James Forman, Jr., “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” (2017) – There’s a lot of annoying cliches that have either arisen or taken on new life since the Black Lives Matter movement began, but maybe the “why don’t they protest black on black crime?” one is the most irritating. Among other things, it reveals the utter isolation of the speaker from any kind of black community. I’m not saying my social situation isn’t very white, and to the extent it’s not white, it’s not very black. But go to any march or rally pertaining to anything black — or if that’s not your speed, read a book by a black author, or hell, listen to even more or less any music by black musicians — and you will get an earful about black criminals harming and exploiting their communities. Every BLM action I’ve been to has had speakers denouncing gun violence in their communities, with loud affirmations from black people in the crowd. Inter-communal violence is a clear source of angst in black culture and has been for a long, long time, and you need to be profoundly, willfully ignorant not to see that (or so offended by the ways in which many black people are unwilling to take shit off of white people chiming in on the issue these days that you just shut down).
In fact, law professor James Forman, Jr. (son of a civil rights legend) argues that we can’t really understand our current mass incarceration crisis without understanding black anti-crime politics. He focuses on Washington, D.C., the premier “chocolate city” of that time, starting in the early seventies, when black mayors started getting elected in largely-black cities and walls keeping black people out of civil service jobs started coming down. DC also had a serious crime problem, concentrated in poor black parts of the city, and it only accelerated in the period when the official rulership of the city passed into largely-black hands.
People were pissed. Black people were extremely pissed. Suburban whites weren’t, aren’t, mad about crime, not really (whites who actually lived or live in areas with high crime rates often enough are). A lot of them are scared, and a lot of them feel shame about that, and want to experience either the vicarious thrill of someone “cracking down,” or else do it themselves, or feel shame that they or their politician/cop surrogates aren’t doing enough… but black people who live in areas with a lot of crime were and are pissed off about it, understandably so. You didn’t need to be a socially conservative black person to feel that way, either- many movement veterans, as the high water mark of both civil rights and black power receded into the past and they found themselves with crumbling cities on their hands, were profoundly depressed, angry, and ashamed at the contrast between their high hopes and the grim realities of cities in the seventies.
Organizers and politicians in DC and other cities called for many of the things progressives and leftists still call for in response to high crime: more jobs, better education, stuff to keep young people (especially young men) busy, medical solutions to addiction. They also called for more policing to deal with existent thieves, drug dealers, gangsters, and others making urban neighborhoods unlivable. As Forman puts it, most of them had an “all of the above” approach. They often wanted policing to be undertaken by police forces that took on more black recruits. This took a while, given the prevailing racism in police departments, but by the eighties they were getting their wish.
A combination of bad circumstantial political calls, pervasive lack of funds for social programs, and fundamental misapprehensions about the role both of police and of class divisions within black society brought about this tragic situation, where black people who sincerely thought (and think) of themselves as pro-black, contributed — continue to contribute — to a situation that sees more black people in some stage of incarceration than were enslaved in 1850. It didn’t happen overnight, it was more of a consistent series of botched reactions to awful situations- you see that a lot when people lack resources and political room to maneuver. So the newly-formed DC city council refused to decriminalize marijuana in the early seventies- a white “hippie” brought it up, heroin was ravaging the black community, it just didn’t seem right. DC passed draconian gun restrictions, but couldn’t get any kind of alternative to the illicit economy in front of its citizens, so people still had guns and used them. DC empowered it’s police to act like warriors in an occupied land when the crack epidemic spread out of control, and black cops — many of them drawn from a black middle class both long accustomed to looking down on the black poor and not much more knowledgeable about poor black communities than their white fellow officers — unleashed a stream of violence on black DC that goes on to this day.
Plenty of black voices opposed these things, in DC and out, but there was no consensus on these issues (and I doubt there is one today, though maybe things are a bit better when even a lot of conservatives admit the carceral state is out of control). It’s unlikely that any but Clarence Thomas-style authoritarians would have approved of the tough-on-crime course of action had they could have seen the end result. Many black leaders called for a “Marshall Plan for Black America.” What they got from the white elite that still holds the purse strings was a much harsher military-style occupation than the US Army gave Germany and barely any of the economic reconstruction.
Safety is still a substantial concern in a lot of neighborhoods, disproportionately black and brown neighborhoods. The police aren’t helping, and for many populations, especially young people and particularly young men, are a frequent danger to their safety and a constant drag on their dignity and sense of belonging to anything other than a throw-away community. Forman criticizes the police, and he includes scenes from his own interactions with cops and the legal system from his time as a public defender and as a founder of a school for kids within the juvenile justice system in the book. I won’t soon forget his descriptions of cops routinely rousting his students for nothing more than standing outside the school during their lunch period, screaming at them, slamming them down on the ground or on car hoods, finding nothing at all. Forman and his fellow teachers painstakingly arrange a “community forum” with the police. Officers come, almost all of them black, and robotically repeat the same talking points about “high crime areas” etc., and how the students should all wear big lanyards so the cops know they’re ok. Needless to say, Forman and his students aren’t impressed with the idea that they need to carry a “pass” to avoid police harassment.
But Forman also sees the police as a necessary part of a better future for black communities. He is not an abolitionist, it seems. Well… I am, but I get it, from two angles. The first is that we need a robust alternative safety system of our own in place before just ditching the cops and calling it a day. It isn’t fair. Think about everything that capitalism — that policing! — fucks up every day, to crickets and shrugs from most people, and then think about the hue and cry every time a reform effort screws up or simply has a slow or rocky start. But fair gets you on the bus. We can’t afford to fuck up. The second and more depressing angle… where are the police going? Forman probably thinks of them the way more advanced political thinkers in the early modern period thought of the aristocrats. The armed, organized people aren’t going anywhere, not on their own, they’re not. You can pull their leash a bit by messing with their money, but what else can you do in this system? Well, we probably have to figure out something better than that. But Forman isn’t there to paint pretty pictures, just to show us the deep and gnarled roots of our current situation. ****’