James Forman Jr. on “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America”

Media Options

Yale University law professor and writer James Forman Jr. won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category for his new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The prize committee praised the book for its “examination of the historical roots of contemporary criminal justice in the U.S., based on vast experience and deep knowledge of the legal system, and its often-devastating consequences for citizens and communities of color.” Forman is the son of civil rights activists James Forman Sr. and Constancia Romilly, who met in the 1960s while organizing with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Related Story

Video squareStoryJan 16, 2018“When They Call You a Terrorist”: The Life of Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Yale University law professor and writer James Forman Jr. He won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The prize committee praised the book for its, quote, “examination of the historical roots of contemporary criminal justice in the U.S., based on vast experience and deep knowledge of the legal system, and its often-devastating consequences for citizens and communities of color,” unquote.

James Forman is the son of the civil rights activists James Forman Sr. and Constancia Romilly, who met in the ’60s while organizing with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. James Forman Sr. was executive secretary of SNCC from 1961 to ’66.

I began by asking James Forman Jr. to talk about his time working as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and one of the clients he writes about in Locking Up Our Own.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: So, Brandon was a 15-year-old client of mine, and he had been charged with and had pled guilty to possession of marijuana and possession of a gun. And he was facing sentencing in Washington, D.C., Superior Court. And I was his lawyer. And I had taken the job of being a lawyer because I viewed it as a civil rights issue of my generation. I viewed mass incarceration as the civil rights issue of my generation.

And so, I’m there. I’m defending him. I’m asking for him to be put on probation. I have a letter from a teacher and a counselor at his school. His mother and grandmother were there in court. They always came. They wanted him to come home. And the prosecutor in the case was asking for him to be locked up. She wanted him to go to a place called Oak Hill, which is, you know, all of the terrible juvenile facilities we have, you know, Spofford here in New York, and around the country. It was one of those awful places, a place—drugs, violence—a place where kids left worse than when they entered, all the time.

And the judge that had to make the decision in the case, I changed his name. I call him Judge Walker in the story, but he’s a real judge. And he’s an African-American judge, and he looks out at the courtroom, getting ready to impose sentence, and he sees Brandon, a young black man. The defense lawyer is African-American. The prosecutor is African-American. The judge is African-American. And he gives him what we called in my office the Martin Luther King speech, because I had heard it before from the judge. But this speech, it always changed a little bit, but the basic idea in what he said to Brandon was: “Son, you know, Mr. Forman’s been telling me that you’ve had a tough life, you deserve a second chance. Well, let me tell you about tough. Let me tell you about Jim Crow.” And he talked about how people marched and fought and died for your freedom. He said, “Son, Dr. King died for your freedom. And he didn’t die for you to be running and gunning and thugging and carrying on and embarrassing your family carrying that gun. So I hope one day you turn it around. Mr. Forman says you will. But today, in this courtroom, actions have consequences. And your consequence is Oak Hill.” And he locked him up.

And I was so angry at the judge, because he had taken the same history that motivated me to become a public defender, and he had somehow perverted it and twisted it and used it as a rationalization—and he had done it before—for locking up, for being harsh on another young African-American man. And so, that incident—and there were many others like it—caused me to stop and reflect and to ask the question, because the judge wasn’t alone. The city council that passed the gun and the drug laws that Brandon was sentenced under was a majority-African-American city council. The mayor was black. The police chief was black. The police department in D.C. was and is majority-black. The chief prosecutor was—and you mentioned it—Eric Holder. And even with all that representation, we were doing the same thing. We had the same racial disparities in D.C. that they had in the rest of the country. And so I started to think to myself, “What’s happened in this country, and what’s happened with our leadership, and what’s happened in our community, that we would be doing the same thing?” And that’s the question of the book.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we get to the black leadership, I want to go to this issue of Oak Hill—


AMY GOODMAN: —of where he was going to be put away, and what this would mean in his life. I mean, if we’re talking about rehabilitation—


AMY GOODMAN: —if we’re talking about people being safer, both he and his family and everyone else, what does it mean for a 15-year-old boy to go to a place like this?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, I think any juvenile facility that causes you to be taken out of your home and put behind bars, institutionalized, caged, for a teenager, for a young person especially—I oppose it for adults, as well, but let’s talk about for teenagers—is, by definition, devastating, right? Even the best facilities, even the most rehabilitative, most humane ones, you are—and all the research shows that if you take two similarly situated people and you put one in this kind of environment and you leave another in the community, that six months, nine months, a year out, the young person that’s been left in the community is going to be better off. They’re going to be more likely to be educated. They’re going to be more likely to not commit additional crimes, because the trauma of—I mean, as a parent, you know, I mean, my son is—you know, he’s 9. He’s six years younger. When he’s 15, I know the trauma of what it would mean for him to be taken out of our home and put, again, even in a good institution. And this was not a good institution. This was an institution of broken glass and barbed wires and abusive guards. And so, it would have meant that he would have been pushed deeper and deeper into the criminal justice system. And he almost certainly would have ended up becoming somebody who’s part of the adult system.

