In 2000, a 21-year-old college student attended the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As he passed through the layers of security to enter the convention hall, about thirty dollars worth of marijuana was discovered in his backpack. Instead of confiscating the drugs and arresting the perpetrator, the police looked the other way, handing the bag (and the drugs) back to the stunned young man. Had Chris Hayes been black and not white, or traveling on I-95 instead of with his future father-in-law (who was a reporter covering the RNC), this story may have turned out differently.
The thesis of Mr. Hayes’s second book, A Colony in a Nation, is that criminal justice policy, from policing to prosecution, the essential duty of maintaining law and order, is done much differently depending on your zip code and skin color. In the Nation, largely white, middle to upper-middle class, your interactions with the police are at worst a minor annoyance (being pulled over for speeding) but more commonly quite positive, as they quickly respond to any disturbance in your leafy suburban bubble of privilege. For inhabitants of the Colony, darker skinned and poorer, the opposite is true. Each interaction with the police is fraught with literal life and death consequences.
As a card carrying member of the Nation - a white man educated at elite schools and with meaningful wealth, Hayes may seem like an odd vessel through which to frame our country as one that has elements of apartheid-era South Africa and a vague resemblance to the movie “District 9,” but his roots in social justice movements and his avowedly progressive viewpoint fit neatly with this inequitable view of society. Hayes has seen the tensest standoffs between citizens and police up close and personally and has a clear passion for his subject.
But for all of Hayes’s insight, braininess, and clear interest in the subject, ACIAN too often felt like a survey course when what I wanted was a graduate-level seminar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book feels light. It is short (220 pages) but utilizes generous margins and spacing, giving it the feel of an overlong magazine article and not a full length examination of an important public policy issue. Much of the book is informed by Hayes’s own experiences - both as a child and teen growing up in New York City during (as he calls it) the “Crack Years” and as a journalist who covered the aftermath of high profile police-involved killings. But for someone who embraces rigor and evidence, focusing so much on the anecdotal and not the empirical was surprising. To be sure, there is some discussion of research - Hayes lays out some of the various theories on why crime has dropped so dramatically in our country, ultimately concluding that we don’t have one solid answer, but then skips right past a national spike in murders in 2015 with a quick parenthetical that they took place in a few large cities. Huh?
Part of this is deciding where you want to focus your attention. It is already well-documented that there is a difference in outcomes for black and brown defendants as compared to white defendants for a variety of crimes and while skin color may play part of a role, so too does economics. Poor white people have no better access to legal representation than poor black or brown people, it is just that the concentration of what we consider “serious” crime is centered in smaller and smaller parts of the country. The irony is that the geographic “colony” continues to shrink, but the psychic area, the one that results in Skip Gates getting accosted at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, black students being harassed by college campus police, or your run-of-the-mill “driving while black” incidents is as large as ever. *That* question, of our basic racial prejudices, whether we are in a high-crime area of an inner city or a sheltered college campus, begs more attention and response.
As Hayes notes, most crime is intra-racial and if we are most concerned about serious violent crime, we cannot ignore the fact it happens disproportionately in what Hayes calls the “colony.” Where I live, in Mercer County New Jersey, it would take a town like Princeton 20-30 years to match the number of murders that occur in Trenton in just one. Indeed, in any given year, 90 percent or more (sometimes all 100 percent) of murders that occur in Mercer County happen in Trenton. Should we ignore this? In fact, there are a handful of cities in New Jersey that account for almost every murder that occurs in our state. Law enforcement can only do so much - they are reacting to a host of socioeconomic factors that have been in play for decades, yet we expect them to strike a balance between effective policing and not being influenced by race. It is an almost impossible task yet most officers do it.
While unequal policing, and particularly as it relates to low level, non- violent and other petty offenses, is well documented, the same does not extend to more serious crimes. As a Chicago native, I was surprised Hayes did not focus more of his attention on his home town, as it does, in miniature, reflect many of the achievements and failures of policing. On the one hand, large swaths of the city are safer now than they have been in decades, while small pockets are as dangerous as a war zone. And that is the thing - the dramatic reduction in violent crime since its apex in the late 1980s and early 1990s has shrunk the areas with significant problems considerably, but the concentration in those areas has become even more significant.
Indeed, part of my problem with books of this ilk that attempt to contextualize policing is that they fail to take into account the other villains in the story - if you want to find near-complete-circle Venn diagrams, study areas of desperate poverty, high unemployment, low graduation rates, and yes, single parent households, you will find high levels of criminal activity as well. This has nothing to do with turning inner cities into some sort of District 9 segregation units, but rather, a broader failing of public policy. As Hayes rightly notes, we ask police to do a great number of other jobs they are ill-suited for, but that is because so many other institutions in society have failed. This in no way excuses the abhorrent treatment black and brown people often face, but at the same time, there are myriad examples of police doing the right thing, of going above and beyond, in service of the communities in which they work.
There is also a schizophrenic aspect to Hayes’s writing. While he laments the ineffectiveness of internal investigations as a means of bringing rogue cops to heel, he also visits a police training academy to simulate real-world interactions between police and the community. Unsurprisingly, the latter results in Hayes’s appreciation for the difficult, split second decisions police officers have to make (in one simulation, Hayes is “killed” because he fails to see a man approaching him with a shotgun), but the sequencing is backwards in the book. The gee-those-guys-have-a-tough-job insight occurs early on, while the criticism of IA procedures is deep into the book. It also begs the question, what is the right number of officers disciplined for their actions? No one ever seems to have the answer to that, other than to highlight instances of particularly egregious behavior (Eric Garner comes to mind) that should rightly be prosecuted and punished.
There was also a missed opportunity to highlight public policy that is trying to address some of these root causes. Hayes need only go from Brooklyn to Harlem to see the work of Geoff Canada or consider the expansion of his Harlem Children’s Zone model in communities throughout the country to see what works. A step further and the question of continued funding for such a program (dubbed “Promise Neighborhoods” at the federal level) under the Trump Administration would put the question in sharper relief and challenge policy makers who pay lip service to caring about the “colony” to put their money where their mouth is. And even as the parties squabble in Washington, Governor Cuomo recently announced a $1.4 billion initiative to revitalize areas of Brooklyn that will include increased access to health care, an anti-violence program and other prosocial efforts at community redevelopment.
Similarly, the sea change that is occurring, literally before our eyes, in criminal justice policy could fill its own book. Juvenile justice reform has been championed in blood red Texas and bail reform just went into effect in deep blue New Jersey that releases most defendants from custody at their initial hearing. These ideas, along with recent shifts toward adopting more of a community policing model, are the green shoots that will one day sprout. For a journalist steeped in policy, it was surprising that these and other locally-led efforts did not merit acknowledgment in ACIAN.
At the same time, what of the young boys and girls growing up in the “colony” who do not expect to live past 40, have missing family members who are deceased or incarcerated, and are educated in dilapidated schoolhouses by teachers who are doing their best to bail water out of a sinking ship? We could train an army of Officer Friendlys to walk the beat of every street corner in every dangerous neighborhood in America, but without the basic foundations that we think of as middle class life - economic opportunity, access to a good education, and health care - none of this matters.
Interestingly, the last vignette Hayes shares is of observing a group of African-American teens harassing passers-by in Prospect Park. The needling shifts from annoying to criminal when one of the youths steals a man’s phone as he is pushing a baby stroller. Harmless? Maybe. Petty? Perhaps. But because it is impossible to know whether these youthful indiscretions are just that or nascent signs of a more serious criminal mentality is part of what makes enforcing the law, be it in the “nation” or the “colony” so challenging.
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