James Forman on cop gangs


[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]

[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.


In the dream she rode shotgun, slouched sleeping against the window while her grandfather drove through the cloudless Montana night. The dash lit his face and he smoked while he drove, Salem after Salem, flicking the ash out the cracked window and the air howling there. The movement and vibration of the vehicle settled him. He thought he could drive a truck for a living once they were in Canada, but the thought of it was like being in a room of rising water, except the water was loneliness. The granddaughter stirred and settled back to sleep. Seventy more miles and they’d be in Critt’s Creek, bare and homely, but functional. He’d fill up the tank there and buy more Salems. Five times in the past fifty miles he saw a tent pitched by the highway. But the road was his alone, a clean gash through the valley to freedom. They were close enough that he could taste it. * The detective lay in the motel bed naked save his socks. He watched the vehicle’s movement via satellite on a tablet. The woman stubbed out her Salem and stood to dress. He thought she moved like a cat in the dim lamplight, though she’d been aggressive before. She glanced at him and tucked the cash deeper into her clutch purse. She always put her heels on last in case she needed to defend herself. She said nothing and left, closing the door quietly. He set down the tablet and dialed his boss, the sergeant. Hey boss, he said. Got lucky back in Yellowstone. They left the vehicle to hike and I planted a tracker on it. They’re headed north on 15 out of Great Falls, to Critt’s Creek. He’ll need to refuel there, and that’s where we’ll get em. He was quiet a while, listening to the voice on the other end. Yes sir, he said, and disconnected the line. He stood to dress and gather his items into the pack. He took a final blast of cocaine and washed it down with a shooter of cinnamon whiskey. Then he lit a cigarette and looked back at the room to make sure he didn’t leave anything. The fresh air was silk on his face.

We communicate

He had to remind himself to breathe.

Sitting there in the truck, liquid daylight leaking into the city, he couldn’t breathe unless he thought about it. Counting backwards from thirty. He reached forward to the radio and turned the station. He turned again, and then again, trying to find a balance, something to soothe him.

“Hey asshole. Stop with the radio.”

“I’m a little on edge, is all.”

“Yeah, me too. Before I break it.”

“All right, jesus.” He reached forward and turned the radio off. “That better?”

The driver didn’t say anything. He leaned his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes.

The guy in the passenger seat looked out the window. He didn’t care to watch the dark monotony of night slip away to another day’s luminous truth. He didn’t notice the ravens swirling stark in the rectangle of sky above the alley. He could have rolled down his window and focused his attention on the sound of morning, the crisp regeneration and cool yawning concrete. That might have calmed him. He picked up his Walther instead, slipped out the magazine and then clicked it back in. Out and in. Down and up. Click, click. Click, click. The smell of the city never changes overnight and for some men the sound and feel of a loaded gun is worth a thousand dawns.

“You know what I was thinking?” the driver said.

“You were thinking.”

“We’re isolating ourselves.”

The guy in the passenger seat stopped playing with the Walther.

“I mean, not like, you and me. I mean all of us. The world. Americans.”

“How’s that?” Click, click.

“The technologically advanced.”

“Please elaborate.”

“There is movement toward isolation in the wake of technological advancement. This happens on a personal level, but also culturally. People shrinking from each other. Less face-to-face contact. The more technologically advanced a culture becomes, the more its parameters of communication shift. The modes change shape with each new wave of progress. Think about it.”

“The Internet.”

“Think about the language. Dialects. Think about means of expression. The invention of words and terms.”

“You’re thinking about the Internet. People shop for anything from home. They don’t need to go out, spend hours in the bookstore or trying on a pair of pants.” Click, click. “They don’t have to go to the bar or to church to find a date, to sample the talent.”

“Notice how almost everyone has a mobile phone now,” the driver said, lifting his up and looking at it. “We use these phones to communicate in a myriad of ways.”

“Less standing in line. The Internet has made standing in line an endangered species.”

“Text and e-mail. Voice. Video, photo. Imagine if we could see the streams of communication going on all around us. Even right now, at this hour. Imagine all the invisible voices and coded language, all the hidden data. Slender rhythm of radio and television waves. Digital binary information, little ones and zeros dictating the pulse and flow of all the world’s knowledge.”

“The prayers.” Click, click. “Imagine if we could see all the prayers.”

“I wonder what it would look like, if each mode of communication was a different color.”

