Commentary: Drug War

Drug War

Full text of letter in support of leniency for Marc Henry Johnson

Here is a letter written in support of leniency for Marc Henry Johnson, a fellow producer on “The Deuce” who was involved in the tragic overdose death of a woman in New York last year. The letter was written to the sentencing judge and is part of the court record, and I post it here out of concern that certain news outlets, including the New York tabloids — which did a poor and imprecise job of covering the original incident — are now quoting it piecemeal. As it is addressed to a presiding court, it would be inappropriate to comment beyond the letter itself, but I am going to link to it here so that a full, contextualized argument is available to those concerned or curious about my reasoning: MHJ Letter Final July 2017 updated Share this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInRedditEmailPrint

Read more
Drug War Journalism On Newspapering and Journalism On the Drug War Policy & Law

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business. In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was...

Read more
Drug War Journalism

Mr. O’Malley’s Bad Math

In 2000, as Martin O’Malley took over as mayor of Baltimore and promised to bring crime under control, there was worry on the part of some in the city that the zero-policing, broken-windows strategies he hoped to import from New York might result in a culture of mass arrest and a dimunition of civil liberties. A year later, after Police Commissioner Ed Norris had trimmed 43 murders to drop Baltimore under the 300-homicide-a-year mark for the first time in a decade, Mr. O’Malley could note  — and did note to the New York Times — that the achievement had come without any corresponding increase in the rate of arrest. “It never happened,” the new mayor said, proudly.  “We turned the murder rate by doing a better job of arresting the hard-core criminals.” And they had.  And though Mr. O’Malley at that time claimed an annual arrest total of 78,000 — it would eventually be recorded as 8,000 more than that — he was justified in...

Read more
Drug War

Not wrong. Not at all.

From an essayist on Bloomberg today comes the claim that because raw numbers of arrests have fallen since Martin O’Malley zero-toleranced his way to the governor’s chair, or because O’Malley, after ballooning the number of minor arrests, brought them down again at the end of his tenure, zero-tolerance and over policing can’t therefore be a fundamental cause of the declining standards of police work in Baltimore, the unprofessionalism of officers, and the lower regard for civil liberties by Baltimore police. “David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gave an interview recently laying blame for Baltimore’s recent upheaval at the feet of Martin O’Malley, the city’s former mayor and now a Democratic presidential hopeful. Simon charged O’Malley with initiating a policy of indiscriminate “mass arrests” for nonexistent low-level offenses, where officers learned to “roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.” This breakdown in good police work and...

Read more
Drug War

Zero tolerance is exactly what it sounds like:

  Intolerance. And a broken-windows policy of policing is exactly what it means: The property matters. The people can stay broken until hell freezes over. And the ejection of these ill-bought philosophies of class and racial control from our political mainstream — this is now the real prize, not only in Baltimore, but nationally. Overpolicing and a malignant drug prohibition have systemically repressed and isolated the poor, created an American gulag, and transformed law enforcement into a militarized and brutalizing force utterly disconnected from communities in which thousands are arrested but crime itself — real crime — is scarcely addressed. To be sure, there are a great many savage inequalities in our society — no doubt we could widen this discussion at a dozen points — but now, right now, overpolicing of the poor by a militarized police-state is actually on the table for the first time in decades. And don’t for a second think that...

Read more
Drug War

Baltimore

Note: The following is dated Monday, April 27 as the mass protests in Baltimore were devolving into a riot that lasted until the early morning hours. First things first. Yes, there is a lot to be argued, debated, addressed.  And this moment, as inevitable as it has sometimes seemed, can still, in the end, prove transformational, if not redemptive for our city.   Changes are necessary and voices need to be heard.  All of that is true and all of that is still possible, despite what is now loose in the streets. But now — in this moment — the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease.  There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today.  But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death...

Read more
Drug War Film and Television On Television On the Drug War

The Wire and Baltimore

It seems that despite the most temperate reply possible, I’ve been drawn into another absurdist debate about whether The Wire, or Homicide, or perhaps even The Corner is good or bad for Baltimore.  This time, the righteous indignation about the tarnish applied to my city’s reputation is from a gentleman named Mike Rowe.  A Baltimore native, he is employed elsewhere in this great diaspora of television and he has now assumed the mantle of defender of my city’s reputation. Mr. Rowe marks his displeasure with our work by reductively describing it as a depiction of “drug dealers” and “pimps” that is sufficient to convince anyone that Baltimore is a mere cesspool, certain and fixed.  In this simplicity, he joins, by late count, a few business leaders, several political aspirants and at least two police commissioners in decrying narratives that don’t provide the imagery with which Baltimore wishes to adorn itself. Having been specifically...

