Locking Up Our Own (Forman Jr.)

During the Holocaust, some Jews were enlisted? compelled? by the Nazis to serve as camp leaders or other kinds of functionaries. It was a masterful kind of psychological slavery, making these Jews or kapos, select the people who would get on those trains. I can understand why some people took the job as a feeble attempt to control what they could of a situation that was escalating at a pace and to a scale rapidly beyond their comprehension. At least, I think that was their intention. But we know about the road to Hell. . .

I’m not sure this comparison is apt, but it lingered in my mind as I read Forman’s book. As the title possessive pronoun indicates, this book focuses on how some blacks participated – actively, even eagerly – in constructing the intricate mechanism that we know now as mass incarceration. Forman makes two points about this. First, he argues that no one sees or is responsible for the whole big picture. Hence, no one was paying attention to its accumulated impact. I am less convinced about the second part of his argument – that since this system was built up piece by piece over time it will have to be dismantled piece by piece over time. There are so many interested in protecting / preserving / profiting from the status quo, that piece-by-piece would take too long. There is the “fierce urgency of now,” an urgency that includes my own students.

More convincing, though, is the evidence Forman presents about how some members of the black community who had the best of intentions (there’s that word again), became co-architects of what has become the destruction of their own communities. I was particulary interested in the elements of class and colorism that Forman introduced, topics I haven’t really considered in depth. To be fair, though, some of these people sought an “all-of-the-above” approach, but with the escalating intensity of the drug trade and its correlation with the influx of guns, the notion of a Marshall Plan for cities was abandoned, leaving only warrior policing behind.

As an English teacher, I appreciated Forman’s attention to language. The way we talk about these things matters. What if we called it “a war on guns” and “drug control”?

Forman at the City Club in Cleveland

Book Club discussion at the City Club May 22

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