They looked through the windows to the alley set in cool morning shadow, the chinked and stained concrete, old brick facades of buildings left to derelicts and huddled runaways. Dumpsters ahead and behind them filled with waste matter. The driver looked up through the windshield to the sky, a snatch of cloudless pale blue emerging stridently to claim another awed human rumination.

“The change is so gradual that we can hardly scrutinize it,” the driver said. “I mean, we go from a megabyte of technology to a gigabyte. We go from cordless phones to cellular phones.”

“From Playstation 2 to Playstation 3.”

“We don’t graduate straight to high-def television from shortwave radio.”

“Self-deification takes patience.” Click, click.

“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the transformation is dense and tangible enough to observe and study, maybe even to manipulate. Maybe this is what the guys in lab coats and power suits are thinking of next. Clustered in places called Washington. New York. Los Angeles. Cairo.”

“Las Vegas.”

“Sitting around a table, men wearing gleaming white ghoutras and women dressed in paramilitary fatigues, guerrilla-clad luminaries with mysterious backgrounds and red smiling faces.”

“Calculating the science of communication in order to control it.”

The guy in the passenger seat clicked the magazine free of the gun and clicked it back into place and he looked down to it black and reassuring in his hands and he imagined how he would react if the people in the bank mutinied or if the cops came in with their guns aloft and he tried to imagine pointing the Walther at one of them and pulling the trigger and he told himself he could do it if he had to but he wasn’t convinced. He pictured his wife of twenty-four and in his mind he saw their son with his mother’s curly blond hair and his father’s stone gray eyes and he tried to imagine how his family would survive if the action this morning went south.

“Do they even have record stores anymore?” he said. “Are there such establishments as record stores, and are they operational? Quite frankly I haven’t seen one in at least a year.”

“People on the subway. Most of them plugged into a music player. The others with their heads buried in a shiny magazine. Maybe there are books. I think people still read books.”

“Nobody burns books anymore.” Click, click.

“Nobody talks about how the ball team is doing. Nobody asks about the wife and kids.”

“The discussion board is the new subway.”

“People assume the wife and kids are fine. The wife and kids are healthy and plentifully drugged.”

“People assume.” Click, click. “People shouldn’t assume.”

The driver reached forward and flipped the radio back on. He changed the station to a news program and the two of them sat listening to the hurried headlines until the sweeping brand of day lit its distinct mark upon the world and the cellular phone buzzed in the driver’s pocket.

“We’re on,” he said, and started the truck.


I pulled the car through the winding hillside streets in the evening stillness and I thought it both strange and affecting how in that town one could scarcely peer through the thick shrouding gray to the setting sun beyond. Crooked rows of small one-story frame houses in light pastel colors, the yards manicured into taut pristine statements and the black bay water forever looming immense and threatening in the background. Anonymous joggers of dusk puffing the saline air beneath the watchful eye of antique streetlamps not yet ignited to life there in the grayest of twilight.

I parked in front of a modest green house enclosed by a painted wrought-iron gate with RENNAY engraved into its steel nameplate. The sky sunk from gray to charcoal and I walked through the creaking gate to the house and rapped quietly on the front door and waited for the old woman to answer. It took her several minutes but she finally opened the door and the front room smelled of wilted lilac and dust and candle wax. She didn’t speak but led me to the right through a long hallway and I entered a dark room near the far end of the house where there was no indication of the neighborhood outside nor the secular bay at dusk nor the concept of space or even time as contingent upon men to decipher such things. It was dark in the room and there were jagged shadows dancing on the walls behind the molten arrhythmia of candle flames licking the air.

“Finally you show up in this town and I can’t offer you a drink,” the old man said. He sat staring at me from a rocking chair in the corner of the room, heavy patched blankets covering his body. “I drank the last of the scotch,” he said, holding up an empty tumbler, rolling it slowly around in his thin fingers. “Eighty-four years old.”

I stood and looked from the old man to the candles spread in divine geometric petition throughout the room.

“Come over here and sit,” he said. “What I have isn’t contagious.”

“I’m fine,” I said calmly. “Listen. Some men are on their way here. They’ll be here just before dawn. They have guns. They’ll threaten you and they might even kill you. They’re coming here looking for a box of papers. I believe you know which one.”

The old man looked away from me to a candle at his left, the flame rolling and thrashing in shades of orange and red, his face illumined by the throbbing vigorous glow that had not truly come from within in many years.

“These men,” I said. “I’m the one who sent them.”

