James Forman combines relevant experience and the ability to organize and present recent history. His 2017 book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America is an exposition of origins and consequences of policing and legal decisions. In fact, he divides his book into those two sections: Origins and Consequences.

Because of his experience as a public defender and later as an educator, Forman uses actual case studies to illustrate the consequences of decisions made decades earlier. He explains how African American police officers organized and overcame racist bosses. Once they advanced to positions of power, like Chiefs of Police, they could begin to affect policies and protocols.

But the hard part of the story is the timing. As these officers were promoted, the war on drugs began. They saw how drugs from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin impacted their communities. And it seemed logical to get tough.

However, Forman also describes the consequences of this decision, like mandatory minimums. He also discusses the ongoing issues with today’s policing policies, many of which lead to punitive sentences, even for first-time, non-violent offenders. Again, he threads the reality of a case study throughout his narrative.

In an epilogue, Forman points out how these recent histories evolved somewhat during the Obama years. And since this was published very early in our current administration’s tenure, he also discusses and forecasts a bit.

My conclusions

Locking Up Our Own is especially relevant with today’s conversations around police policies and police violence. Forman offers vital and valuable historical context. Plus, his own experiences working with communities of color underpin and enhance the topics.

Forman’s writing style is easy to grasp and straightforward. He doesn’t shy away from complexity and can break it down into understandable components. And his various personal stories help balance the scholarship.

For the most part, this isn’t a hopeful book. It’s an honest and unvarnished telling of reality. If you’re looking for background and further information about today’s Black Lives matter uprisings, this is a great place to start.

Pair with Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or How to be an Anti-Racist from Ibram X. Kendi.