AMY GOODMAN: And you even write, when he would be released—let’s say, six months later—he might not even be allowed back into his high school.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: That’s right. One of the—one of the things that I saw, and it was—and I did not know this when I became a public defender, until I started representing clients. So I would have clients who would go to Oak Hill, and then they would come back, six months later. I had one young man who was charged with a homicide. And he was held for nine months, and then all the charges were dropped. He had been—he was falsely accused. And so now he comes back, and I’m trying to help him get re-enrolled in school.

So, we go to his home school, where he had been enrolled, and the principal says, “Well, he’s been out for too long. He’s missed too much time. He’s going to have to go to an alternative school.” He didn’t want to go to an alternative school. He wanted to go to his neighborhood school. And I thought, by law and by rights, he was entitled. So, we get sent down to the district office. We get shuttled from person to person, floor to floor. We spend multiple days. Now, remind you, this is—he’s with his lawyer, right? He’s with a Ivy League-educated, trained public defender. Imagine—imagine a family—right?—that’s not versed in the system, the intimidation. Eventually, you’re just going to give up and go to this substandard alternative school that you’re being referred to.

So we fought and fought and fought and fought, and eventually got him back in his school. But that kind of thing happens routinely, and it’s so under-the-radar. You know, people don’t see it. People that aren’t in families like these or in communities like these, working as social workers, working as public defenders, they don’t see the ways in which the system—kind of these small ways, but they’re huge in people’s lives—in which the system abuses and degrades and demoralizes poor people.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman, talk about Dante Highsmith, 16-year-old boy. He’s charged with armed robbery.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Yeah. Yeah, that’s—Dante is another one of my clients. And so, I met Dante. He had been arrested, and he had been charged. And what happened was, he had gone to—he had gone up to a man at a bus stop, and he had had a knife—he had a knife in his pocket, and he said to the man, “Give it up.” The man was—Dante and the man were African-American. He says, “Give it up. Give it up, or I’ll cut you.” The man throws out $12, what he has, and runs. Dante grabs it, runs in the opposite direction. But he didn’t get far, because somebody across the street had seen what was going on, had called a store security officer, who gave chase, caught Dante, called the police. The police arrive. They find a knife on Dante. They find the $12 on him, exactly the amount the man said he had tossed. And Dante admits that—he gives a confession, and at the end of which he says, “Please tell the man I’m sorry.”

Now, I have his case. Dante, in fact, was in front of the same judge that had imposed this prison sentence, this 6-month period, on Brandon. And I knew this was more serious, right? This wasn’t just possession of a weapon. This was using it. Dante also had—right? And I want to stop there and say, that is what we typically know about somebody—right?—who’s charged with a crime. When you read in the paper, you know, “Suspect caught,” you know the facts of what they did. And Dante did those things. He wasn’t denying it. He couldn’t deny it. The evidence was overwhelming.

But there’s more, right? And there’s always more. And so, the part that you don’t learn, I got to learn through investigating and learning about his family. Dante’s mom had been addicted to drugs, and she hadn’t been able to raise him. He basically had grown up in the streets. There was a local gang that had humiliated him first and then invited him in. They had told him that committing this robbery was an initiation rite. Dante had incredible talents with his—with his hands. He was like a master craftsman. I saw this wood—these beautiful carvings he had done in his apartment. And so I wanted to try to get him into an alternative program.

The problem was—and this is the way in which I talk about his case—that’s a violent crime. Armed robbery is a violent crime, in all states in this country. And when I would call social programs in D.C., and I pitched Dante to them, they would hear me out, but then they would say, at the end, “What’s he convicted of?” And I would say, “Armed robbery.” And they’d say, “Oh, no. You know, we’re a diversion program. We’re a second-chance program. But we work with nonviolent offenders. We’ll take a low-level drug case. We’re not going to take an armed robbery case.” And so I couldn’t get him into a program.

