Each month, our resident book club reviews a new must-read volume that will help to educate, inform, entertain, and thrill you. This issue, Darcey Sergison starts the first installment of our new monthly feature by reviewing James Forman’s non-fiction book, Locking Up Our Own.

Locking Up Our Own is a captivating read about crime and punishment in Black America, with many parallels to the UK justice system. As I have been actively educating myself about the Black Lives Matter movement, Forman’s book was at the top of my list. Not only is it informative but it also has the shocking element of statistics about the demography of prisons around the US and gives an overview from the 1960s onwards of the problems that Black communities face. When I started to read this book it immediately drew parallels to the Netflix documentary 13th, which has risen in popularity since the death of George Floyd. Similarly, Forman takes an in-depth look at how Black America is treated within society and whether the justice system is truly there to protect this minority group of citizens. Forman looks deeper into the justice problem in the US by opening on the 1995 court case of a young Black man. He asks “how did a majorityblack jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” Moving through from the 1960s Forman presents the answer to this question by looking at activists trying to solve problems that lead to incarceration. From gun violence to the war on drugs, these Black activists were unaware of the consequence that their actions would produce. Little did they know that despite their intention to combat these issues within their community, ultimately it would lead to a huge racial gap in punitiveness.

This book stands apart from many others that try to solve the problem of crime and punishment for Black communities. Forman has solved the issue many writers face from conservative readers that state that Black communities do not recognise violence within their own communities. Instead he faces this issue head on while looking at debates on drug use and gun violence.
My favourite section of the book discusses the debate which has tarnished the US for decades: gun control. Crime is largely correlated with gun violence in the US and Forman highlights that “nationally the black homicide rate was seven to eleven times higher than the white homicide rate”. Therefore, this is a problem not just faced by the US in general but also by Black communities specifically. Forman goes further and describes how this “anger” from Black communities “found its political expression in the demand for tougher criminal penalties especially for any crimes involving guns”. However, in 2017, Black citizens represented 12% of the US adult population while 33% of the prison population was Black. This shows the disproportionate result of criminal penalties in the US. Similar to evervy country around the world, the US is plagued with racial bias. Representation is inadequate for Black citizens in the justice system which leads to punishment being imposed on the minority group. Forman uses the example of further intensification on the war on crime in the 1990s when Washington police had more stop and search powers to search for guns held in cars. Eric Holder Jr, US Attorney for the District of Columbia 1995, said these new rules made “the people of Washington DC. in some respects, no freer than the people of Selma, Alabama in 1955”. Forman highlights the specific stop and search excuse being “exceeding the tint limits” which was labelled as the “police favourite”.
Forman uses his experience in law, as a public defender, to make the reader question aspects of the criminal justice system which they may have never questioned before. This book has been a vital starter of many tough conversations regarding race. Both informative and challenging, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the complex issues behind the now global movement of Black Lives Matter.

Locking Up Our Own should be the top of the pile for any avid reader and budding activist. By reading Forman’s highly acclaimed book you are taking your allyship further than performative means. This book reflects the circular issues faced at the start of the Civil Rights Movement to the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. My hope is that with more people informing themselves and taking action these issues should not need to be written about in the next generation. If you decide this is the book for you here are some ways to support independent bookshops:

  • supports local bookshops on an online platform, making it easy to shop for a variety of books
  • Wordery is an alternative online bookshop which offers free worldwide delivery and vows to help bookworms find their new favourite book
  • Blackwells is an academic independent bookshop which has grown from Oxford to other parts of the UK but hasn’t lost the charm of its welcoming and helpful staff

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