I turned my face to the flickering lights and the mad swaying shadows born from them and I told the man to give me the box of papers so that it would not fall into the hands of the men who were coming for it.

The old man was silent for a long time. He looked from the candles to me and then back to the candles, forty or fifty wavering truths whipping loose and radiant about him, little eyes of fire sustaining his brooding contemplations and force-feeding his old heart.

“I spend a lot of time in here staring at these candles,” he said. “Just thinking. Little flames swirling in the air. It comforts me. Colors and privation of colors. All the answers I’ll ever need. One of the things I often think of while sitting here is the queer relationship between time and light.”

He looked up at me again, his dark eyes afire with strands of pooled light, pale and intractable and omniscient.

“We were taught as children that the human brain receives visual information as the cornea intercepts it from the light spectrum. As if the light wasn’t there before. As if it needed the human brain’s sanction to exist at all. We were also taught that the mind assimilates this visual data into assorted modes of scientific and psychological assertion. Cause and effect. Theory. Association. Illusion. The mind thrusts upon itself certain varieties of light as time’s witness, as specific and inalienable proofs of time. Our vision, more than any of our other senses, acts as a placeholder for all the things we experience in this world. It is the supreme catalog of the human condition. Of course, light is synonymous with many things in the human lexicon, but the most pervasive of associations is light with the pairing of our concept of time. For those of us who are not blind, and I imagine even for some of us who are, the visible world is permanently wed to history. We cannot think of the past without trying to see it, trying to visualize it. We can’t possibly comprehend a future without looking for it, trying to see what our world will look like. But light is not time, my friend. Nor does it exist in time. Light creates its own time, it carries its own dimensions, all of which far exceed and outperform our frail human understanding. Time is a human machination, a device of logic and pragmatic substance. But light is meta-human. It operates as an instrument of the gods, as a divine right of privilege, the sole witness of soul transit and multi-dimensional communion in this, an omnisensory universe of mere human speculation.”

He sat silent for a while and then he pointed with a long bony finger to the closet at my right where the box of papers sat small and dusty on the carpet. I looked at the man and picked up the box and began to walk out the door.

“The light of this world does not create shadows,” the old man said to my back.


I sat on the pier and watched the gulls float high above the lapping bay tongue, darkened ghosts circling slow and listless in the gray dawn. I checked my watch and turned around just in time to see the clock tower behind me strike the top of the hour and I heard the brawny bell echo throughout the bay town and when I turned back to face the water the gulls were gone. Something was moving about in my pocket and so I pulled out the vibrating cellular phone to answer it.

“Something’s missing.”

“What is it?”

“Looks like records. There’s a dimple in the carpet where a box, maybe a pile of boxes used to be.”

I sat silent, listening to the cold water slap the wood pier at my feet, looking into the murk for some vestige of life in that bleak and dark cold mystery. I watched the foam froth against the wood and fizzle away and then repeat itself again and again as it has for a hundred years, and for another hundred years before that.

“Maybe it means something,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t.”

“Yes sir.”


“Yes sir.”

“Let them go.”

“Yes sir.”

I put the little phone in my pocket and saw a steamship crawl across the water way out on the horizon. It was big and black and rumbling in ill spirit of augury and I stood up and listened to my bones creak and I felt the muscles begin their little dance of mutiny and then I turned and walked back to town, the opening of shops and emergence of sleepy-eyed buskers and myriad invisible homeless advancing from the margins of town with their ragged blankets and empty bottles and I walked beneath that old clock tower that had endured windstorm and pestilence and centuries of starless night with nothing to display but its consistent pulsing record of history and its rote totalitarian demands.




I killed the last drops of whiskey in my flask and reached over to the passenger seat for my little red beacon. I put it on the dash and flipped the switch. I didn’t need it, though. Around these parts people know me well enough to know that if I’m following them close enough for long enough I mean to pull them over. I hid the flask away in the darkness of the glove box, pulled out the .38 and hid that in my back pocket.

The rusted white pickup in front of me slowed to a crawl and then stopped on the shoulder of Highway Six, a one-lane asphalt road and the only road in and out of our little desert town. I turned off the cruiser and took the keys out of the ignition and eased my way up to the young man in the pickup, my hand at my holstered Desert Eagle.

Sweat had soaked completely through my Stetson and dripped from the lid. My khaki shirt was heavy with moisture, my badge leaning on my heart and glistening in the dry sun. The young man sat idly in the pickup.

