Fear is Fear

A Colony in a Nation

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

There have been a number of important post-Ferguson books examining the rise of militant policing, prison privatization, epidemic incarceration rates of black and brown people, and gun violence. I was skeptical that Chris Hayes’ new book, A Colony in a Nation, could add a fresh perspective to this dialogue. I was wrong.

Where other authors have focused on particular aspects of these social problems, Hayes chose to zoom out. And what he finds is an elegant paradigm that illuminates a root cause of all these social ills. America is not one people, but is fractured into a Colony and a Nation, and the experience of life in each couldn’t be more different. And fear is at the core of the creation and maintenance of this divide.

Need it be said that the Colony is more likely to be black, brown, lower income? And that the Nation is more likely white, affluent, privileged? Despite this divide, Hayes finds opportunities to remind us of our shared humanity; that, no matter the color of our skin (or whether causes for fear are justified), fear is fear and is a powerful behavior modifier.

With the surge in reported crime that began in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s, a distinction began between policing to the rule of law and policing for order. Hayes, a journalist who covered the unrest in Ferguson in the days following the police killing of Michael Brown, points out that most of the people he observed protesting in the streets were lawful, yet police responded with riot gear and tear gas. Hayes uses this example to observe that it is often not law but order that is enforced, predominantly out of fear that the Colony will spill out into the surrounding Nation.

The oft-acclaimed “broken windows” cleanup of New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and NYPD head Bill Bratton was also a policing for order initiative. It did nothing to address the racial inequality, inadequate housing, poverty, racism and segregation. And, as frequently is a side benefit of order maintenance, it was hugely successful in creating wealth and benefits for the Nation, where the number of visitors to a cleaner, safer New York doubled between 1991 and 2015 (and the amount they spent there quadrupled), while leaving the conditions that create and perpetuate the Colony essentially unchanged.

Hayes points out that multiple systems of law enforcement and order maintenance exist in current society. The military, police departments, Catholic Church, and university campuses all have their version of criminal justice systems. Campus criminal justice systems tend to favor white, upper-middle-class offenders; and campus crimes that are violations of criminal law (rape, theft) may be dealt with internally rather than referring them to an outside judicial system.

The case of Brock Turner, the college swim team star caught raping a woman on campus, is an exception. His case was turned over to an outside court and the court’s six-month sentencing decision enraged people around the world. Hayes asks a different question about our response to this case; while noting that the thirst for justice and vengeance is undeniably warranted, he questions how this response serves the victim of the crime. The system offers the victim only punishment of the perpetrator; no healing, restitution or accountability. Hayes points out that retribution and the equality of “level-down” justice does “little to revive democracy and liberty in the occupied precincts of our land.”

Other topics Hayes provocatively discusses are the opioid epidemic and where our “war on drugs” has gotten us, as well as how the rise in gun ownership tends to increase the need for militant policing. He leaves readers with this question: “So what would it mean if the Nation and the Colony were joined, if the borders erased, and the humanity—the full, outrageous, maddening humanity—of every single human citizen were recognized and embodied in our society? Or even just to start, in our policing?”

Despite all of the weighty topics, this is a quick read guaranteed to flip some of your ideas about these contemporary problems upside-down and keep you thinking long after the last page is turned.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

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