I’m gonna warn all y’all right up front: this is political. If you don’t want to read about politics, Black Lives Matter, police-as-military force, and other horrible horrible things in our society, wait until my next review – it’ll be a silly little romance novel, with no politics or angst whatsoever.
Now that that’s outta the way…
Chris Hayes is a MSNBC host, the lead-in to Rachel Maddow’s show. I don’t watch MSNBC. In fact, the only time I watched MSNBC in the past umpty-million years was when Maddow claimed she had Drumpf’s tax return. (Spoiler alert!: she didn’t. She had two pieces of paper that showed a small portion of his tax return but didn’t really have any detail. Wake me up when you find the kompromat, Rach.) But I saw Chris Hayes when he was on my news broadcast, The Daily Show, talking to Trevor Noah about this book.
Here’s where I’d link to the interview clip, but the Comedy Central website wants me to log in with my cable provider account and password?! Fuck offffffff, Comedy Central!
ANYWAY. I liked his interview, and I remembered that I liked the interview and the premise of the book when I saw it on the “New and Notable” shelf at the library.
The book is less than 200 pages long, and it’s very well-written. So well-written, I ended up quoting a shit-ton of the book. Soooo, if you don’t feel like either watching an interview (if you can find it on the interwebs) or finding the book yourself, good news! This is practically a Cliffs Notes version.
(Here’s where I normally apologize to the kids who are googling the book title and “cliffs notes” and tell them they’re going to be very disappointed in this, try again, but honestly? This might get your essay done. Please send $35 in a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Alaina c/o That’s What She Read for all your essay-writing needs.)
A Colony In A Nation proposes that there are two justice systems in the United States: one for the wealthy and the white, and a second one for the poor and the black. The book is broken out into five or six parts, each a thesis on its own.
The first section sets up the premise with a real-world experience. Mr. Hayes tells us about the time he accidentally smuggled some pot into the 2000 Republican National Convention.
[…] the police officer who’d found the drugs put my bag on a table and looked at me, as if to say Go ahead and take it.
I figured as soon as I reached out and acknowledged the bag was mine, they’d slap the cuffs on. But when I went to grab the bag … nothing happened. I picked it up.
Kate [his girlfriend], her dad, and I walked into the convention center together. Her father said, amusedly, “You probably shouldn’t do that tomorrow.” [p. 18]
Compare that story to that of Dayvon Love of Baltimore, a high school debater who narrowly escaped being thrown in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time:
“I was seventeen years old, it was the day of a debate tournament. I’d won first place, and that night I was catching a bus to go to New York to see a friend.” On his way to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning, Love and his father were pulled over by police. “They say I match the description of someone who stole a woman’s purse.”
The police began to search the car. More cruisers pulled up with their lights flashing. They took Love out of the car and had him stand in the middle of the street. At one point, one shined his police light right into the teenager’s face. “And you heard them ask the woman, you know, ‘Is this him?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ And so luckily I had the presence of mind to think, ‘We had just stopped at the ATM to get the money I needed for my ticket.’ So I explained to them, I said I had just got the money that I needed to pay for my ticket.” Love happened to have the receipt from the ATM; the time stamp corroborated his story. “And luckily they let me get away, but that easily could have went in an entirely different way.”
By “entirely different way,” Love meant being swept into the vortex of a penal system that captures more than half the black men his age in his neighborhood. By “entirely different way,” he meant an adulthood marked by prison, probation, and dismal job prospects rather than debate coaching and activism. If he hadn’t been so quick on his feet, if the woman hadn’t been unsure the police had the right person, everything might have been different. [p. 20-21]
Here’s the premise of the entire book, in four block paragraphs:
There are fundamentally two ways you can experience the police in America: as the people you call when there’s a problem, the nice man in uniform who pats a toddler’s head and has an easy smile for the old lady as she buys her coffee. For others, the police are the people who are called on them. They are the ominous knock on the door, the sudden flashlight in the face, the barked orders. Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror. [p. 16]
This book makes a simple argument: that 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. [p. 32]
If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal. [p. 37]
In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty. Police officers tasked with keeping these two realms separate intuitively grasp of the contours of this divide: as one Baltimore police sergeant instructed his officers, “Do not treat criminals like citizens.” [p. 38]
Part II brings the discussion to a natural starting point: Ferguson, Missouri, and Michael Brown. He cites a handful of actual Ferguson ordinances related to policing, including this one:
[…] None of this would have happened if she’d just listened.
