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Locking Up Our Own

Crime and Punishment in Black America

By James Forman Jr.
12-minute read
Audio available
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

Locking Up Our Own (2017) takes a look at the US war on drugs in Washington, DC, and its impact on black Americans. It draws on significant drug and gun legislation from the 1970s through to the late 1990s, which shaped policing methods and influenced the targeting of crime in black communities.

  • People who want to learn about America’s war on drugs
  • Those interested in the relationship between the police and black Americans
  • Anyone who wants to know about crime and judiciary procedures in Washington, DC, from 1970 to the 1990s

James Forman Jr. is an author, professor of law at Yale Law School and the cofounder of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, DC. He has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic and many law periodicals.

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Locking Up Our Own

Crime and Punishment in Black America

By James Forman Jr.
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
Synopsis

Locking Up Our Own (2017) takes a look at the US war on drugs in Washington, DC, and its impact on black Americans. It draws on significant drug and gun legislation from the 1970s through to the late 1990s, which shaped policing methods and influenced the targeting of crime in black communities.

Key idea 1 of 7

Washington, DC’s black community helped halt a proposal to ease marijuana laws.

In 1975, Washington, DC, had a black mayor and a city council primarily made up of black people. Seventy percent of the citizens were black too. That same year, the city made a decision that would stigmatize young black males for decades to follow.

During this period, proposals were made to soften marijuana-related legislation due to concerns about racial injustice.

In 1975, 80 percent of those arrested for possession of marijuana were black. These arrests held a lifelong burden as they had to be reported on housing, schooling and employment applications. Therefore, on March 18 of that year, David Clarke, a member of the city council, proposed the Marijuana Reform Act, which sought to lower the penalties for possession of marijuana to a fine and a citation.

However, the black community, headed by fellow council member Doug Moore, opposed the proposal, arguing that easing penalties would make it easier for black people to succumb to crime and addiction. The opposition was successful, and on October 21, 1975, the Reform Act was tabled.

To help understand why the reform was opposed, we need to look at the heroin epidemic in the 1960s.

In the early to mid-1960s, less than 3 percent of new prisoners at the Central Detention Facility in Washington were heroin addicts. Then came a huge spike in usage, and by June 1969, this figure had grown to 45 percent, the majority of addicts being young black men.

There was a strong link between heroin addiction and crime. To be able to afford their drugs, addicts would resort to criminal means to make money. According to one study, heroin addicts in DC and three other US cities committed an annual average of more than 300 crimes.

The spike in criminal activity led to outrage across black communities, and black drug dealers were deemed to be betraying their race. Some even believed that black heroin addicts and their passive dependence benefited the white community. In May 1969, posters that likened heroin addiction to slavery appeared across DC, printed by the antidrug organization Blackman’s Development Center.

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