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Bill Moyers Talks Drugs, Crime, Journalism and Democracy with Creator of 'The Wire'

HBO's critically-acclaimed "The Wire" creator David Simon talks about inner-city crime and politics, storytelling and the future of journalism.

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DAVID SIMON: Right. You see the equivocations. You see the stuff that doesn't make it into the civics books. And also you see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a corner. Or where parenting comes in. And where the lack of meaningful work in all these things, you know, the decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because THE WIRE is not a story about the America, it's about the America that got left behind.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by something, I forget where I read it, that you said. You were wrestling with this one big existential question. And you talked about drug addicts who would come out of detox and then try to steel jaw themselves through their neighborhood. And then they'd come face to face with the question, which is?

DAVID SIMON: "What am I doing here? What am I doing here?" You know, all the same problems that a guy coming out of addiction at 30, 35, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. The fact that these really are the excess people in America, we-- our economy doesn't need them. We don't need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we're actually including them in the American ideal, but we're not. And they're not foolish. They get it.

BILL MOYERS: In this clip from your fourth season, that's what one of the main characters tries to explain to the school superintendent, that what they call the "corner kids" are outside the education system altogether. Take a look.

[...]

HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on a blackboard, or teach them every problem on a statewide test and it won't matter, none of it. 'Cause they're not learning for our world, they're learning for theirs. And they know exactly what it is they're training for, and what it is everyone expects them to be.

SUPERINTENDENT: I expect them to be students.

HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: But it's not about you or us, or the tests or the system, it's what they expect of themselves. I mean, every single one of them know they headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, [deleted], the parents, they came through these same classrooms, didn't they? We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn, where'd they end up? Same damn corners. They're not fools, these kids. They don't know our world, but they know their own. I mean, Jesus, they see right through us.

[...]

DAVID SIMON: They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multi-billion drug trade.

BILL MOYERS: I've done several documentaries over the last 40 years. The first one I did was about the South Bronx, called "The Fire Next Door." And what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.

DAVID SIMON: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: To pacify these people who don't have any economic-

DAVID SIMON: Absolutely. In some ways it's the most destructive form of welfare that we've established, which is the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It's basically like opening up a Beth Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, "And you guys are all steel workers." To just say no? That's our answer to that? You know, the economic model does not work. And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn't have gone on for as long as it did.