they don't call for political organizing, they call for civil disobedience!

Writing in TIME magazine, ED BURNS, DENNIS LEHANE, GEORGE PELECANOS, RICHARD PRICE, DAVID SIMON, denounce the war on drugs as "venal."

What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago, we've been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.

Our leaders? There aren't any politicians — Democrat or Republican — willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America's most profound and enduring policy failure.

They urge a form of civil disobedience called jury nullification.

"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right," wrote Thomas Paine when he called for civil disobedience against monarchy — the flawed national policy of his day.

If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

Jury nullification is American dissent, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest.
Recognizing the current inability of the Congress and state legislatures to end the catastrophe of drug prohibition, they are calling for ending the war on drugs "one trial at a time."

But the defenders of the status quo want to whitewash the war on drugs completely. The Entertainment Industries Council "is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 by leaders in the entertainment industry to provide information, awareness and understanding of major health and social issues among the entertainment industries and to audiences at large."

They would not depict violence except very carefully so as not to diminish hope, etc.

In their "Substance Abuse Depiction Book" or Spotlight on Depiction of Health and Social Issues: A resource encyclopedia for the entertainment industry, in the chapter "Violence and Drugs", drug prohibition is barely acknowledged as a factor in the violence -- in one ambiguous sentence a few lines from the end.

I must acknowledge that the EIC properly recognizes the important roles of alcohol and tobacco as substance abuse problems, and the extremely large role of alcohol use and misuse in the nation's violence problem.

But let's get right to it. In the fifth sentence of EIC advice to media creators regarding marijuana, artists are advised they should,
Attempt to realistically reflect marijuana use as a potentially addictive behavior rather than a positive social activity.
Occasional lines of dialogue with people reacting negatively to marijuana use can contribute to a more accurate public perception about marijuana norms that deglamorizes such use.
With such advice circulating in Hollywood and New York, it is not surprising that the producers of The Wire stress that we need civil disobedience at the top of our national drug policy reform tool kit.

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