And he was getting ready to go for sentencing, and I really had felt like I had no other good options. So I went to meet with the man that he had robbed. And I call him Mr. Thomas in the book. And Mr. Thomas answered the door. He let me in, which is surprising. A lot of times, you know, we get turned away when we say we’re representing the person who’s charged with the crime. But he heard me out. And I told him the whole story. And at the end, I asked him if he would go along with an alternative program. Dante’s mom had actually found a little upstart program run out of a church, a storefront church in Southeast D.C., didn’t even have a letterhead, but there was a pastor who was willing to take him. And the man said he would think about. He would consider that request.

And there were two—a couple weeks passed before the sentencing hearing. And when I get to the sentencing hearing, the man is sitting out in the hallway, Mr. Thomas. And I walk up to him, and he thrusts out these pieces of paper at me, two pieces of paper. And one was Dante’s confession, where he had apologized, and another was Dante’s letter of apology that he had written with me. And the man said, “You know, Mr. Forman, you asked me to forgive your client that day when you came to see me.” And he said, “I can’t do that. I just can’t.” He said, “But I am trying, and I can go along with the program.” And we hustled into court. The prosecutor was furious. The judge was surprised, but with the victim of the crime saying he agreed, he did put Dante into that alternative program.

And the reason why I feel like that story is so important is that there are all of these—there’s a category of offenders that we write off in law: people that are charged with violent crimes. And armed robbery is—the most common violent crime in our criminal system is robbery, is the most predominant of all the—you know, when you say “violent crime,” a lot of times people—you know, the first thing that comes to mind is, you know, serial rapist or murderer. But the category of violent crime that the law uses is much, much broader. And so, I really want to push back against this idea that we’re going to transform our criminal justice system simply by talking about nonviolent drug offenses. I think we have to have an open mind towards a much broader category of cases, cases like Dante’s.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in [Black] America. We’ll back with him after break.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We continue our conversion with James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

AMY GOODMAN: You divide your book into two parts—origins and consequences—and you particularly look, when it comes to gun control and marijuana, at the black community and what the legislation around it has meant.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Right, right. Yes, so, I mean, I think the first chapter of the book is about marijuana decriminalization, because one of the things I found—I mean, one of the great things about writing the book was that the history that I discovered, I knew almost none of it when I started researching.

So, in 1975, in Washington, D.C., a majority-African-American city council is elected. It’s the first home room—”home rule” city council. It doesn’t have enough autonomy. D.C. local politics still doesn’t have enough autonomy. But they do have some power. And one of the things that’s within their power is to decide whether to decriminalize marijuana or not. And I didn’t know that there was a movement to decriminalize marijuana in the 1970s. I’m a criminal law professor, but I didn’t know that. But there was one. And D.C. was part of it. And the proponent, actually, of the decriminalization was one of the two white members of the city council. Eleven out of 13 are African-American, two white members—a guy named David Clarke, fascinating biography, went to Howard Law School, worked with Martin Luther King, becomes a city councilmember, and he pushes for decriminalization. The opposition overwhelmingly came from African-American city councilmembers, church leaders, black church leaders, and a black nationalist city councilmember by the name of Doug Moore. But what I thought was so fascinating was not just that they opposed it, but why.

So, part of the opposition was a piece of history that we’ve mostly forgotten now, but was the heroin years of the 1960s in this country, which really was focused on and devastated black communities. So, in—the homicide rate in this country doubled in the 1960s. It tripled in D.C. Heroin use exploded. They test everyone entering the D.C. jail for heroin. And in 1963, 4 percent of the people were addicts. And by the end of the decade, it was 45 percent. And there was an incredible fear in the black community at the time that allowing the legalization of marijuana would be a gateway to then the use of heroin. And because people had seen how devastating heroin was—Jackie Robinson, the baseball great, he went around to black churches and civics groups in the early 1970s and said, “Don’t decriminalize marijuana. Don’t get on board with this, because my son, Jackie Jr., was a heroin addict, and he started with marijuana.” And Jackie Robinson is a powerful voice, especially at the time, right? These are people who—you know, this is 15 years after he broke the color barrier.

