The racial politics of mass incarceration, and its complex history in Washington DC

Book Review of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman Jr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017); 306 pp., hardcover.

The United States in our era is notorious for arresting and imprisoning people of color, especially black men, for relatively trivial drug-related crimes. The destructive effects of aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration on black communities and black individuals are increasingly well known. Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander has likened the present system to a New Jim Crow, in terms of its racist effects. Partly in response to critics of mass incarceration like Alexander and Angela Davis, partly in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and continuing news about the killing of unarmed black men by police, delegates to DSA’s 2017 national convention approved of resolutions calling for the abolition of the present prison system and an end to policing as it now exists.

At least some DSA activists see these two resolutions as responding to the expressed needs of oppressed people of color in our society. Some of us hope that by taking the radical but seeming logical step of calling for abolition of both police and prisons, we will attract more black Americans to democratic socialism. But here in Washington, DC, the politics of abolition may prove tricky, at best. In “Locking Up Our Own,” former DC public defender James Forman, Jr., suggests why.

Forman is the son of civil rights pioneer James Forman, the first national executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the great-grandson of white Communist Jessica Mitford, author of “The American Way of Death.” In his book, Forman shows a long-standing opposition to mass incarceration and abusive policing.

During his six years defending mostly poor, mostly black defendants in the DC court system, Forman saw many of his clients locked up in Lorton Prison or the city’s dysfunctional reform schools for minor crimes involving drugs, guns, or both. As a founder and former staff member of Maya Angelou Charter School serving at-risk young people in the District, he witnessed aggressive police officers humiliating, physically intimidating and otherwise abusing his students in searches for illegal drugs that the cops never found, although this never seemed to deter the police from conducting more searches.

The system of aggressive policing and mass incarceration that now exists in the District is unjust and destructive, Forman writes. But in the first chapter of “Locking Up Our Own,” he recalls coming to the realization during the trial of one of his clients that all the attorneys in the courtroom, including the district attorney as well as Forman himself, were black. So were the judge, the courtroom bailiff, the police who testified against his client, and those who later transported his client to a notorious local reform school, Oak Hill, where a majority of the guards were black. The majority of the members of the District Council at the time, who had approved the laws under which his client was being railroaded into prison, also were African-American.

Why were so many black Washingtonians, including many who must have realized the destructive effect of mass incarceration on young people of color, perpetuating a system that jailed so many young people of color? In “Locking Up Our Own,” Forman reviews the District’s history to explore the factors that, between roughly 1970 and the late 1990s, motivated many local black politicians, religious leaders, community activists, and journalists to support tough-on-crime measures that gradually congealed into today’s system of mass incarceration.

Three partly overlapping epidemics of widespread drug addiction and associated outbreaks of crimes against people and property have helped shape the politics of mass incarceration in DC (and also nationwide) since the 1960s, Forman writes. A surge in gun violence and firearm-related murders in the District, especially since the late 1980s, also has contributed to the development of a “warrior model” of policing and a new system of stopping and searching cars for contraband that have condemned young black drivers to chronic police harassment and racial profiling.

The first major drug epidemic, involving heroin, had already emerged on a significant scale in the District by the mid-1950s, Forman writes. Over the course of the 1960s, it ballooned in severity: By the early 1960s, some 3 percent of the new inmates in the DC jail were testing positive for heroin, but by 1969 the fraction of heroin users among new inmates had jumped to 45 percent.

By 1971, the District of Columbia was home to more known heroin addicts than all of England, and one research report from this era suggested that in several large US cities, heroin addicts were committing around 300 crimes per year per capita to support their habits. Here in the District, the epidemic was especially severe in low-income black neighborhoods, where nonaddict residents were barricading themselves behind locked doors and bolted windows to protect themselves from robberies and burglaries committed by junkies.

