Learning this, I feel like I have been living under a rock, although Forman himself points out that it wasn’t until the publication of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in 2010 that many legislators sat up to take notice of this connection.
When my own city of Cambridge legalized the recreational use of marijuana (with particular guidelines) in 2016, I wondered: why all this talk about legalizing marijuana? Setting aside the arguments for medical use, what were my neighbors pushing this for? I thought decriminalizing marijuana would just enable over-privileged white kids to access their drugs. Surely we have more important issues to tackle than that, issues like affordable housing and healthcare, issues like closing the achievement gap in education.
Forman uses a poem by African-American writer and activist Gil Scott-Heron to illustrate a similar pervading sentiment in the 1970s when marijuana decriminalization was considered in the District of Columbia:
“The irony of it all, of course
Is when a pale face SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] m-f- dares
Look hurt when I don’t call him brother and tell him to go find his own revolution
He is fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age
Less lip from his generation gap at home and f- in the street
Where is my parallel to that?
All I want is a good home for my wife and children
And some food to feed them every night.” (36)
Fearing that marijuana was a gateway drug to heroin, officials in 1975 D.C. voted against legalizing the drug, instead increasing the penalties for possession and distribution. Forman goes on to detail the history following that time -- decisions to push for gun control, the rise of the African-American police force, increased sentencing for drug possession and distribution in response to the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s.
These past few years, we’ve been horrified by police brutality and racial profiling. The thing is, as Forman explains, the police meant to target blacks. As a response to the spiking homicide rate throughout the crack epidemic, initiatives like Operation Ceasefire in D.C. aimed to: “Stop cars, search cars, seize guns.” (197)
African American Eric H. Holder, Jr., US Attorney for the District of Columbia admitted in 1995 that “the people who will be stopped will be young black males, overwhelmingly,” but he “argued that such concerns were outweighed by the need to protect blacks from crime.” (203) “A range of black voices -- and not just from law enforcement -- agreed with Holder that safety was a civil rights issue.” (202)
Those in charge invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name while putting these initiatives into practice:
“Dr. King would be shocked and disheartened by the condition of his people in 1995 -- and I, for one, would be ashamed to reveal to him what we have let happen to our community...Did Martin Luther King successfully fight the likes of Bull Connor so that we could ultimately lose the struggle for civil rights to misguided or malicious members of our own race?” (195, Holder, in a speech on MLK day honorary celebration on January 13, 1995)
But what did this do to the innocents who were incidentally stopped and who suffered collateral damage such as charges for minor drug possession? Forman points out that devastatingly, “things had gotten worse: they were still being stopped and searched because of where they live and the color of their skin, but now they were told that this is how Dr. King would have wanted it.” (211, italics added)
After defeating legislation to decriminalize marijuana in 1975 fearing it was a gateway to heroin, forty years later, “even the city’s black churches switched sides”. Forman argues that Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, “played a crucial role in providing advocates with a framework for understanding, and a rhetoric for criticizing, the War on Drugs. Published in 2010, the book quickly became required reading for anyone concerned with mass incarceration...and profoundly influenced the D.C. Council’s marijuana debates.” In 2014, D.C. decriminalized marijuana possession, the ministers concluding “that marijuana was instead a gateway to the criminal justice system.” (220)
In his epilogue, Mr. Forman shares a story from his case history about a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for armed robbery but was saved from the criminal system by the very man he victimized who was willing to try to forgive him in court and thereby giving him a second chance. Mr. Forman seems to imply that this type of radical forgiveness is more what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind for the future of African-Americans.
“Individual choices like Mr. Thomas’s matter immensely to the people involved, even if they barely touch the system as a whole. So too with many of the policy changes I have described, each of which reforms only one corner of our vast criminal justice apparatus. Against the scale of the world’s largest prison system, with its grotesque racial disparities, such incremental moves might appear meager. But mass incarceration, as we have seen, was constructed incrementally, and it may have to be dismantled the same way.” (238)
Within my own city, I have learned that “though Massachusetts legalized the use of marijuana in 2016, Cambridge did not consider legislation on whether businesses can sell the drug for recreational use until earlier this year.” In September, 2019, the Cambridge City Council passed “legislation [that] will prioritize granting permits [for recreational marijuana businesses] to those from historically marginalized groups, including women, minorities, and those who have been impacted by the war on drugs.” (New Legislation Lights Way for Recreational Marijuana Shops in Cambridge)
I wasn’t aware of how many black lives have been destroyed by criminal records of drug possession, and I wonder who else I’ve judged before learning the whole story.
Forman quotes Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy, explaining how when we describe criminals one-dimensionally, we get to know them by the worst thing they have ever done, instead of taking their whole lives into account. (231)
Needless to say, Just Mercy and The New Jim Crow are now on my reading list. I figure it’s better late than never to join the conversation.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.