‘A Colony in a Nation’ explores justice system
It may be hard to believe, considering how many times the name “Trump” has been uttered on cable news in the last 18 months, but MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ new book only mentions the real estate tycoon-turned-president once.
Researched and written during Barack Obama’s presidency, “A Colony in a Nation” (W.W. Norton) is a downbeat look at how law enforcement is applied differently to white and black citizens in America, whites being largely “the nation,” and blacks comprising a colony within that nation.
Reviewing the book, Salon termed it “dark and dire.”
Hayes, 38, doesn’t quite agree. “I think it tries to be unflinching and honest about the kind of system we’ve built,” he said, speaking from NBC’s new studio in Los Angeles, where he was broadcasting his show last week.
“The system that we have is a tough one to defend,” he said, pointing out, “When one out of every four prisoners in the world is an American, that’s crazy.”
Hayes will discuss his book at the Metro Detroit Book & Author Society’s 90th Author Luncheon on May 15 at Burton Manor in Livonia. He is among a slate of authors that includes Stephen Hunter, Megan Miranda, Elisabeth Rosenthal and Dan Egan.
Writing books while helming a five-day-a-week, hourlong MSNBC show, “All In with Chris Hayes,” can be “a stretch,” Hayes admits.
A philosophy graduate of Brown University, Hayes is also a married father of two. To hit his book deadline, he gave himself a daily 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. writing routine, no exceptions.
In the book, Hayes takes a broad, historic view of the concept of law and order in the United States, going back to Colonial times, when Americans bristled at the “stop and frisk” policy their British overlords employed to crack down on smuggling.
He also traces the intriguing history of crime and the politics that resulted, from the late 1960s, when it spiked dramatically, to the sharp decline since the 1990s.
Hayes grew up in the Bronx, and rode a bus in to Manhattan every day starting in the early ’90s, to go to school. His father was a community organizer and his mother was a teacher, and they didn’t realize the extent of the danger he faced, he says.
“It definitely worried them, particularly when I went down to the city at age 12,” Hayes said. “In fact, they didn’t realize how often we were being jacked, because I would not share that with them.”
He was relieved of a backpack at least once, he reports. They know now, from reading his book.
As a child, and now an adult (he lives in Brooklyn), Hayes witnessed the drop in crime and the transformation of the city, from more than 2,000 homicides in 1991, to 335 in 2016.
“I experienced it firsthand, the way the city was and the message it sent me. And then I watched as crime receded. It’s an unbelievable decline. It’s impossible to think of another corollary social intervention.”
Although many cite the “broken windows” philosophy of policing in New York, in which even small crimes were prosecuted, Hayes believes many factors went into the decline. One is demographics — crime spiked when baby boomer men were in their 20s, and went down as they aged out of criminal activity. The ’90s was also the peak of the crack cocaine epidemic.
But while he welcomes the more peaceful streets his children enjoy, Hayes worries about the price we pay as a society. A phone call to the police complaining about a possibly rowdy or dangerous child could end up in someone’s death, he points out, as it did with 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, in 2014.
There are more questions raised in the book than answers, and that is by design.
For those looking for solutions, Hayes points to the book “Unwarranted: Policing by Permission” by Barry Friedman. “It has a bunch of policy recommendations, everything from training, changes in policing and the bail system, to constitutional revisions.
“To me, the most important thing is to get people thinking about why these policies exist,” Hayes said. “Because the politics are the cause of the policies. There is a certain kind of political consciousness, a kind of shared political foundation that needs to be built, to get to the place where you are making reforms. “
He does believe that given their training, police officers are asked to do too much.
“A tremendous amount of policing is being called to sites of disorder or conflict, where the way forward is not very clear,” Hayes said. “Everything from noise complaints to people screaming at each other, to someone accusing someone of stealing something, when it’s not clear whether they have or have not. And also, a huge percentage of it is people suffering from either mental illness or addiction, or acting in ways that are threatening or disorderly.
“In all those circumstances, a 27-year-old cop who’s gone through police academy has to rely on his or her wits and authority to navigate these situations. We send the folks with the gun to deal with these people. And I don’t think that produces the best outcomes.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.
Metro Detroit Book & Author Society 90th Author Luncheon
27777 Schoolcraft Road, Livonia.
(586) 685-5750, ext. 102
Chris Hayes: The MSNBC host has written his second book, “A Colony in a Nation” (W.W. Norton), in which he asserts that not all Americans can be confident they will survive our system of justice.
Stephen Hunter: The retired chief film critic for the Washington Post, Hunter has written the latest in his Bob Lee Swagger series, about the adventures of a retired Vietnam-era sniper. In this 10th Swagger book,“G-Man” (Blue Rider Press), Swagger explores the 1930s career of his late grandfather, who once hunted down gangsters including John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson.
Megan Miranda: The author of a number of young adult novels, Miranda’s latest book is an adult thriller, “The Perfect Stranger” (Simon & Schuster). The plot involves failed journalist Leah Stevens, who retreats to rural Pennsylvania in the company of a presumed friend, Emmy Grey, who is escaping a failed relationship.
Elisabeth Rosenthal: A former New York Times reporter, Rosenthal is also a doctor. In “American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back” (Penguin Press), she reveals how hospital and pharmaceutical executives are behind rising costs, offering startling real-life stories, as well as practical solutions.
Dan Egan: A prize-winning investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Egan writes about invasive fish species, pollution and threats to our drinking water in “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” (W.W. Norton).