Thursday, March 11, 2010

the wire and the war on drugs (the poor)

I recently started watching The Wire, and I have to say I’m definitely a fan. It’s one of those HBO shows that manages to put the viewer in places he would never have been otherwise, in a seemingly very genuine atmosphere, with real people. (There’s a fine line with some of these types of shows and directors who are enamored of using untrained actors; seems to me you’ve got to give them just enough acting lessons to where they’re comfortable in front of the camera, but cut them off before they get all ‘actory.’ More on what that might mean another day.)

At any rate, it’s difficult to watch the show without feeling some empathy for the fictional--and thus by extrapolation, non-fictional residents of America’s dying big cities. The first season was shot in 2002, so even then the economy wasn’t nearly as down the crapper as today. But imagining children unable to play outside for fear of getting shot or getting stuck with a discarded needle or rolling in broken glass from crack vials--meanwhile the parents, even if they want to work find that the entire infrastructure of the city is fleeing, leaving behind boarded up houses, shuttered factories, and despair--it is as bleak a world as could be imagined.

These are all situations we’re aware of. Capital flight from urban areas, and the collapse of industry and with it decent-paying jobs that could actually have provided careers with benefits and futures for the working poor--this isn’t news.

But what occurred to me watching this show was what a perfectly designed weapon of mass destruction the war on drugs has been. Note that I say the weapon is the WAR on drugs--not the drugs themselves.

Yes, crack and heroin, and now oxycontin and other pharmaceuticals have devastated families, neighborhoods and entire cities, turning people into zombie stealing-machines unable to do or think of anything beyond that next hit. But what I notice is that poor people on BOTH sides of the drug war--an entire generation--was entirely occupied with battling this scourge, or with dealing with the fallout from it, or with trying to find a way to live their lives around it.

How could anyone think about seriously fighting as corporations moved their factories overseas and cut benefits and the government attacked the unions on behalf of capital--while their neighbors and kids were getting shot or going to prison or getting lost in a shooting gallery somewhere? Even the ‘good’ people in the drug war, the ones who earnestly wanted to make the world a better place, they were being tricked as well, distracted with this. They were given a sham war, a battle against their fellow citizens--other poor people who would have been natural allies in an effort to at least hang onto a decent life, a life where jobs pay a living wage, and where decisions aren’t automatically made to the benefit of investment bankers over workers.

The war on drugs was a war on the poor and the middle-class, and by that I mean the warriors on both sides were victims of a larger guiding principle: while they were distracted with crack and all the bullshit that goes along with it, their rights and any potential for having decent lives like their mothers and fathers had were systematically stripped away piece by piece.

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