Simon: Few opportunities for an actress from the 'other America'

March 12, 2011|By David Simon

Felicia Pearson is, first of all, entitled to the presumption of innocence. And I would note that a previous, but recent drug arrest that targeted her was later found to be unwarranted and the charges were dropped. Nonetheless, I'm certainly sad at the news of her arrest this week. This young lady has, from her earliest moments, had one of the hardest lives imaginable. And whatever good fortune came from her role in "The Wire" seems, in retrospect, limited to that project. She worked hard as an actor and was entirely professional, but the entertainment industry as a whole does not offer a great many roles for those who can portray people from the other America. There are, in fact, relatively few stories told about the other America.

But some additional context is, I think, helpful here.

In an essay published in Time Magazine three years ago, the writers of "The Wire" made the argument that we believe the war on drugs has become nothing more than a cruel war on the underclass. In places like West and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corners, a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable, damaged and desperate citizens is at best amoral.

It's been estimated that nearly half of the adult African-Americans in Baltimore are unemployed or underemployed — a consequence of decades in which the need for an American working class has been minimized and the industrial base has been transferred overseas to improve corporate profit. Meanwhile, we relentlessly pursue a drug prohibition that has quadrupled our prison population over that same period, creating a prison-industrial complex that is the largest in the world. By any measure — in raw numbers, in percentage of population — America now jails more of its people than any country, including all totalitarian states. We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply. And what drugs have not destroyed in our ghettos, the war against them surely will.

Three years ago, in our essay, the Wire writers said that if asked to serve on any jury considering a non-violent drug offense, we would move to nullify that jury's verdict and vote to acquit. Regardless of the defendant, I still believe such a course of action would be just in any case in which drug offenses — absent proof of violent acts — are alleged.

Our Constitution and our common law guarantee that we will be judged by an impartial jury and that such a panel will be comprised of our peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas, politically and economically distinct. Any economic construct that makes obsolete 10 to 15 percent of a nation's labor force, leaving the drug economy as the only viable economic engine in their communities is suggestive not only of a rigged game but of a future in which Americans are no longer sharing the same social compact or national future.

In consideration of such, I find it necessary to admit I am not a peer to Felicia Pearson, or the others charged in this case. The opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with my own, and her America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-equipped to be her judge in this matter. As to the national drug prohibition as a whole, I can not support Pharaoh's army or the brutality and cynicism of its mission.

David Simon was the creator and executive producer of "The Wire."

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