Both in DC and in some other large cities, the heroin epidemic and crimes associated with it inspired an outpouring of tough-on-crime rhetoric among black community activists and politicians. In New York City by the early 1970s, the black political scientist Michael Javen Fortner has written, outrage over the effects of the heroin wave in Harlem inspired a “black silent majority” to repudiate a relatively lenient approach to drug-related crime then being championed by white liberals and to demand instead a more punitive approach to “nonaddict” heroin dealers.

A fiery Harlem minister, the Rev. Oberia Dempsey, demanded that the city hire more police and impose longer jail terms on drug dealers, as well as drug users, to get heroin off the streets, Fortner writes in “Black Silent Majority.” Similarly, the New York-based NAACP Citizen’s Mobilization Against Crime, in 1973, called for longer minimum sentences for all “muggers, pushers, and first-degree murderers.” One black minister based in Harlem, Fortner notes, was so horrified by the overdose death of a young person he was mentoring that he wrote, “We must walk through our Harlems and find the Black pushers and kill them in their burgundy jump suits.”

Here in DC, the antidrug rhetoric of black community activists and religious leaders was less extreme. Yet one of the most active antidrug organizations in the city was the Blackman’s Development Center (BDC) led by a cultural nationalist and recovering addict named Hassan Jeru-Ahmed, a leader of the United Moorish Republic at the time, who took an extremely negative stance against pushers.

Hassan likened heroin addiction to slavery and was willing to accept methadone treatment programs (championed, ironically, by the Nixon Administration) only as a short-term expedient for helping addicts to quit drugs entirely. Long-term methadone maintenance programs, Hassan felt, were little more than a ploy by the white establishment to keep black people helpless and subservient. Accordingly, Hassan placed a strong emphasis on getting heroin off the streets, and this meant an extremely harsh stance against pushers.

Hassan put the blame for heroin in the black community on white organized crime figures, whom he believed needed to be stopped by community resistance, with or without police involvement. But he also called low-level black street dealers “black-face traitors of our people who sell dope to our young boys and girls and make whores and thieves of them for white-face dog dealer.” To battle against the evil of drugs in the community, the BDC under Hassan operated a hotline in which community residents could report on local pushers: the group’s rhetoric indicated that if necessary, the pushers might also be subjected to vigilante justice. Local police relied on Hassan as an informant, Forman indicates, although in some cases, Hassan criticized the police for not being hard enough on the drug trade, due to “technicalities” and “red tape.”

In the face of the heroin epidemic, Forman indicates, Hassan’s organization seems to have looked on incarceration more as a solution than a problem. Another civil rights activist in 1971 told Washington Post columnist William Raspberry that “the pusher, as the conscious agent of those who would destroy black people, is a dangerous enemy and must be destroyed.” The heroin epidemic of the 1960s and 1970s thus laid an important foundation for the system of mass incarceration that followed.

Along with heroin dealing and heroin-related crime, Forman writes, murder rates in Washington and many other large US cities burgeoned after 1960. Experts still disagree over the root causes, Some believe the increased fraction of young people in society partly explains it, since young people on average commit more violent crimes than older ones. Other analysts think the widespread use of leaded gasoline in the US from the 1940s through the mid-1970s spread lead poisoning in the population that induced some people to become more violent. Others largely blame the heroin crisis.

But whatever the causes, murder rates in several large US cities more than doubled during the 1960s. In DC they tripled, with the number of homicide victims hitting a new record of 407 in 1974. About three-fifths of these murders involved guns, and the majority of gun-related murders in the city occurred in black neighborhoods.

Accordingly, under the leadership of a black DC Council member and former civil rights activist John Wilson, and with the support of DC’s nonvoting delegate to Congress Walter Fauntroy and DC’s first black police chief Burtell Jefferson, Washington DC in 1976 enacted one of the toughest gun control laws in the United States.

There was a huge irony in this, Forman notes. Throughout the South during the civil rights era, gun ownership had been widespread among the black community, in some cases because black Southerners were hunters but in many cases for self-defense against white racist violence. Earlier in the twentieth century, during a five-day race riot in Washington in 1919, black Army veterans returning from World War I had traveled to Baltimore to obtain guns when it was impossible to get them locally, and with these weapons they put up a spirited resistance against white mobs threatening their families and neighborhoods. Their armed resistance drew praise from civil rights pioneers at the time.