Read more
Drug War Gun Laws Policy & Law

The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. III

Note:  These essays were, of course, written before St. Louis County prosecutors and Ferguson police relented and revealed the identity of the officer sho shot and killed Mr. Brown.  Both the cost to their credibility in the delay inherent in their delay and to the civil peace of that town remains relevant, however.  Moreover, the problem with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationally trying to maintain anonymity in such incidents is on the rise. So the essays stand as argument,  regardless.  – DS   August 14, 2014 Mr. Thomas Jackson Chief of Police Ferguson, Missouri   Chief Jackson: Regard this as an open letter in light of your department’s unwillingness to properly identify the officer involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in your jurisdiction this last week. Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work.  I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on...

Read more
Drug War Gun Laws Policy & Law

The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. II

Seven years later, from the Baltimore City Paper of February 12, 2009, as the militarization of American police work continued apace, infecting not merely the federal agencies so much less accountible to individual jurisdictions, but municipal police departments that claimed to be directly in the service of specific communities: Police work, it is said, is only easy in a police state.  So welcome to the city of Baltimore, where a police officer who uses lethal force and takes human life is no longer required to stand behind his or her actions and suffer the scrutiny of the public he or she serves, where the identity of those officers who use lethal force will no longer be known, where our communities are now asked to trust in the judgment of those who clearly don’t trust us. A 61-year-old Baltimorean is dead, shot by a Southeastern District Officer Feb. 17. His death may well be a reasonable, if tragic outcome. It may even be good police work, though any veteran city prosecutor will...

Read more
Drug War Gun Laws Journalism

The endgame for American civic responsibility. Pt. I

I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life.  The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more...

Read more
Drug War Policy & Law

Lost in a symptom: The Nation on marijuana reform

The surest way to ensure the continued abuse of people of color under the auspices of the drug war is to reduce or eliminate any corresponding threat to white Americans.  This seems to me to be such a fundamental of realpolitik in the United States that I’m still a little bit astonished that The Nation, in a recent assessment of marijuana reform efforts and racial bias, can’t see any forest from the trees. Not a single fact about marijuana use and the racial bias that law enforcement exhibits with regard to the drug is askew, of course.  I agree with the article’s author, Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University, on his entire statistical premise: “Consider a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that black people are two to over seven times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than their white counterparts, despite the fact that both groups use marijuana at similar rates,” notes Dr. Hart.  “These disparities held up even...

Read more
Drug War

A good argument demands some rigor.

It’s s simple thing to advance the other fellow’s argument as that which we wish it to be. Shorn of context, with fundamentals omitted, we can, if we squint just so, convince ourselves that we’ve put a real knife to something that matters. I recently argued two distinct things in the same essay: A)  While I oppose the drug war and its immoral excesses, the tools used to prosecute that drug war — indeed for all crime suppression — are not, for the greater part, unconstitutional. Ergo, I oppose the policy of drug prohibition, not the tools used for that policy. The tools are themselves a neutral asset, capable of being used to both good and bad societal effect.  Just as the use of such tools in counter-terror programming, which I believe has more moral legitimacy than the drug war, is constitutional and credible. B)  Given the last forty years of an unimpeded drug war, the sudden, hyperbolic reaction to these same tools used by the NSA in counter-terror...

Read more
Drug War The Wire

I meant this, not that. But yeah, I meant it.

An unarmed black teenager was shot to death in Florida recently. You probably read about it or caught the controversy on the tube.  A lot of people are saying that the kid deserved it, that he attacked the fellow with the gun, that he was a thug, that he’d been suspended from school, that he wasn’t so innocent as people think.   Others are saying the gunman is racist, that he’s a self-appointed vigilante, that he had no business trailing the kid, that he’s kind of a nutcase. And day after day, as the case winds toward a trial date, this beast that we have for a modern media culture will parse it  with a few more shards of information and rumor, true and false. Trayvon might have shoplifted the Skittles.  Zimmerman had no visible injuries.  Zimmerman had injuries but they didn’t show on camera. Trayvon smoked pot. It’s what we do. It’s all that we do, really. If we can manufacture a good guy, we can exalt him. If we can manufacture a bad guy, we can degrade him.  If we...

Read more

Send this to a friend