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. [p. 46-47]
But the bigger point Mr. Hayes makes in this section is that this need for obedience to the police state is anathema to our history. As a colony, America proudly resisted being told what to do by Britain.
But as a principle of self-governance, particularly of American self-governance, “do what the cops say” is a pretty strange unofficial motto. This great land of ours, this exceptional beacon of liberty, was founded by men who, to borrow a phrase, refused to comply. Who not only resisted lawful orders but rebelled against the government that issued them. Colonists chased the king’s officers through the streets, caught them, beat them, tarred and feathered them, and wheeled them through town for all to mock and shame. As distant as it may seem now, that’s our national heritage when it comes to “lawful orders.” [p. 49]
Back in the day (i.e., America’s days as a colony), power was held by the pirates and the smugglers who snuck product to the colonists under the nose of Britain’s port authority.
During the pre-Revolutionary era, smugglers created economic activity that caused huge knock-off effects: a cascade of subsidiary industries and cash flow that kept a whole lot of people in the colonies (not to mention lots of business back in merry old England) in the money. The same goes for dealers in, say, Westside Baltimore or the South Side of Chicago or the South Bronx, or northern Maine or eastern Kentucky or South Central Los Angeles. Sure, the drug trade is illegal, reckless, and destructive, but it encourages commerce in places where the legitimate economy produces few jobs. While dealers and “the street” are viewed skeptically, often angrily, they also command status. Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions – the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution. [p. 53]
(John Hancock was a smuggler prior to signing the Declaration of Independence with the largest pen.)
But that talk about the drug trade in northern Maine – seriously. The second district of Maine is still horribly economically depressed, and so many people are turning to the drug trade. And as much as Governor LePage would want us to believe that the majority of drug dealers in Maine are not white (“guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty … half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave”) – from other states (“black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn”) – i.e., The Colonies — the majority of arrests have been white, native Mainers – The Nation.
*checks watch* 29 more weeks until the next Inauguration Day for Maine. *taps watch, wills it to tick faster goddammit*
Something else Ferguson had going for the it, regarding its racial inequality towards justice: the fact that the City of Ferguson was more concerned about raising revenue by municipal violations than focusing on actual public safety needs. Y’know: quotas.
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. [p. 62, quoting directly from the DOJ’s report on the patterns and practices of the Ferguson, MO police department]
I grew up in a relatively sleepy suburban, college town. As of the 2010 census, Maine was 94% white. Brunswick – my hometown – may have been slightly less white when I was in school, but only because the Brunswick Naval Air Base was still active at that time. I grew up in a middle-class family: we struggled at times, but we had a house, two cars, food on the table, and cable TV.
But the Brunswick cops – I don’t know what it was, but Brunswick cops (with a few exceptions) were the worst.
The first time I got pulled over, I was 19 years old. I had just bought my first car – Max, a cherry red 1994 Plymouth Acclaim – and I was driving down Maine Street, heading for Topsham. A car tried to cut me off coming out of a side street, and in my attempt to avoid being hit, I drove through a crosswalk where a pedestrian had just entered my lane. A cop was in the other lane. He pulled a U-ey and followed me, siren blaring. When I pulled over and rolled my window down, I was shaking – from almost being hit, and not knowing for sure why I was in trouble.
The cop – Ray-Bans down, practically chewing on a toothpick and waving his Maglite in my eyes in broad fucking daylight – intimidated the fuck out of me. Gave me a ticket, and because I’d only had my full license less than two years, told me my license would be suspended.
I had just gotten a job in the next town over. There was no way for me to walk to work, so not being able to drive for the entire summer would have ruined me. So I went to court to contest, and in order to get out of the suspension, had to go to the same “defensive driving” course that people with DUIs have to take to get the points taken off my record.
For failure to yield to a pedestrian. All so the cop with the fucking Napoleonic complex (I distinctly remember towering over him when he showed up to court) could fulfill his quota.
QUOTAS, MAN. FUCKING QUOTAS.
*sigh* If you want to hear more about municipal violations and how they can escalate into some high grade, life-ruining bullshit, check out my Pretend Second British Boyfriend John Oliver from three years ago.
For subjects of authoritarian rule, humiliation is the permanent state of existence. “There is the man at the top,” Frantz Fanon wrote of his native Martinique, “and there are his courtiers, the indifferent (who are waiting), and the humiliated.” That’s it. In a colonial system, you can have power and be close to those with power, or you can be humiliated.