The pro-gun position of the Black Panther Party during the 1960s is well known, and in 1968, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, in a speech delivered in the District, after essentially accusing the white power structure of declaring war on black people, went on to state: “Black people know that they have to get guns.”

Yet the toll of gun-related murders in black neighborhoods had become so great in the mid-1970s, and alarm over gun violence had grown so prevalent among black clergy members and other community leaders, that John Wilson’s antigun law passed the DC Council easily, with only minimal opposition.

Wilson acknowledged in this era that “anyone who has been to court knows that at least 95 percent of the people arrested for carrying a deadly weapon are black,” but he defended his gun control law as necessary to prevent the vast majority of law-abiding people in the city from being “terrorized by a small group of people who have no respect for anyone.”

Thus, it was that the District adopted an antigun law that, as Forman assesses it, turned out to be remarkably effective in locking up black men and yet ineffective in halting gun-related crime. Although certain political figures including then-US Rep. John Conyers, founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, repeatedly advocated gun-control laws at the national level, such laws have never been adopted. It therefore remains easy today for criminals to buy guns from nearby states such as Virginia and bring them into Washington for nefarious purposes. And in Forman’s words, “Prohibiting gun possession in majority-black communities like D.C., while failing to curb the vibrant national gun market or to address crime’s root causes, has led to the worst of all possible worlds. Guns—and gun violence—saturate our inner cities, while the people who go to prison for possessing guns are overwhelmingly black and brown.”

In the wake of the heroin epidemic and rising murder rates, DC and other major cities by the late 1970s then suffered through a growing wave of PCP abuse and PCP-related crimes, many of them brutal and apparently senseless. The PCP epidemic was particularly apparent on the West Coast during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. In 1980, the Los Angeles Sentinel, L.A.’s major black-owned newspaper, published an editorial blaming PCP dealers for “murder, rape, theft, robbery, matricide, fratricide and every other crime committed by any human being under the influence of PCP.”

Sentinel columnist Ed Davis, blaming PCP sales for “myriad acts of violence in the Black community,” including wife beating, PCP users deliberately driving their cars into buildings, and mothers murdering children, advocated a minimum 25-year sentence for pushers of the drug. This went beyond the California law passed in 1978, at the urging of then-State Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (now a member of Congress) of South Central Los Angeles, which already had increased minimum penalties for those convicted of PCP manufacture and sales.

Another black Los Angeles political figure calling for tough action against PCP dealers during this era, assistant district attorney Johnnie Cochran (who later gained fame as O.J. Simpson’s defense lawyer), called the chemical a “brain-destroying drug” and called for those selling it to be dealt with “swiftly, surely, and in those instances where facts warrant it—harshly.” This position, Forman indicates, was a familiar one in black neighborhoods around the United States, and helps explain why so many black Americans at the time favored harsher drug laws.

In Washington, DC, in 1982, Council member John Ray, a civil rights veteran, introduced a ballot measure, Initiative 9, calling for mandatory minimum penalties for dealers selling heroin, cocaine, and marijuana in the city. The initiative also mandated a minimum 5-year term for any Washingtonian committing a violent crime while armed, for a first offense, and a minimum 10-year term for anyone convicted of a second such crime.

As Forman notes, a broad, interracial coalition of progressive DC politicians and organizations quickly organized to oppose Initiative 9, which they saw as guaranteed to clog the court system while being ineffective in reducing crime. Nevertheless, Initiative 9 in a special election in September 1982 won a large majority of the voters in all of the city’s eight wards, with 67 percent approving it in the largely white Ward 3 and 75 percent voting for it in Ward 8 in Anacostia.

Among the District’s 137 voting precincts, Forman reports, it failed to win a majority only in the overwhelmingly white and affluent Palisades neighborhood in Northwest DC. The referendum indicated overwhelming support for tough minimum sentences in Washington’s lower-income black neighborhoods.

