Fault Lines Summer Reading
July 10, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — The writers at FL have put together a list of some of their favorite books on the sorts of issues covered here, just in case you have the weird urge to do a little light reading this summer.
In a way, Professor Michelle Alexander beat everyone to the idea that black lives matter. Years before Ferguson exploded and America was forced to acknowledge how law and order treats men of color, her seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness offered a thesis that still holds to this day: blacks, particularly black men, are still treated like second-class citizens.
Slavery and Jim Crow laws may be long gone, and the Fourteenth Amendment is the law of the land. But a new regime of “legalized discrimination,” as Alexander puts it, has taken hold of our system of justice, putting hundreds of thousands of men of color behind bars or under state supervision, wrecking lives and families for generations. And the regime continues, unabated by civil-rights checks or the hope that the election of Barack Obama would somehow usher in a new era of inclusion and more protections for minorities. Much like the United States was built on the backs of slaves, Alexander argues, today’s carceral state was built on the backs of blacks. And the after-effects of incarceration remain long after these men have left their prison cell — sometimes for life.
If this brief synopsis makes you uncomfortable, that’s precisely what The New Jim Crow aims to do. You may already have low expectations for the criminal justice system — this book will doubtlessly devastate whatever hope for it you may have left. And maybe, just maybe, it will move you to do something about it.
The Whites by Richard Price (writing under the pseudonym of Harry Brandt, for some reason) centers on aging NYPD Sergeant Billy Graves, a former officer from the Department’s “Wild Geese” anti-crime unit. While all of his contemporaries from the old days have moved on to lives outside of police work, he supervises the night shift in a very low-key capacity. The former members of the Geese are still a tight knit group of friends whose families are all close, as well. Each of the individual officers has that one suspect that eluded him or her – someone they could never make the case against. Those suspects are the “white whales,” hence the title of the book.
The book has two primary storylines. The first begins with the murder of one of the Whites, and Graves’ subsequent investigation. The second storyline shows the opposite side of the coin as Graves experiences what it feels like to be the target of someone else’s obsession for “justice.”
The writing and dialog of the book is phenomenal and realistic. The Whites is neither an action book nor a mystery novel – there are no rules on how the book will progress or resolve itself, though. It closely examines the fine line between justice and revenge and the personal toll obsession takes. The character development is so strong that all of the characters are compelling, yet none of them fit within the boundary of hero or villain.
The ambiguities portrayed in The Whites are the ones the criminal justice world deals with every day. Price effectively illustrates that on every page.
Black Gun, Silver Star
Black Gun, Silver Star is the story of Bass Reeves. Bass was born as a slave in Arkansas in the late 1830s and ended up being probably the best Deputy U.S. Marshal in the Indian Territory and later Oklahoma until he retired in 1907 after 32 years of service.
When Bass was still a slave, he was owned by the Reeves family in Texas and accompanied Col. George Reeves (future Texas Speaker of the House) at several Civil War battles, like Chickamuga and Missionary Ridge. Before the war was over, Bass fled to the Indian Territory where he lived with the Creek and Seminole tribes.
In 1875 he was deputized by Judge Isaac Parker and began his law enforcement career. Over the next three decades, Bass did an exceptional job, arresting 3,000 felons and killing fourteen in gunfights. In all those fights, Bass was never hit, although his hat was shot off once and his belt severed another time. He was completely dedicated to the law, even tracking down and arresting his own son for murder. Other deputy marshals at that time were Heck Thomas and Bill Tilghman, who were much better known (as well as white).
Bass worked as a deputy marshal until 1907, then worked as a Muskogee police officer for two years, until his health became too bad for him to work any longer. Some believe that Bass was the inspiration for the “Lone Ranger.”
The Cat in the Hat
It’s awesome. A veritable primer on burglary, with a host of felonies too long to count. Well done, Dr. Seuss, if that’s really your name.
Unlike the common screeds lamenting either the inescapable victimhood or the inherent criminality of urban housing projects, Sudhir Venkatesh writes with immense curiosity about his experiences within the Robert Taylor projects of Chicago, one of America’s most dangerous ghettos (before being torn down during the Clinton era). His book takes place during the late 1980’s into the mid 1990’s, at the height of America’s urban crack epidemic. He provides a window into the soul of urban projects at potentially their darkest time.
Venkatesh begins his book as a sociology student at the University of Chicago. He recounts his almost immediate decision to shun the sterile data-driven foundations of sociological “learning” and choose to integrate himself into the world of the Black Kings street gang, one of Chicago’s largest, under the protection of sub-boss, J.T. Venkatesh’s unprecedented access seems to derive from his honest naivete, although the star of the book is the resilient but heartbreaking community system within a few buildings of the Robert Taylor projects.
While J.T. is his guide through the book, Venkatesh utilizes his connection to the Black Kings to delve ever deeper into the entire culture within the projects, from the single moms, to the police, to the squatters. He does not seek to provide an exhaustive account of Chicago gang life of the early 1990’s. And that is what makes the book special. He admits his attachment to objectively “bad” people, but maintains (as best he can) his role as an academic observer, making the tale about the people in it. Refreshingly, he leaves decisions on ultimate judgment to the reader.
It would be untrue to say it’s the only problem, and maybe even the biggest problem, but the slide down the slippery slope from Sheriff Andy in Mayberry to police in tactical gear driving armored vehicles to put down the enemy with heavy weapons, when that enemy is their neighbors, is huge. Rise of the Warrior Cop is a seminal work, a must-read for anyone interested in criminal law.
Radley Balko provides a book that takes the reader from the first step on that slope, providing context and understanding as to how and why police shifted from serving and protecting to going to war against their own. It explains how the shift involved all aspects of law enforcement work, from clothing to weapons, vehicles to mindset, each feeding upon the other to give rise to a belief that the public was the enemy and police needed all available force to subdue them.
It is a remarkable work in its depth and even-handedness. One can appreciate the police perspective, the forces that gave rise to the militarization of the police, and the understanding of how an idea that made some sense grew out of control until it became a monster consuming its own.
Main image via Flickr/faungg’s photos