James Forman can be quite irritating. When he goes to the movies with his friends, he will invariably come out again muttering, “But where have all the black people gone?” “Yeah,” his companions say, “but what did you think of the movie?” Now he is being even more irritating: his book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, which has just been published in the US, puts the black people back in, in more ways than one. He is a bespectacled 49-year-old black lawyer born in New York, who teaches at Yale University Law School, “a child of the Civil Rights” as he describes himself, and also the son of the James Forman, who was a Black Panther and co-wrote the Black Manifesto.
The story that we already knew: black people have been imprisoned rather a lot. Over the past couple of decades, America has succeeded in becoming the biggest prison on the planet, easily surpassing China and Russia. Mass incarceration in America has put 2.2 million people behind bars; an ever increasing number are people of colour. When I taught a class at Sing Sing prison, in upstate New York, the prisoners were all black or Hispanic. I was the only white guy in the room.
The statistics are mind-blowing: something like one in three young black men in the country will be put away at some point in their lives; in Washington DC, the figure is more like one in two.
All the above, though horrifying, is well established. But the thing that James Forman, in his irritating way, would like to point out is that many of the people who put them there are also black. Since the Civil Rights era, African Americans have for the first time been involved in the judicial system as something other than victims and jailbirds: they are also judge, prosecutor, even executioner. They have become complicit in what he calls the tough-on-crime “American mindset”, in which the solution to every problem is fondly imagined to be more law enforcement. He has said what no one else hitherto has dared to say, that the concept of black-on-black crime has to be supplemented by the facts of black-on-black punishment.
“I’m not letting white people off the hook either,” he points out, fairly enough. His book is a breakthrough and has caused something of a sensation in the US. I meet him at a “luncheon” organised by New York University, at the Institute for Humanities, where a lot of white lawyers are raving about his book. “All the freshmen should be made to read this book,” says one. Forman analyses the contradictions and ironies of a brutal system but he has enough experience, as a “public defender” for many years in Washington, to have witnessed many specific individual cases at close quarters.
One day back in 2007, Forman found himself defending a 15-year-old black youth called Brandon. He had been caught carrying marijuana and a gun. It was his first offence. Forman pleaded for probation. The prosecutor, who was black, wanted him put away. The judge, who was also black, gave him what Forman calls “the Martin Luther King speech”. Which in a shortened form comes out something like this: “You think you had it hard, young man. Well, we had it a lot harder, under Jim Crow [the explicitly racist laws that made America practically an apartheid state until the mid-1960s]. Martin Luther King – and other civil rights activists – died so that you would have the freedom to choose. And yet you chose to deal drugs and carry a gun. Therefore you betrayed Civil Rights. And you are going down.”
Source: The Independent | ANDY MARTIN