And so, one of the things I’m trying to do in the book is I’m trying to show some of the complexity of the origins of some of these wars on crime. And it doesn’t mean—and in showing the complexity, I in no way move away from my staunch, fierce criticism and condemnation of the impact that they’ve had. But I think that the marijuana story helps you to see the way in which a community was and leaders were really struggling with a real legitimate issue, which was rising crime and addiction, and how that then turned them against marijuana legalization.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, John Boehner, the former speaker of the House until 2015, has joined the cannabis corporation Acreage Holdings. He says, “My thinking on cannabis has evolved.” He was the Republican speaker of the House.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: The reason I’m shaking my head in frustration is that it’s—one of the things that’s happened in marijuana politics in recent years that’s incredibly frustrating to African Americans, in particular, is watching people who really led the harsh condemnation of the drug and some of the harsh penalties associated with it, and weren’t motivated in the same way. I’m talking about these African-American city councilmembers that were—wanted to save the black community and so were worried about marijuana decriminalization. That wasn’t John Boehner’s motivation for being a tough-on-crime politician in the 1980s, right?

So we do have to—and I think it’s important to make clear that, in my book, I’m talking about a piece of the story, right? I’m talking about some of the complicated politics that take place within black communities. But there’s a whole 'nother piece of the story—right?—and which you've covered on this show, with writers like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow; and Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy; Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. There’s another really powerful piece of this story that talks about the way politicians use crime as a way to talk about race and exploit voters’ fears. And I view my work as sitting alongside those, as adding to and complementing those understandings. And Boehner would fit—right? To understand where Boehner is coming from, you need to read books like those, and you’ll get a clear conception of that mode of politician.

So, for him to now, when there’s a profit motive available, to turn around and not, by the way—not apologize, right? Not—I would even be OK with it, if he were to turn around and say, “You know what? I’m sorry for the role that I played, and I’m now going to actively work to seal records of anybody who has a—all black and brown and poor people that have marijuana convictions from those days, I’m going to work to get those records sealed”—because a lot of states are doing that, right? “I’m going to work to hire black and brown entrepreneurs, so that they themselves can get into the business now that it’s legalized.” If he were to accompany the money that he’s going to make with those kinds—with an apology and that kind of reparation, I’d be OK. I’d say, “OK. You know, people change over time, and I’m willing to accept that.” But when you’re just taking the money and you’re not doing any anything else, then it just looks like rank cynicism.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does gun control fit in?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, I think gun control is—to me, the reason why understanding the African-American history around gun control is so important is that it does help you—it helps you see some of the first gun control advocates. You know, as you know and as you’ve covered, all of the attention that the victims in Parkland have gotten is important, and it’s welcome, and we should hold it up. I mean, those students are absolutely inspirational, and I do think they’re changing politics in this country, because people see faces—you know, white people see faces that are familiar to them, middle-class, upper-middle-class, and they’re moved. And in coalition politics, we have to embrace that. But at the same time, we can’t lose sight of all of the black victims of gun violence who have been organizing for decades.

And that’s where my—the research on gun control comes in, because what you see is black communities in the 1970s, before other people were talking about gun control in a meaningful way—you see Washington, D.C., citizens looking at rising crime, some of those numbers I just described, and they’re saying, “You know what?”—there’s been a long tradition of gun ownership in the black community. You know, back in the Jim Crow days, I mean, my dad and other SNCC workers talked about this. Everybody, all black people in the South owned guns, because you couldn’t rely on the police. The only thing you knew about the police is they were probably going to come harm. We’re going to give up on that tradition and embrace gun control, because we actually think now—1970s, 1980s—it will be a meaningful measure. And so that’s a tradition. And that shows you and that also exposes another lie that you see propagated today, which is this idea that, well, black people care about crime and complain and protest and march about crime when it’s police officers who are abusing black citizens, but not about regular crime in the community, regular street crime. And the chapter on gun control shows how much of a lie that is, because the black community, for the last 40 or 50 years, has been obsessed with crime, obsessed with keeping itself safe, obsessed with keeping our communities and our streets and our neighborhoods and our schools safe. We’ve been trying everything we can get to protect and to protect ourselves and protect our children, including gun control. So that’s where I think—that’s where it fits, in my view.

AMY GOODMAN: You recently wrote an op-ed about mandatory minimums in Maryland, and you particularly addressed it to black lawmakers. Talk about the crisis of mandatory minimums.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Absolutely. So, I styled that piece an open letter to the African-American legislators of the state of Maryland. And I was in part motivated by one of the things I write about in the book, is an op-ed that was in a black newspaper in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and it was an open letter to the black community. And what they were debating in Maryland was a proposal that would have done a lot of things, but two of the big ones would have been to make parole less available, and so to lengthen sentences that way, and to impose mandatory—and to impose mandatory minimums, so lengthen sentences that way. And, to me, it was the same story, but in 2018 it was the same story that I see in the book from 20 or 30 years ago.

