Reflections on reading the book: CUZ or the Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle Allen.
If you have not already done so, please read this book.
Dr. Danielle Allen is a political philosopher and Professor at Harvard University and Director of the Democratic Knowledge project at Harvard. She is a highly acclaimed scholar who has written a personal and painful memoir that speaks for so many who have lost loved ones to a repressive criminal justice system. She dedicates the book, For my Aunt Karen, and the millions gone.
This book tells of the life of a young man, Michael Alexander Allen, the author’s cousin. His story is softly held in lines quoted from scripture, gospel, poetry and words written from the heart of a writer and family that loved him deeply. I found it not an easy book to read, in fact it took me two attempts to complete it all the way through, as it reveals more and more about Michael, what he went through in prison and the aftermath.
My own family was intimately involved in crime and the criminal justice system as I was growing up in Philadelphia. My nephew, currently on parole and working, has been in and out of jail. I think one of the realities the book reveals is that it is very difficult, in the absence of qualitative political change, for individuals alone to overcome the life and death consequences of inhuman legislative policies. Especially in the third section, Unforgiving World, the author searches for answers to the life and death questions, that were pivotal in what happened to her cousin. Questions such as:
Why did he (Michael) have to pass from boy to man, an odyssey of eleven years, behind bars?
A key answer discussed in the book is that
California legislators had given up not only on rehabilitation in prison, even for juveniles.. but had given up on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime and voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds and then fourteen-year-olds, for carjacking...
The target of Michael’s sentence in 1995 was not Michael, a fifteen-year old boy with a bright mind and a mild proclivity..for theft, the target was the 2,663 carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles between January and August of 1993.
The chapter, City of Angels reveals the interrelationships between the War on Drugs, the War on Gangs, the War on Crime, and the growth of mass incarceration through the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Because the drug business was erroneously attributed almost entirely to gangs, the War on Drugs morphed into a War on Gangs. The enactment of mandatory minimum sentences, stripping judges of the discretion to peg a penalty to the circumstances of the wrongdoer grew exponentially.
One of Danielle Allen’s unique contributions from the book CUZ is to bring forth deeper understanding from the combination of personal experience and clear eyed research.
The historian’s backward gaze can capture the life-altering convergence of the drug business, gangs, and a newly unforgiving criminal justice system, but while you’re living through it, only the smallest fragments – like news reports about crime – are visible. Fragments like police willing to round up 1, 400 black men at a time.
I was thrilled to join Cathy Stewart and Jackie Salit when we had the opportunity in April to meet and speak with Danielle Allen. I am also delighted that Dr. Allen will be our Politics for the People guest author on Tuesday, June 21st from 3 to 4pm. I hope you will join us.