Cops – Brunswick cops in particular (and I know I’m probably gonna get some flak for this, but Sharon*, your husband wasn’t a Brunswick cop back in 2002, I’m not counting him) – wield what power they’re given in order to humiliate the governed.
*name changed to protect the innocent
And to bring it all back to Mr. Hayes’s thesis:
But Ferguson’s practices were hiding in plain sight for all to see for years. And in fact, when I talked to people in Ferguson, they didn’t think there was much that special about it. Go to any of the surrounding little municipalities around Ferguson in St. Louis County: Jennings, Florissant, Kinloch. A Washington Post investigation of the municipal court system in the surrounding towns found identical violations across the board.
This is what “the law” looks like in the Colony, where real democratic accountability is lacking, when the consent of the governed is absent or forsaken or betrayed, and when the purpose of policing and courts isn’t the maintenance of safety and provision of justice but rather some other aim. In north St. Louis County that aim is to produce revenue, the same aim of the British Empire’s customs regime in the American colonies. [p. 75]
And here’s what happens when the authoritarian “status quo” gets challenged: the police fight back against the uprising Colonists:
In response to the outrage that poured forth on that summer afternoon, the police of Ferguson and St. Louis County mobilized as if for war: flak jackets, masks, helmets, camouflage, assault weapons, and armored vehicles. Men pointed their long guns at civilians who assembled for peaceful protest. Cops arrested and detained journalists who were charging their phones in a McDonald’s. They fired tear gas canisters indiscriminately. Bands of armed cops in full combat gear chased unarmed, peaceful protesters through the streets with guns raised. [p. 67]
Part III begins with a reminder of the Tamir Rice tragedy – where a twelve-year-old boy was killed by police officers who were dispatched to a public park where report of a black male pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing at people was made, and then killing that twelve-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun. This leads Mr. Hayes to discuss, in part, the notion that the Nation clings to its weaponry in order to maintain order in the Colony.
Today Americans still rely on the gun, the power to kill or injure, to preserve the social order in the most fraught and dire moments. Police know their weapon is by their side if the situation they encounter spins too far out of control and they find themselves threatened. [p. 88]
But he also makes a good, if often-missed point: too often people call the police to handle situations that really shouldn’t be their purview. And, additionally, police officers are not given the appropriate training to be truly effective in those situations.
For instance: you’re a police officer, fresh out of the academy. Let’s say you’re between the ages of 25 and 30. You get a call to a residence because the resident of the house – who is suffering from severe developmental disorders – has found a weapon and is threatening another resident. What’s your training? What should you do as a policeman? The resident hasn’t done anything illegal, but you were called to respond, and you can’t just leave.
We ask police to be social workers, addiction counselors, mental health workers, and community mediators. We wouldn’t hand a social worker a gun and have them go out into the streets to apprehend criminals, but we do the opposite every day. [p. 95-96]
And then, there’s the topic of White Fear. Ah, that fear of the unknown and distrust of people that don’t look like us; the fear that causes people to lock their car doors when they drive through a city, or causes those same people to call the cops when they see a black man in their neighborhood. Or causes a white lady to call the cops on two Native American teens who were merely taking a college tour.
Despite the fact that nonwhite people are disproportionately the victims of crime, the criminal justice system as a whole is disproportionately built on the emotional foundation of white fear. But then, that isn’t surprising. American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate. [p. 109]
Also in Part IV, Mr. Hayes discusses in depth the racial bias of the justice system, especially when it comes to the War on Drugs. And here is where I am going to go all capslocky, and I want y’all to know, I DO NOT APOLOGIZE.
So, here’s the thing: in 2016, the State of Maine legalized recreational marijuana by referendum. It allows possession and personal cultivation of the plant – with limits – and sets up regulation for the sale of marijuana to recreational users. Now, here’s the downside: the way the referendum was written, and the way it was put into the law books, practically all the nitty-gritty stuff about licensing, and background checks, and all that shit that we need to ensure it stays legal? I think if the law writers were allowed to enter the *shrug emoticon* for all that stuff, they could have. Everything – and I mean everything – is pretty much TBD.
Enter the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee in the Maine Legislature. For almost 18 months, these seventeen elected officials did a lot of hard work – going to Colorado and Washington, learning how other states worked within the lines to ensure there were safeguards in place to allow medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana to coexist. They labored over just the right type of taxation scheme to ensure that the State benefits from this. (And in the middle of this, Jeff Beauregard Sessions threw a monkey wrench into the whole affair because he thinks it smells bad, but also, he’s racist, and yes, I’m getting to that).