And my argument to those legislators was: Don’t make the mistake of a previous generation. You know, a previous generation of black legislators, many of them legitimately worried about rising crime and violence, adopted punishments, adopted harsher punishments, in a political era when—they may have wanted to get other things, as well. They may have wanted, and they did want, to get more funding for schools and job training programs and mental health treatment, but they couldn’t get funding for those things, and what they could get funding for was police and prosecutors and mandatory minimums, so they did it.

But we now know—we now know—I mean, the evidence wasn’t clear in the 1970s what impact mandatory minimums would have, because they were new. But they’ve now been studied, time and time again, by nonprofits, by the government, by the Sentencing Commission, and they have been found to be costly, ineffective. They don’t deter. They don’t reduce crime. They deny judges the ability to impose an individualized sentence. Right? You can’t take into consideration any of Dante’s background that I just—that we just talked about earlier. All you need to know is what the charge is. And, most damning and devastatingly, in my view, they drive racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And so, none of those findings is controversial. There is not a study that you can find that that will contradict those claims, not a legitimate one.

So, given that—right?—we should—even when we’re rightfully fearful or want to—you know, crime is rising in Baltimore. It’s declining across the country. It’s declining in New York. It’s declining in most places. But even with that, there are pockets of rise, and Baltimore is one of them. But even when we’re scared, we can’t make the mistake of those previous generations. That’s the message of that piece.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now to Jeff Sessions. Months after taking office, the attorney general rescinded two Obama-era memos that encourage prosecutors to avoid seeking inordinately harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense, as I believe the law requires, most serious, readily provable offense. It means that we’re going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness. It is simply the right and moral thing to do. … And we know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do. The facts prove that so. Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeff Sessions. Respond, James Forman.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: So here’s a thing that we need to know about Jeff Sessions. He is somebody who came of age as a prosecutor in this period of time, in the crack years. He was a prosecutor at the time when the Department of Justice was issuing reports with titles like “The Case for More Prisons.” These are government reports, the early 1990s. And he, unlike other people—right?—Eric Holder came of age in that same period of time, but Eric Holder has evolved, and he’s taken in new pieces of evidence, and he’s expressed changes of heart on certain positions. And Jeff Sessions is just—he is a crime dinosaur. There’s no other term that captures it. He’s stuck in a mentality that was common in the late 1980s and, fortunately, is less common now. If you were to ask me back before the election, of all of the people that could be attorney general, on the issues that I care about, who would be the worst person on criminal justice policy, I would have told you it was Jeff Sessions. And there would have been consensus among the advocates on that.

The other thing about Jeff Sessions is that he’s willing to say things that are either uninformed or intentionally misleading, and he’s like others in the administration in that regard. So, one of the things that he said, not a couple months into office—and this was not off the cuff, this was in his written remarks—you can still find it on the DOJ website. So, Jeff Sessions says that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin. And that’s—you know, that’s contradicted by every piece of evidence. Heroin overdoses over a period of years, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 deaths, and there have been zero deaths from marijuana overdoses. And so, when you bring that kind of ignorance and willing to either misunderstand or misrepresent the facts to the highest level of the Department of Justice, you’re going to get bad policies.

There’s only really one good thing that I think we can say about Jeff Sessions in this moment, is that the United States government Department of Justice is a relatively small part of the overall criminal justice system in this country. It’s the one that gets the most attention. It’s the one that gets most media, naturally. But only 12 percent of prisoners in this country are in federal prisons. Eighty-eight percent are in state prisons, county prisons and local prisons. Eighty-five percent of law enforcement is state, county and local, not federal. So the federal government’s ability to do good, if it was trying to, under President Obama and Attorney General Holder, was limited in this—in this domain. And its ability to do evil and to do wrong and to push us backward is limited in this moment. And you see that. A lot of states—despite that rhetoric you just heard from Attorney General Sessions, a lot of states are continuing to pass criminal justice reform legislation, including in places like Alabama, in places like Louisiana, you know, in what you would think of as unusual jurisdictions.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you compare how Donald Trump is dealing with the opioid crisis to the crisis of drugs in the black community?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: You know, Amy, I think that’s a complicated story, in a sense. So, the one piece of it is, they’re dealing with it very, very differently. We don’t see anything like the rush to pass new mandatory minimum sentences or things like the 100-to-1—you know, the nefarious 100-to-1 crack-cocaine distinction, where crack was punished a hundred times more harshly than powder cocaine, with all the racial disparities. You don’t see that kind of thing happening in Congress or in statehouses, for the most part. And that is, I think—can be explained only by the racial difference. That can be explained by the fact that it was, crack users were overwhelmingly African-American, and those that were involved in the drug trade, and today it’s a more sympathetic face to people like Donald Trump and people like Jeff Sessions, because they see white users.

