A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett
Published by Crown Publishing
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Crime, Debut, History, inspiration
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If nothing else, 2020 has been my year of more “I had no idea” reading than any other in my adult life. I’ve read fiction and nonfiction on a number of issues for years, but somehow race was never a large part of that reading. Now, like many others in this country, I’ve seen just how insidious systemic racism is in America and want a better understanding. To that end, I read A Knock at Midnight and was shocked at how completely our criminal justice system has been subverted to make incarceration the easiest tool of racism.
Earlier this year, I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the truth behind America’s criminal justice system. It is packed with statistics about incarceration rates, and the end of slavery and beginning of institutionalized racism that are critical to anyone wanting to open their eyes and mind to the realities of American ‘law’. A Knock at Midnight takes those facts and translates them to real human lives. One of these is Sharanda Jones, a small business owner who was arrested for conspiracy to traffic crack cocaine. She had no criminal record, but federal prosecutors charged her with possession of 23.9 kilos, having a concealed carry permit, and being the mastermind behind a large drug network near Dallas. Also, perjury, for lying by saying she was innocent. There was no physical evidence of the drugs—simply the word of other defendants trying to plead their sentences down (it worked). She had a concealed carry permit, but didn’t own a gun. And perjury for maintaining your innocence?! How is that even a thing? She was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
If your head just exploded, I’ll give you a minute to pull it back together. Sharanda’s case came to the attention of Brittany Barnett, a law school student at SMU. Barnett already had a degree in accounting and was on her way to success in the field when she thought she’d like to become a lawyer to enhance her career options. Criminal law wasn’t on her mind until she read Sharanda’s story. After getting her degree she contacted Sharanda and began working for her pro bono at night after full days at the office. From there, both Sharanda and Brittany’s stories get even more compelling.
There are numerous personal stories in A Knock at Midnight and each is heartbreaking in its own way. The context for the book is a law enacted in the midst of Reagan’s War on Drugs in 1986 when the federal government created mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The key component was the arbitrary ratio of 100-to-1 for powder vs crack cocaine. This meant that a low-level crack dealer would get as much prison time for a gram (1/4 teaspoon) of crack as a large drug cartel member trafficking 100 grams (1/4 lb) of powder. In case you didn’t know (because I didn’t): Crack is dried cocaine. They are virtually the same substance. There was no science behind this decision. What does stand out is that powdered cocaine was/is an expensive drug of choice for whites. Crack is cheaper and more often used by blacks. This law led to people like Sharanda, with no criminal history, no violence, who may have handled small amounts of crack cocaine at some point in their lives, being locked up forever.
This is just the tip of the iceberg that is A Knock at Midnight. The content alone makes it can’t-put-down reading, but it’s enhanced by the fact that Barnett’s writing is concise, intimate, and evocative.
Prison corridors smell like sweat and metal, iron and chains. Like the sharp edge of fear and the blunt edge of misery.
She relays the facts as well as the emotions of drug sentencing and its impact on people of color and, therefore, society as a whole. Her determination and passion are echoed by the strength and resilience of the people she helps. A Knock at Midnight is a book of tremendous power and heart, one that aches with the brutality of an unjust system, but shines with the hope that bringing these injustices to light can lead to much needed change. I highly recommend this book.
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