Flash forward to two weeks ago, when the final version of the bill the MLI Committee wrote – which is 80 pages long, containing numerous regulations for cultivators, products manufacturers, retailers, and testing facilities, and licensing, and reports and studies and DUDES, lemme tell ya, I have read that bill backwards and frontwards about sixty times until Sunday, how did this pot virgin become an expert on pot?! – came up in the House for voting.
And at least three Republican representatives stood up and said that they can’t vote on it, because legalizing marijuana is a bad thing to do, and if we (the people) can legalize marijuana by referendum vote, *gasp* what’s next? Voting to legalize heroin?
And then they threw out the fact that marijuana is a Schedule One narcotic on the Controlled Substances Act.
Which caused me to run away from my computer (where I was watching the livestream at work) and into the stairwell and post to Facebook the following:
Because guess what, folks? RICHARD NIXON WAS RACIST AND PRO-VIETNAM WAR AND THIS WAS HOW HE WAS GOING TO CONTROL HIS ENEMIES:
The number of people [over the decades of the DEA] in state and federal prisons serving drug sentences increased nearly 1,270 percent, from 24,000 inmates in 1980 to 304,500 in 2014. Years later Nixon aide John Ehrlichman seemed to offer up a smoking gun when he told a reporter:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. [p. 111]
MARIJUANA IS ONLY A SCHEDULE ONE DRUG BECAUSE RICHARD MILHOUSE NIXON WAS RACIST
But what happened over the years? Even though studies have shown that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rates, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and/or use over white people.
EVEN CYNTHIA MILHOUSE NIXON KNOWS WHAT’S UP
[NOTE FROM THE PAST: And now the Maine Legislature is all fucked up, and I’m waiting for veto day to see if the marijuana bill even gets un-vetoed [[because LePage is going to veto it, like an asshole]], and if I have to listen to another twelve months of my friend whose name I am not going to post on the internet for privacy reasons bitching about the fact that he can’t go into a store and buy pot I will LOSE MY MIND.]
[Note From the Future: holy shit, the pot bill survived the veto.]
[oh shit, now what do I do?]
Getting back to White Fear: it’s also known as “unconscious bias” which, thanks to Starbucks, hopefully a lot more people will realize this is an endemic problem in society? [In a way, it’s a good thing it’s taken me forever to get caught up on my blog reviews – look at all the real-world examples I’m able to throw in now!] But what do we do with White Fear – and is there a way to train it out of us?
[…] Imagine that this particular officer, not through conscious racism but through deep unconscious bias, finds himself only in fear of black citizens. […] He is not faking his fear; he is not being disingenuous. But something is deeply amiss.
What is the moral status of that fear? What is its legal status? In the case of a police officer, the practical effect of our collective conception of fear is its transcendent ability to exculpate. If a cop shoots someone because he is angry, he is a murderer. But if he shoots a suspect because he is afraid, he is innocent. Can the law second-guess that subconscious impulse, which the shooter cannot control any more than he can keep his leg from kicking out when a doctor strikes a hammer against his knee? [p. 117]
I mean, probably not. This is America. [Mom, you’re not gonna want to watch that link, okay? Seriously, I mean it, don’t click it.]
Over the decades, communities have tried to make themselves safer and better protected from drugs and crime. Whites and minorities alike have petitioned to have better policing, better programs and more resources to keep people from getting involved with crime.
How’d that go over?
Because control over the machinery of the state in almost all places remained in the hands of an overwhelmingly white elite, a perverse form of “half-a-loaf” legislative compromise emerged during this period. Yes, black citizens, leaders, clergy, activists, and politicians in predominantly black neighborhoods recognized a crisis, and yes, they were demanding solutions. But the solutions they were demanding were full spectrum – more police and more jobs – while the solutions they got were entirely punitive.
In the fight over the 1994 crime bill, the NAACP excoriated the initial draft for its lack of investment in urban communities. The Congressional Black Caucus proposed its own alternative, with $5 billion more in funding for drug treatment and early intervention programs. But Republicans demagogued on the small amount of social spending in the Senate Democrats’ version of the bill, railing against midnight basketball programs as a government subsidy for hooligans. The bill then lost an additional $2.5 billion in social spending, but left in place billions for prisons and a long list of punitive measures.
