Chris Hayes' “A Colony in a Nation” Explores Racial Inequality, Policing and Democracy

The United States is the most violent and incarcerated developed country in the world, according to the book

“The number of police shootings in this country is astoundingly high,” Chris Hayes tells NBC 7 while promoting his new book “A Colony in a Nation.”

The book explores the divergent way in which different populations of people in this country have interactions with the police – often falling along racial lines.

The title of the book comes from what Hayes refers to as a “throw away” line from Nixon’s famous law and order speech in 1968.

“[Nixon] tells the people there it’s time for some frank talk about order in the United States,” Hayes tells the crowd at a Los Angeles Barnes and Noble Monday night. “The argument is that we have allowed chaos to reign and order to come unraveled and that leads to criminality, and what you have to do is go back to maintaining and reinforcing order … Black citizens as well as white, they don’t just want to be supplicants of state aid, they don’t want to be a 'colony in a nation.'”

Hayes, a veteran reporter who's covered shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and Chicago, argues that racial inequality has barely improved since Nixon made that speech nearly 50 years ago.

“I thought to myself,” he says, “'a colony in a nation’ is in some ways kind of what we’ve created, that we’ve created two distinct judicial regimes, two regimes of justice: In the nation a criminal justice system and a policing system that functions like you would want in a democratic society, minimal interaction, due process, etc. The ideal number of interactions for anyone to have with the police is zero … In the colony … where criminal justice … is a constant intrusion, the intrusion and disruption themselves become normal.”

In the beginning of the book, he asks the reader to look inward when they think about the last time they called the police and why they called the police. He then explains a time when he heard a loud argument outside his apartment in his upscale Brooklyn neighborhood. He called the police fearing the man would become violent toward the woman he was yelling at, but later after the police and the couple had gone away he wondered what his intentions really had been. Was it to help keep the woman from being abused or was it to make his neighborhood quiet and safe again?

The book seems particularly relevant to the political climate now, especially considering President Trump calling himself the 'law and order president,' and the prevalence of officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men throughout the country.

Alfred Olango’s shooting by El Cajon police last September garnered national attention and protests here and in the rest of the country. Olango was shot by officers in an El Cajon shopping center after they demanded he take his hand out of his pocket. 

It’s hard to ignore the prevalence of these types of shootings as they are splashed across the news, bringing groups like Black Lives Matter into the forefront of political discussions and creating riots throughout the country. 

Hayes has a theory on how the media has handled those stories and whether or not the coverage has been accurate.

“There’s a little bit of the basic problem of the news,” he begins, “which is as we say in the newsroom ‘we don’t cover the planes that land.’ So if you just watch the news to get your conception of how dangerous air travel is … you think it’s more dangerous than it is. So apply that in the situation of policing, and there are many police and officers who I deeply respect who I think are incredible at their jobs, who feel that every good thing they’ve ever done has never been on any news program and the only representation of American policing are these sorts of incidents caught on tape etc. And I empathize with that … But on the other side there’s a few things I would say. One is that policing is a uniquely dangerous function in a society – not just dangerous to them. It’s dangerous because they are the armed agents of the state. There’s a reason that we have the term 'police state'. A police state is a state that abuses the power of policing. There’s a level of accountability that we require from people that are empowered by the law to use violence that is higher than other professions.”

He says, however, the challenge between covering the spectacle of a story or giving it accurate context is a judgment call he feels the media doesn't always make well. 

“I get criticism from everyone,” he laughs about pushback he may receive on his reporting. “In the course of this I’m in dialogue with a lot of police officers ... We go back and forth, and that, I think, has really improved my understanding in a lot of ways.”

Hayes will make two more stops in New York City next week to finish out his three-week book tour. “A Colony in a Nation” can be purchased on Amazon.

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