Then, beginning in the early to mid-1980s, a crack cocaine epidemic swept across DC and many other big cities. In the District in 1984, some 15 percent of recent arrestees were testing positive for cocaine in the jails; by 1987, that number had grown to 60 percent of new arrestees. Along with the surge in crack cocaine sales and use came an explosion in gun-related murders.

In 1988, the number of murders in the District reached 372; the next year, there were 434 murder victims; by 1991, the toll had climbed to 489. The overwhelming majority of the city’s homicide victims were black, Forman notes, with Ward 8 having a murder rate dozens of times higher than that in Ward 3.

The death toll from the crack epidemic was horrifying to many African-American leaders in this region. In 1988, the president of the NAACP chapter in Prince George’s County called crack “the worst thing to hit us since slavery,” and in the District, council members Nadine Winter and H. R. Crawford urged President Reagan to send National Guard troops to the city.

Closer to home, in 1986, the assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, Isaac “Ike” Fulwood, announced Operation Clean Sweep. Hundreds of DC cops were given new authorization to clear crack dealers from street corners being used as open-air drug markets, establish roadblocks in affected neighborhoods, and seize the cars and apartments of crack dealers and others involved in drug-related crimes.

With the backing of a DC police force that during this era was more than 50 percent black, Operation Clean Sweep also established “jump-out squads” of officers in unmarked cars who could show up in open air drug markets and leap out to arrest and/or intimidate virtually everyone on the scene. Fulwood’s police department also established Rapid Deployment Units (RDUs) of “super-aggressive” young officers who stopped cars, especially late-model cars driven by young black men, and searched them for guns and drugs. One sociological study at the time quoted one young policeman involved in the RDUs as saying “This is the jungle. We rewrite the Constitution every day down here.”

  1. R. Crawford, representing largely black Ward 7, praised the RDUs in a Washington Post article in 1991, although he acknowledged that the antidrug crackdown had come at some cost in terms of civil liberties. “In a war,” Crawford said, “we must give up some rights in order to recapture the streets.” The Washington Afro-American likewise supported Operation Clean Sweep for tackling a drug crisis that was “a threat to our race.”

Yet the negative side effects of Clean Sweep were becoming clear by the early 1990s, Forman reports. They included the death of a deaf 31-year-old man who died in a police chokehold similar to the one that would kill Eric Garner in 2014, police violence against Washingtonians who had no involvement in the drug trade, and other abuses that resulted in the District paying out roughly $1 million in damages each year to victims of police misconduct.

A less-publicized but extremely destructive side effect of Operation Clean Sweep and the “warrior model” of policing that went with it, Forman writes, was a culture of impunity within the police force that led to officers routinely intruding into the lives of black Washingtonians through arbitrary searches, personal insults, demands for suspects to “get against the wall,” and other forms of low-level brutality.

Whether or not tough policing and mandatory sentencing could be credited for reducing drug-related crime, both the intensity of the crack epidemic and DC’s murder rate had begun to decline by the early 1990s. Yet in 1995, the number of homicides in the District was still almost three times higher than it had been in 1985, and in that year the city’s first black US Attorney, Eric Holder, proposed a new measure, Operation Ceasefire, to get guns off the streets.

Operation Ceasefire called for DC police officers to stop cars in large numbers under the pretext of strictly enforcing the city’s complicated traffic laws, then using the stops as an opportunity to scan the cars visually for contraband guns and—ideally—to get permission from the drivers to search the vehicles.

Pilot programs in Kansas City and Indianapolis had suggested that such “pretext” traffic stops could, in fact, result in the discovery of significant numbers of illegal guns, although a very large number of pretext stops were needed to recover a disproportionately small number of weapons. In Kansas City’s pilot program, for instance, police had seized guns in fewer than 4 percent of the traffic stops they made.

