Book Review: 'A Colony in a Nation' by Chris Hayes
Review by Susan Grigsby
What in the world is one supposed to do after graduating from Brown University with a philosophy degree? On its face, it would seem that there are not a lot of job openings that require a philosophy background. If, however, you want to change the world, it doesn’t hurt to know how the world works on a philosophical basis.
Chris Hayes likely didn’t set out to change the world anymore than any other philosophy graduate, but he has at least helped to explain it. The fast talking host of All In With Chris Hayes on MSNBC was the Washington editor of The Nation when he began appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann back in 2010. After guest hosting for Keith, Ed Schultz, and Rachel Maddow, he was given his own two-hour platform on Saturday mornings called Up With Chris Hayes. In 2013, his current series, All In With Chris Hayes, began broadcasting in the hour before The Rachel Maddow Show. His fast-talking, hip, wonky style is different from that of Maddow, but his in-depth knowledge of issues and his ability to explicate them is similar.
Hayes puts that ability to good use in his second book, A Colony In a Nation. Using the metaphor of a colonized people, he examines how justice and the enforcement of our nation’s law and order policies fall differently on colonists than they do on members of the nation. Although he is not the first to do so, his work feels fresh and timely. Beginning with the American colonists of England, he demonstrates the parallels between the smugglers like John Hancock who violated the English tariff laws and the drug dealers of today who do much the same. And while that seems like a stretch, it really isn’t.
While we were taught that the Revolutionary War was fought against taxation without representation, it isn’t often emphasized that those taxes often took the form of tariffs on imports that the British government decided to collect in earnest after the Seven Years’ War left them deeply in debt. Who better to pay off the debt than the colonists who were so distant that their voices were rarely heard? So British officials started our first “tough on crime” policy which empowered customs officials, established special courts, and allowed for the stopping of ships at sea to search for illegal imports without cause—other than their suspicion that the ship might possibly be carrying untaxed goods. It was an approach not at all unlike the NYPD’s stop and frisk policies of the modern era. And, as it was the colonists’ ships that were stopped for searches in the 18th century, it was the members of our current “colony” who were subject to the stop and frisk searches of the New York Police Department.
Chris Hayes brings his personal experiences to bear in analyzing the two different lands we all occupy. Raised in the Bronx by a community organizer and a school teacher, he commuted daily to Hunter College High School and watched as the city was transformed under the “broken windows” policing that was done in response to the high crime rates of the 1990s. He examines his own white privilege in telling anecdotes. Passing through a security checkpoint on his way into the Republican National Convention as a college student with his future wife and her father, Chicago journalist Andy Shaw, he realizes that he has marijuana in his backpack, which is hand-searched. The marijuana is discovered (he had been carrying it in an eyeglass case) but after an interminable time span and consultations with police officers, it is simply replaced in his backpack and returned to him without comment.
He accepts that the campaign for law and order, which has focused on order more than on law, has brought benefits to those of us (mostly white) who live in the Nation while penalizing, heavily, those who live in our internal Colony. White neighborhoods have benefited and have become increasingly safer and quieter while the neighborhoods of our Colony have become a police state. Those denizens of the Colony are closely patrolled and monitored, and laws that are routinely ignored by police in our Nation of white America are fiercely applied in our Colony to those with black or brown skin.
American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. Policing is a uniquely important and uniquely dangerous function of the state. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes use the police in horrifying ways; we call them “police states” for a reason. But the terrifying truth is that we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key.
Nowhere was this demonstrated more clearly than it was in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown.
Section 29-16( 1) of the municipal code of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, codifies this principle. It is a crime to “[ f] ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties.” As the Department of Justice would later show, the police much abuse this statute. Ferguson cops routinely issue orders that have no legal basis and then arrest citizens who refuse those orders for “failure to comply.” It’s a neat little circular bit of authoritarian reasoning.
And it is just one more example of the over-policing that is used to establish order. There is no law against standing in one’s own front yard, but a video showed what happened when black men in Ferguson did so. They were tear-gassed by police officers who were not enforcing any laws, only order. They were able to use a law written so broadly that it covered anything they wanted it to.
Hayes examines the autonomy given to police officers on the street. Allowed to participate in a police training simulator, he learns that they need to have the authority to choose when to apply any given law, and when it can be advantageous to ignore minor infractions. The problems arise when that authority is granted to young men who may not have the judgement to know when to be flexible, and when their superiors insist, as a police sergeant in Baltimore did, that they not “treat criminals like citizens.” But overall, the root of the problem lies in:
our tasking police with preserving order rather than with ensuring safety.
Hayes begins his book with a story of how one night, in his quiet, affluent neighborhood, he heard the angry voice of a man loudly berating a woman. Concerned, he dialed 911 and explained to the dispatcher what he had witnessed. A police car arrived and he went to bed. Later he began to wonder what had happened to the woman. Had she been helped or hindered by his intervention? Could his call have worsened the situation for her? And, what law, exactly, had been broken? He has the honesty to admit that what he wanted was not a law enforced, but order in his neighborhood restored.
He closes the book with an anecdote about four black teenage boys on bikes in Prospect Park in New York City. He watched as their typical juvenile stunts became more threatening to passersby, culminating in the theft of a cell phone from a man walking in the park. Should he call 911, knowing what he does about the Colony and how it is policed?
At 256 pages, this is an important as well as a quick read. I listened to Chris Hayes narrate it and he is quite good at verbally differentiating quotes from text. The points Hayes makes have nothing to do with Donald Trump, but they have everything to do with how and why he was elected president. It didn’t start with him, but he has benefited from the existence of the Colony.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.