“Hiya, Randy” I said. “We got us a scorcher here, yes indeed.” Randy didn’t say anything. He looked straight ahead through his windshield and the heat vapors dancing on the hood of his truck. His knuckles were white from clutching the steering wheel. He was a good kid.

“What’re ya doin out here, Randy?” I asked. “I mean, where you headed?”

“Just drivin’, sheriff,” he said, and swallowed hard. “Nowhere in particulars.”

“You mind steppin’ out of the vehicle for me, son?” I asked. It was a bold move, but I figured Randy wouldn’t question it. No one around these parts ever questions what I tell them to do. They trust me. I guess that’s the best part about being a sheriff out here. The only thing I ever have to worry about is getting re-elected, and I hardly even have to worry about that.

Randy stepped out of the truck with his hands at his sides. I could tell he wanted more than anything to hide them in his pockets.

“Now I’m gonna search you, Randy,” I said. “Don’t make any quick movements, or anything.” I patted his waist and pant legs and searched his ankles and then his back. He wasn’t carrying anything. His shirt was soaked through with sweat.

“So,” I said, “What did you say you was doin’ out here, Randy?” He put his hands in his pockets and took them out just as quickly. He was jittery, almost like he was hiding something.

“Just drivin’, sir,” he repeated, and dropped his head.

“You wouldn’t be tryin’ to get out of town, would you, son?” I asked. A hot breeze ruffled his blond hair. “You wouldn’t be runnin’ from somethin’, would ya?”

“No sir,” he said, looking me in the face. He could probably see his reflection in my sunshades. He shook his head in small sideways shudders. Somewhere off in the distance, a vulture dropped to the ground in a spiral.

“Have a seat over there,” I said, pointing to the dirt shoulder behind his pickup, “I’m gonna search your truck.”

“What’s this about, sheriff?”

“Just have a seat, son,” I said kindly, and Randy did exactly as I told him.

I walked around the front of the truck looking through the windshield as though something interested me. Randy watched my every move. I went around to the driver’s side and leaned in, not letting Randy see me pull the .38 from my pocket and place it under the seat. I let it sit there a minute and glanced back at Randy sitting on the hot asphalt. I reached over and opened the glove box and closed it, then dallied a little bit underneath the seat again.

“Well, I’ll be doggoned,” I said, raising the .38 with the very tips of my fingers. Randy looked at it like he had seen it before. “What’s all this?”

“It looks like a pistol, sheriff,” he said, and swallowed.

“I believe it is a pistol, Randy,” I said, the sun burning the skin of my hands. “A .38. What’re you doing with a .38, son?”

“I’m not doin’ anything with a .38, sheriff,” he said. “It ain’t mine.”

“Well, it was in your pickup,” I said, dropping the pistol into my front pocket and looking back into the cab of the truck. Randy just sat on the road squinting in the sun, his hands clasped in front of him. He cleared his throat.

“That’s because you just put it there, sheriff,” he said. A lone cloud drifted over the sun, blanketing the desert in pale shadow.

“Pardon me, son?” I said, tilting my head. I took a step toward him.

“I said the pistol was in my pickup because you just put it there, sheriff,” he said. “You know I never carry a gun.” He shifted his weight uncomfortably on the burning ground.

The cloud passed and the sun shot back into the sky. I hadn’t expected him to say what he had, but I pressed him anyway.

“If I were you I’d watch my tone,” I said. “You’re speaking to a citizen of the law.”

“I know who I’m speaking to,” he said, his eyes narrowing.

I kept silent for a moment, thinking of my next move. I wanted to scare the kid, and he was obviously scared. But I hadn’t expected him to handle everything so well. Suddenly the weight of my clothes, my belt, my hat, all of it was too much to bear in the heat. I was tired. My mouth was dry, my lungs were melting. I knew what I had to do, but I just didn’t know if I’d have the strength.

“You know,” I said, standing in front of Randy, looking down at him, my hands on my hips, “Tracy Cavanaugh was shot to death last night with a .38.” Randy didn’t say anything. “And I’d be willing to bet that a ballistics test would prove that this here pistol,” I said, patting the .38 in my chest pocket, “is the guilty little party.”

Randy looked up at my face, the sun beating him down, and then he dropped his gaze to the pavement between his legs. He was looking for something, maybe strength, maybe some sort of cowboy courage that only exists in movies or books, or in real cowboys.