Having said that, I do think it’s also important to be clear that we’re being—we’re not doing well on the opioid crisis. It’s not—we’re not doing as poorly as we did, right? We’re not being as harsh and as vindictive and as racially biased. However, they’re talking a different game, but if you actually look at what’s being done, right? Look at the Republican proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act and everything that they’ve been doing to continue to gut that. The money that goes to opioid treatment today in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New Hampshire, the places where Donald Trump was going and saying, “I hear your pain,” going to white audiences and saying, “We’re going to take care of you,” the funding for those programs comes from the Affordable Care Act, overwhelmingly. And that’s what they’ve been trying and continue to try to gut. So, I think that there’s a way in which we’re specifically mean in this country and specifically harsh towards black people, and poor black people, most of all. But we’re also plenty mean and plenty harsh towards poor white people. And I think you see that in some of the actions—not the words, but the actions—on the opioid crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the rhetoric, the words, should be the model for how drugs in all communities should be dealt with?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Yes, absolutely. I think the rhetoric on the opioid crisis is great. I think the idea of treating people not as enemies—right?—not as the other, but as people who need—who deserve our compassion, who deserve our our care, now we have to fund that. See, it’s got to come with money, because this is one of the things about about drug treatment in this country, is that even when we talk about it and we talk about extending it, we often want to do it on the cheap. But if you look at, you know, Susan Burton, the amazing activist and advocate and the author of Becoming Ms. Burton in Los Angeles, you know, she talks about it in her own book. It was when she got into a really good drug treatment program, that was well funded—it was located in Malibu—that she actually was able to get clean. And so we do have a few—not many, a very few—well-funded drug treatment programs. But mostly, for poor people, what they get is waiting lists. And if they get off the waiting lists, they get something where they go into a room and somebody tells them, you know, “Don’t use drugs. It’s really bad for you.” And that’s not—you know, that’s not going to help anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. We’ll back with him after this break.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversion with James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. I asked James Forman about Bryan Stevenson and the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of slavery and lynchings.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, the first thing to be said about that museum is that Bryan Stevenson, the founder of EJI, is a national hero. And he is—his work has been so inspiring to me. It’s been so inspiring to so many people that are working in this space. And so he’s just to be applauded and to be complimented, and his entire team. I haven’t been there, but my Facebook feed and emails have been filling up with people, friends, that are there, that are sending me pictures, that are crying, that are talking about how meaningful it is.

And I think that the reason why it is so meaningful is that it squarely and powerfully confronts the history of slavery, which we have not, still to this day, not done in this country. I mean, we had slavery in this country for longer than we have not had slavery. And when I talk to audiences and I tell them that, a lot of people, I can see the surprise in people’s faces. So, for starters, people just don’t know that. The other thing—


JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, we had the period of time from 1619 to 1865, the period of time in this country when the first Africans were brought as slaves until the end of slavery. And I’m not even counting—right?—I’m not even counting the form of slavery-like conditions that followed in the South after the Civil War. Just even putting that to one side, but just straight-up legally sanctioned, in the Constitution, in law, chattel slavery for longer than we have not. That period is longer than the period from 1865 'til today. You start to add in things like Jim Crow, and all of a sudden the period where we haven't had legalized, overt oppression and subordination of black citizens in this country, backed by law, that period is a blip in American history. So, that’s the first thing, I think, that that museum does.

The other thing, the other impact that slavery has had, that I think we’ve really not begun to confront, is the impact that it’s had on our thinking and our—on our myths and a lot of our biases, some of them implicit, others explicit, because if you think for a minute about the—think about the lies that you have to create for yourself as a people if you’re going to justify having slavery, right? The first move is to say, “Well, these aren’t people.” But that didn’t last long, right? If you look in the writings, it’s pretty clear that white Southerners, white Americans undeestand that African Americans are people. They think they’re a subordinate class and all of that, but they’re human beings. They’re not animals. That’s understood. So think of the lies that you have to tell yourself if you’re going to have a system where people can buy and sell and breed other people.