Holder rolled out Operation Ceasefire at a Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, Forman notes, to an audience including members of the black political and social elite from across the Metro Washington area. In explaining and defending the initiative over the next few weeks, he acknowledged that a disproportionate number of the drivers who would be stopped would be young black men. But young black men were disproportionately involved in gun-related crimes in DC, Holder pointed out, and by reducing the number of guns in the city, Operation Ceasefire would save lives.

Holder’s system of pretext traffic stops, along with similar programs rolled out in other cities around the nation, became the basis for racial profiling of black drivers over the next two decades. But there were class-related differences in how the initiative operated.

In DC, a police precinct covering such affluent white neighborhoods as Foggy Bottom and Woodley Park was exempt from Operation Ceasefire, for as Holder pointed out, it suffered from almost no problems with gun-related homicides. Certain affluent black-majority neighborhoods, like the so-called Black Gold Coast on upper 16th Street NW, were in theory subject to Ceasefire, but had fairly low crime rates and were unlikely to receive too much attention under the program.

But Ceasefire led to many pretext traffic stops in lower-income, majority black neighborhoods in Ward 7 and Ward 8, where it inspired furious resentment among young people who were—and are—repeatedly stopped for nothing more than “driving while black.”

It had another discriminatory effect, too, Forman notes. Although the focus of Operation Ceasefire was on guns, when police searched cars stopped under the program, they tended to discover evidence of other, relatively minor law violations, like marijuana possession. Therefore, pretext traffic stops have resulted in a far greater proportion of black people being arrested and jailed for drug possession, although black and white Americans use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates.

Many critics of mass incarceration and the Nixon-era war on drugs have attributed both to racist and opportunistic white politicians using crime as a code word for black and pandering to the sentiments of bigoted white voters. Forman agrees with much of this analysis. “I do not mean to minimize the role of whites or of racism in the development of mass incarceration,” he states in his book’s introduction. “It is impossible to understand America’s crime policy without appreciating racism’s enduring role.”

But Forman, like Fortner in “Black Silent Majority,” cautions against relying on this interpretation too simplistically. White racism obviously has shaped the emergence of mass incarceration, he indicates, but it’s far from the only factor at work.

Instead, to understand the roots of mass incarceration and warrior-style policing in DC, Forman writes, “we must start with a profound social fact: In the years preceding and during our punishment binge, black communities were devastated by historically unprecedented levels of crime and violence.” The system that has developed has reflected the anguish and anger of black politicians and their constituents over the damage being done to black communities by crime.

Enthusiasm for tough antidrug laws and mandatory minimum sentences among black journalists and community organizations has been dropping sharply since the mid-1990s, as they have become increasingly concerned about the racial disparities in the prison system and the injustices built into drug law enforcement, as well as repeated police killings of unarmed black men.

Yet as recently as 2014, Forman notes, a report by the Sentencing Project found that when asked in a poll, “Do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?” 64 percent of the black respondents answered “Not harshly enough,” while 73 percent of whites gave a similar response. But the poll results suggest that the readiness of many black Americans to support radical measures such as the abolition of prisons and the police may not be as great as many radicals, including DSA members, are hoping.

How should socialists and other leftists respond to the complex picture that Forman has painted of the wars on drugs and crime? In a 2004 book that is prominently displayed in some radical coffeehouses and bookstores in DC, the white anarchist writer Kristian Williams labels the police as “Our Enemies in Blue” and documents the role that police have played throughout US history in repressing labor movements and radical organizing, as well as terrorizing communities of color through slave patrols.

Under a capitalist system, Williams argues, police inevitably function as the armed enforcers of an exploitative status quo. The implication is that in a just, liberated, and fully democratic society, the police have no role to play. Do significant numbers of black Washingtonians today agree with Williams’ position?

Or is it possible that many District residents, including some who strongly agree that Black Lives Matter, will focus more on thefts, robberies, and murders associated with crime in DC than on the theoretical question of how law enforcement serves the capitalist state? DSA members probably should consider Forman’s book, as well as Fortner’s “Black Silent Majority,” as we plan our organizing campaigns against police and prison abuses.

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