Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Colony in a Nation

A Colony in a Nation
Chris Hayes (W.W. Norton, 2017)

      In August of 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His body lay on the street for four hours. The people of Ferguson were joined in the ensuing protest by people from other parts of the U.S., in one of the founding moments of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Hayes traveled there to cover the scene for MSNBC. A Colony in a Nation arises out of that experience, but it overflows that place and time in a fertile way.

      A subsequent Department of Justice report on policing in Ferguson portrayed a militarized police department, ready to bring a level of violence against the people that would be more appropriate to an actual war zone. The report also lays out a very disturbing pattern of capricious and petty policing, actually designed to bring revenue into the city coffers, as opposed to making the city safer. The fines for petty offenses are multiplied usuriously by missed court appearances, but there actually aren't enough hours in the court calendars to handle all the cases the police can generate. It's the urban version of an old-fashioned speed trap. 
       Hayes draws a striking comparison to the history of the American revolution. In the 1760s, pressed by the costs of the Seven Years War, the British government increased its demands for customs revenue in the colonies. They harassed smugglers (including John Hancock) and invaded private homes, to the humiliation and annoyance of the colonists. The use of police action, and eventually the British Navy itself, to enrich the government was one of the most significant grievances the revolutionary Americans charged against the British crown. 
       Of course, when the Americans won the right to set their own taxes and democratically decide on their own policing practices, they did not extend such full citizenship to everyone living here. The well-regulated militias of the Second Amendment were needed to defend the western borders against unfriendly tribes of native peoples, and to maintain order where slavery made white people a frightened minority. "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."

      It was actually Richard Nixon who said that black Americans didn't want to be "a colony in a nation.' Hayes says, "And yet he helped bring about that very thing. Over the half-century since he delivered those words, we have built a colony in a nation, not in the classic Marxist sense but in the deep sense we can appreciate as a former colony ourselves: A territory that isn't actually free."

     That's an idea with great explanatory force, whether you're looking at disparities in housing and education, or differences in rates of incarceration. If where you live and what you look like puts you at risk of being stopped and frisked on suspicion of nothing in particular, you're not free. You're a subject, not a citizen. "In ways large and small and constant, the Nation exhibits its contempt for the lives of its subjects in the Colony and indifference to their value. This is the central component of the white fear that sustains the Colony: the simple inability to recognize, deeply, fully totally, the humanity of those on the other side."

      Chris Hayes is an excellent writer. I haven't done justice to the completeness and cogency of his moral argument, but I think it holds up. "The Colony pays tribute to the Nation. The citizens enjoy tangible gains at the expense of the subjects, even though, or especially when, those gains aren't material. While in some cases quantifiable dollars move from one realm to the other, a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being, is far more common and far more insidious." What security, and what rights, would we take away from our second-class citizens if it meant more comfort, and safer blindness, for ourselves?