This process was repeated in statehouses and city halls across the country: black people asked for social investment and got SWAT teams, asked for full employment and got gang units, asked for protection and got “stop and frisk.” White fear absorbed and appropriated black fear. Thanks to what scholars call “selective hearing,” black fear, combined with white political power, produced a state committed to managing and punishing black and brown subjects rather than empowering and protecting them. [p. 124-125]
Real-world example: the marijuana legalization bill I was talking about? If we wanted to truly make it egalitarian, there should have been a provision to expunge the records of all possession and use crimes for those who have been convicted of them, now that possession is partly legal. “Oh, you got busted in 2012 for holding two ounces of pot? Well, now you can hold two and a half ounces of pot legally, bye-bye criminal record!”
The best the bill does is allow those applying for marijuana establishment licenses to still be considered if the individual does have a conviction “for an offense that consisted of conduct that is authorized under chapter 3 [possession and use].”
So let’s say you were convicted of possession of marijuana, but don’t want to get into the marijuana biz. That conviction is going to remain on your record, and you will continue to be required to disclose that conviction on employment applications. So essentially, if you have a conviction and you have to get a new job, the only job where that marijuana conviction will not count against you is one in the marijuana industry. How is that fair!? Thanks, half-loaf legislature!
Here’s another example of how tone-deaf people in power are:
[Chris Hayes] asked [the mayor of Ferguson, MO] what he thought was the big takeaway from the death of Michael Brown and the protests for racial justice that had brought hundreds of reporters from around the world to his city.
The mayor didn’t hesitate. “We have to find a way to stabilize housing. There is, all across north St. Louis County, a problem with housing where people only live for a few years. They switch school districts, you know, every year. They move houses every year, every six months. They never really set down roots. We have to find a way to do that.”
I was a bit incredulous: “So you think that is sort of the – that is your takeaway from this?”
“Yeah, the takeaway is we have to find a way to stabilize them here in the community and make them part of it.”
Ah yes, stabilize housing – that phrase was familiar to me, like concerns about vagrants and seediness and orderliness. Stability is one of the things that, in the minds of those within the Nation, define it, compared to the transience of the Colony. I’m sure the mayor really was concerned with making sure his constituents had a stake in the city and felt part of it for the long term. But the subtext was present, too: that it was the denizens of the Colony who were causing problems, and things would be fine if Ferguson could get rid of this disorderly class of squatters who had infiltrated their town. [p. 150]
The above is a good example of “broken windows” policing: broken windows or squalor in a community is apparently an indicator of crime going on in the area. This leads to “community policing,” where the police force in the area are more present so as to build up the safety of the community. However:
The problem with “community policing,” then and now, is that so often the cops being called to enforce community norms are not part of the community. [p. 157]
In a perfect world, the police officers who police your community would be made up of people in your community. But how many times do you see primarily-white officers and policemen responsible for policing primarily-minority areas? Those officers are not part of the community they are policing.
The final part of the book (yes, I’ve finally reached the end) discusses the punitive nature of America’s justice system.
America is a wrathful land. Americans like to humiliate wrongdoers. We like to heap marks of shame upon them, to watch them groan and write beneath their sins, as far back as the scarlet letter and the stocks. We like, in short, to punish. It makes us feel good. By every conceivable metric – prosecutions, duration of sentences, conditions of imprisonment – the United States is by far the most punitive rich democracy. No one else really comes close. [p. 181]
Mr. Hayes goes further, discussing a study made by law professor James Whitman:
In 2003 law professor James Whitman laid out an argument for why the U.S. criminal justice system compares so poorly to those of continental Europe – France and Germany specifically. […] He comes to a surprising and compelling conclusion: that it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.
In the German and French systems, he explains, punishment long existed along two separate tracks: degradation and humiliation for low-status prisoners and relative comfort and hospitality for high-status ones. The United States, on the other hand. maintained a more egalitarian ethos of punishment (for white people, anyway). Since the American Revolution, we viewed punishment as a great equalizer; no special kinds of punishment was reserved for lords and for peasants. Thus the system of punishment that developed found equality in a race to the bottom: everyone got punished harshly as an expression of a core belief that no man stands above another. [p. 183]
There’s a lot in this short book. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I’m also probably not the person to say it. Here’s what I can say: the book opened my eyes on a lot of things that I was probably blind to, and it certainly doesn’t help that I live in the whitest state in the country (aside from possibly Vermont; I can’t remember which one of us is on top right now). But I promise to do my best to use my white privilege to effect better change, and I encourage anyone who wants to make this country better to read this book.
Grade for A Colony In A Nation: 5 stars