“And I’d also be willing to wager you was leaving town, Randy. But see, you can’t run from the law, son. And I happen to be the law in these parts and guilty men can’t outrun me. I been chasin’ ‘em down longer than you been alive.”

“That’s not so, sheriff,” he said. “And you know it.”

“I know that you was the last one seen with her last night, before she got killed.”

“I walked her home from Dora’s tavern, that’s true,” he said. “But I wouldn’t ever kill her. She was my friend. We talked the whole way home about how she wanted to leave town on account of her bein’ afraid for her life.”

“What was she so afraid of in our little town, Randy?”

“She said she was afraid of you, sheriff.”

I dropped my gaze as another cloud shrouded the sun. I hadn’t thought this encounter would be so difficult. But I was willing to take it as far as I had to.

“She said you been touchin’ her and things for a long time, sheriff. Since she was just a baby. She said the last time you did it would be your last because she was gonna kill you dead herself.”

I took a deep breath and drew it out long, listening to the hiss of air escaping my lungs. I noticed my teeth were gritting hard. The sun lit up the blighted earth again, burned holes on my body.

“That just shows how stupid you are, son,” I said, staring him down, trying to break him. “You let a dumb girl like Tracy Cavanaugh warp your simple little mind with lies just so she could get what she wanted from you? Now look where you are. You’re alone, son. Like you always will be.”

I turned my back on Randy and spat on the highway, listening to the warm breeze shift in the canyon. I turned back around.

“You didn’t even fuck her, did you, Randy? You never even tasted that sweet little bitch, I bet you didn’t. I bet you whimpered like a coward when that little slut made her move on you. You didn’t know what to do. You’re just a stupid boy, son. You ain’t no man at all.”

“Don’t say that, sheriff.”

“You probably couldn’t even get your little pecker up, could you, son? You probably ran and cried like a baby when you saw her sweet little bits.”

“Shut up,” he said, infuriated, and started to stand, hands clenched at his sides.

“She wasn’t even that good, boy,” I said. “She wasn’t nothin’ like your mama, all ass and juicy as all hell. Your mama was a real trophy, son. Your mama was the rose garden on the other side of the world.”

Randy stood up and stepped toward me. His face was the color of blood.

“Easy, son,” I said, and put my hand out. My other hand was at the holstered Desert Eagle at my belt. “There’s a lot of holes in this here desert. Many of ‘em I dug myself. Don’t make me dig another one today. Not in this heat.”

He took a step back but he was still angry. A few veins pronounced themselves in his neck. His chest heaved with quick, angry breaths.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” I told him. “Just turn around and put your hands up in the air. I’m going to put the handcuffs on you so’s we can talk like adults. That’s all it is, two grown men talking on the side of the highway. There’s a way we can both get out of this with our clothes on and our hands clean.”

He looked at me severely, with something like hatred, and didn’t move at all. I gritted my teeth and stepped toward him.

“God dammit, son, do what I say!”

Randy turned slowly around and put his hands above his head. The poor, stupid boy. I walked up to him like I was going to cuff him, but instead I pulled the .38 from my pocket, put it to his temple, and blasted his memories into the hot desert air. I wiped my prints from the gun and applied his to it, and then I looked over the scene to make sure it was clean enough. I walked back to my patrol car to call Ned, the deputy back at the station.

“Ned, you copy?” After about thirty seconds Ned answered. He sounded like he’d been sleeping at the desk again.

“G’head, sheriff.”

“I got bad news, Ned. Randy Parker just done shot himself.”

“Where at, sheriff?”

“Just off the Six, past mile marker one-twelve,” I said. “I pulled him over for speedin’ and he was actin’ jittery. I had him step out the car, you know, to see if he’d been drinkin’, and he walked behind his pickup while I searched it for booze. Pretty soon I heard a shot. Scared the bejeezus outta me, Ned. He did it with a little snub-nosed .38. I don’t know why, the poor bastard.”

“You say a .38, sheriff?”

“Yeah, Ned. Suicided himself with a .38 right on the side of the road. Damned saddest thing.”

“Tracy Cavanaugh was killed with a .38, right?”

I paused.

“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” I said. “That’s right.”

“That might explain it,” he said. “I’ll send the cavalry.”

I switched off the radio and took off my Stetson in the shade of the car. I almost smiled because having to dig another hole in this God awful heat probably would have killed me.