The lies, those lies, are the lies that then generate the biases and stereotypes we have today, right? “They have a higher tolerance for pain”—right?—was a common lie in the antebellum era. It’s what you would do to justify physically beating another person. Well, that’s a lie that continues, that has continued on to this day, that people in the medical profession are still grappling with. “They don’t care about their children,” right? If you were going to rip a child from his or her mother at auction block—right?—and watch a person screaming and crying and begging for their family to be held together, and you still are going to consider yourself a moral person—right?—because this is the work that human beings have to try to do, you then create a lie to justify that. “Well, they don’t actually care about—that’s just a performance,” right?

And on the criminal justice system, if you’re going to justify these trivial offenses, which you then use to further enslave people—right?—you further enslave people, to beat them, to degrade them, you have to tell yourself the lie that these people are criminal people, they are inherently criminal. And all of those lies, you can see them, when you do the implicit bias—when they do the implicit bias test and otherwise, those are beliefs that still predominate: black people as intellectually inferior, black people as having higher tolerance for pain, black people as not caring about their children, black people as criminal. Those lies all are rooted in slavery, because they were needed to justify the system.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman, I wanted to ask you about your personal story. You are James Forman Jr. I wanted to ask you about your father, James Forman—


AMY GOODMAN: —the well-known SNCC activist, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; your grandmother, Jessica Mitford, the noted author and civil rights activist; your mother. Talk about how that has brought you to do what you do today. Can you talk about each of them?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: My dad grew up in Chicago and in Mississippi, and he eventually became—he was a school teacher, and he was asked to go to the South by this new group of young people that were—had started the sit-in movement. And they wanted somebody who they viewed as an elder. And understand that my dad as an elder for this group means he’s like 27 years old, because they’re all 20. And that’s the group that becomes SNCC.

So he’s the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which, of the four major civil rights groups in the 1960s, is the one that’s the most radical, in the early years especially. They’re the ones that embraced direct action. They’re the ones that have the young people. There were, you know, disagreements with Dr. King and the minister. SNCC never felt like they were going fast enough. And SNCC also believed very much—their philosophy was, we get into local communities, and we help build up the leadership ability of members of those communities to become leaders themselves. So we’re not kind of dropping in and organizing something for the press. We’re building up leadership that will last, was their theory of change.

And my dad was a big part of that. As executive secretary, he ran the inside of the organization. And then, John Lewis, who was the chairperson for most of the time that my dad was the executive secretary, he was the external. He would go and give talks, and he would raise money. And my dad, in essence, was—I guess, today we’d call him the COO, and you have John Lewis as the CEO. So, he—and he never stopped. My entire life, he was an activist. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: I grew up in Atlanta and in D.C. My parents split up when I was 7. And my—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your mother.

JAMES FORMAN JR.: My mom, Constancia Romilly, is the daughter of Jessica Mitford. She grew up in Oakland, where Jessica Mitford and Bob Treuhaft had moved to, after living in D.C. And she went to Sarah Lawrence College. She had never been East. She didn’t know what she was getting into. But when she arrived, it was a much more privileged kind of environment than she was used to. And she almost—she was thinking about dropping out. And at the same time, the civil rights movement—this is 1960, 1961. At the same time, she starts learning about this black freedom movement in the South. And she’s drawn to it. Again, she had been raised up by her parents and their civil rights advocacy. And so she’s drawn to it, and she wants to make a contribution. And she ultimately does drop out of college, and she joins—but she drops out for a good reason, I think: She joins the Northern Friends of SNCC.

And the story that they always told about how they met—and I never really know exactly how true it is, but they both swore by it—is that she wrote a report about Lowndes County, Alabama. It was a report to lay the groundwork for organizers to go into that community. And my dad read the report down in Atlanta. The report was written in New York. My mom learned one thing at Sarah Lawrence, and that was to research and to write. So she writes this report, and my dad, when he goes to visit the New York office, he says, “I want to meet whoever wrote this Lowndes County report. It was a great report. I want to meet them.” And he then—you know, he meets my mom, and he says to her, “We need to bring—you need to come down. You need to be down in Atlanta. We need you there.” That’s their story. The other thing is that my mom was like—is and was extraordinarily beautiful. And so, I always wonder whether, you know, the political version of this story versus the more, you know, human version of the story, exactly what happened and why he was compelled to bring her down there.

AMY GOODMAN: How did your background, the activism of your family, influence your writing of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: By the way, you can say “Pulitzer Prize-winning” as often as you want, because I am totally not used to hearing that, and still it sounds like maybe you’re making a mistake.

So, I guess a couple ways. My dad was the historian of SNCC, in some ways. I mean, when you—when we were at his memorial service, all of, you know, SNCC veterans—Bob Moses, Marian Wright Edelman—so many people came—Julian Bond. And they spoke, and they talked about—they all said that my dad always said, “Write it down. Write it down.” He was in charge of the field secretaries, the people that were going out to small communities. And he kept saying, “You’ve got to write it down.” And so, SNCC actually does. And they credit—for historians now can credit my dad, in some ways, for the fact that SNCC has a really good set of archives, because he pushed them so hard to write everything down.

And he would tell us that, too. He would tell me, “Oh, you know, you’ve got to write. You’ve got to keep a journal. You’ve got to write it down.” And so, that was, I guess, in some ways, one inspiration. And also, he was a big believer that—in this idea that African-American history is American history, right? And he would really push that idea: You can’t understand American history if you’re not rooting your understanding at least in part in the black experience. So when I encounter a lot of books that are written about mass incarceration but aren’t focused on African-American politicians and African-American leaders and African-American legislators, I’m thinking of my dad and how he said, “Well, wait, you’ve got to be rooting this in the black experience.” And part of the black experience, of course, is in incarceration—right?—and overpunishment and police brutality, and that’s part of it. But part of it also is in the decision-making process. And so, that’s one other connection.

And then, I guess the last thing is, we were just raised to believe that there is nothing more important than—that you can do, nothing more important that you can do with your life than to fight for racial justice, to fight for civil rights, to try to build on a legacy of ancestors, going back to slavery, people who said, “Whatever I do in my life, I am going to leave this world more just than when I found it.” And that was both my parents’ and my grandparents’ constant preaching.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well, in law school, you’re told that that’s something that’s worth aspiring to do. I never—I don’t think I ever thought about it before I got to law school. So I applied. And, you know, I was probably—I haven’t thought about this now, but probably the most stunning phone call that I got, other than the call about the Pulitzer Prize, was when Justice O’Connor’s clerk called me and said, “You have—we’d like you to come down for an interview.” And so I went down, and I interviewed with her.

You know, jurisprudentially, I guess, philosophically, ideologically, she evolved somewhat over time. And when she first came to the court, she was at her most conservative, and when she left the court, she was at her most, I would say, kind of middle of the road. But that was the range, was—and I was well to the left of even that. And she said, “So, what I need to know, though, is how you’re going to approach your work. Are you going to be able to—are you going to be able to put to one side what you believe, and be able to do the work that I ask you to do?” And I said, “Yes.” And I did that. But that was very, very hard.

AMY GOODMAN: And her response when you told her you were going from a Supreme Court clerkship, clerking for her, to becoming a public defender in Washington, D.C., where she worked?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Yeah, she didn’t—she didn’t approve of that. She thought that I was wasting my abilities, in some sense. She thought that I should go—in her mind, there were really two things that I should consider doing. One was that I should go to the Department of Justice, and the other was that I should go work for a big—the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where I had worked two summers, so I had lots of experience there. She just felt, you know, public defender is such a lowly status in the legal system, underpaid, overworked. You know, that was her mindset.

You know, I view—and we haven’t had a chance to talk about this, but it is important to me. I view this book, in some ways, as a tribute to public defenders. I view this book as giving the voice of public defenders and our care for our clients and our love for the work, elevating that. I try to express that on the pages, because I do believe that if we’re going to have any meaningful transformation of our criminal legal system, that public defenders are going to have to be a core, central part of that conversation. I mean, we are the people who are tasked with telling our clients’ stories and giving our clients’ humanity before the court. We’re the people—and in our office, we prided ourselves. Our mentality was, “Yes, you’ve always gotten the worst. You’ve gotten the worst schools. You’ve gotten the worst housing. Nobody in the social service bureaucracy has cared enough for you. And right at this moment, when you’re most vulnerable, when society is really turning its back on you, we are going to give you the best. We are going to fight, day and night, from sunup ’til sundown, and on weekends, to represent you.” And that kind of spirit, I’m not saying it’s everywhere. And I understand that public defenders in—you know, I work a lot with people who are incarcerated, and I know that they have a negative view, because in many cases they didn’t get that from their public defender. But I think that’s possible. It’s possible to provide that level of representation, more broadly and more systematically, and that if we did that, many of the things that we’re seeing now, many of the injustices, would be minimized.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“When They Call You a Terrorist”: The Life of Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation
Up arrowTop