While reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Chris Hayes was struck by the sight of police teargassing unarmed residents in their own backyards. It was an injustice, yes, but also a quintessentially American one. “I started thinking about what an outrage that was in the most basic ‘Don’t tread on me’ sense,” says the bespectacled 38-year-old, who began his career as a freelance writer for the Reader and whose MSNBC show All In With Chris Hayes is currently one of the few clear-eyed sources of news analysis in the morass of cable television.
The police overreach Hayes witnessed in Ferguson sparked many of the ideas behind his new book A Colony in a Nation, which castigates the forces and attitudes that have enabled the police state and mass incarceration. Hayes’s most provocative argument equates the way most modern police departments operate in oppressed communities like Ferguson to the British under King George III in the years just before the American Revolution. The popular narrative is that the revolution was fought to end England’s despotic rule of the colonies because of unfair taxation, but Hayes notes that it was how those fees and taxes were collected—essentially through overzealous policing—that raised the temperature of revolutionary fervor. The British forces instituted the first era of stop and frisk by boarding ships without notice and harassing and humiliating merchants. “It’s very clear that John Adams and Ben Franklin and even Thomas Jefferson are writing complaints against the Crown in the Declaration of Independence when it says, ‘He hath sent forth swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.’ It’s a complaint that Eric Garner had,” Hayes says. “It’s a complaint so many people have now.”
Nearly 250 years after the revolution, the boundaries between the tyrant and the tyrannized have been redrawn, according to Hayes. We live in two Americas whose defining contrast is the way they are policed. The largely white, higher-income members of one group look to police to create order, while black, brown, and poor folks feel constantly intruded upon, as if they’re living in an occupied land. Hayes labels the former group “the Nation” and the latter “the Colony.” It’s a reference to a speech Richard Nixon made at the 1968 Republican National Convention in which he warned about separate societies for blacks and whites. Yet that’s precisely what’s transpired over the next four decades, Hayes argues, due to a society rife with white fear and a fixation with “law and order.”
Over the phone in the midst of a book tour that will bring him to Chicago on March 31, Hayes discussed how Nixon’s spiritual successor, Donald Trump, is trying to further the divide between the Colony and the Nation, and how the Chicago of today reflects these warped values.
In A Colony in a Nation you draw a comparison between colonial America and today’s police state.
After [reporting in Ferguson, Missouri], I started reading the history of the American Revolution, particularly the history of the Fourth Amendment. We think about the revolution being fought over taxation, but in many ways it was fought over policing, because taxes were collected through customs officers who essentially acted like cops. What happens in the lead up to the revolution is that after the Seven Years’ War, the Crown decides they need more revenue and start policing smuggling much more. Smuggling was the lifeblood of the colonies at that point, and the huge crackdown on smuggling in the colonies was humiliating and enraging enough that it really helped spark the revolution.
Your book was illuminating from a historical perspective—I never knew that John Hancock was a massive smuggler, like a more successful Han Solo. And you can make the case that America is basically the most successful criminal syndicate ever.
Dude, I quote British customs officials who were like, “These colonists are an unlawful people who won’t snitch and who basically punish snitches.” People that testified got beat down.
After reading the book, I see some Trump in John Adams, who enacted the Alien and Sedition Act and greatly expanded the army and navy in peacetime.
He had a bit of a longing for despotism in him.
You make a great case for conservatives to fight the police state. Real patriots in the classic sense would side with the communities of color and other people being oppressed by the police.
We have a tendency to celebrate and even fetishize our founders. If we were true to that, the way huge swaths of our country is being policed would be really offensive to us.
It also shows how hollow our conception of tyranny is. For many Republicans, a state-regulated health care system is perceived as tyranny, but if there’s an agent of the state with a badge that tells you to do something—anything—you do it, no questions asked.
That’s why I say in the book there’s a reason why we use the term “police state.” It’s because we recognize that policing is a necessary function of government but also the most explosively dangerous. As opposed to health care regulation, right? If you’re going to choose one of those two to be out of control and run a free society, you’d definitely pick the health care regulation rather than the police.
Cops are made to play so many different roles in our society: they’re social workers, agents of conflict resolution, therapists. Don’t we give too many duties to certain professionals, especially police and teachers?
We do. Teachers particularly. With teachers, I think there’s a similarity to what we ask police to do, especially in neighborhoods with lots of poverty. Both teachers and police are asked to do a tremendous amount. There’s a huge fight over a trauma center on the south side—imagine a real commitment to as many trauma workers as police. It’s impossible to conceive of that, but why not?
I believe you quote prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, who the Reader interviewed last year as part of a story about the police abolition movement. Much of the response to the story was that police abolition is totally bat-shit insane. A lot of people have a difficult time conceiving of something existing that is different than the system we have now.
Definitely, but I should say that I wouldn’t call myself a prison abolitionist. But I can imagine a world where we’d have 80 percent fewer people in prison. Like really massive decarceration.
Which would put us in line with other countries.
You mention Chicago a lot in A Colony in a Nation. Within the book’s conceptual framework, are the boundaries between what you call the Colony and the Nation more visible in Chicago than in other cities?
The places I know best are New York, Chicago, and D.C. Particularly compared to New York, the boundaries are much more clear and the terrain is much more vast. There are two exceptions to that which are much more like New York: Hyde Park has such an intense set of politics around fear, crime, order, and disorder. Also, I’d say Old Town in the old days of Cabrini-Green also had a similar sense of extreme community politics around order and borders.
What you’d label the Colony in Chicago—the south and west sides—were mostly ignored for a lot of years. But that changed over the last decade as the mainstream media started reporting the homicide numbers spawning the idea of “Chi-Raq,” and the Laquan McDonald video made a certain perception of Chicago take hold in the national consciousness.
The politics and the conversation around homicides in Chicago has a kind of colonial freight that’s been so destructive. To call a place Chi-Raq—what does that conjure? A war zone and the idea that the place is foreign and needs to be occupied and subdued. In some ways, the conversation about crime in Chicago exemplifies the national conversation. It’s this stand-in, a symbol of all the worst impulses around law and order. And it’s done in this incredibly ghastly and disingenuous way that people pretend that the object of their concern is Chicagoans when the genuine horror and trauma of real people, real communities, real families are being used as a very cheap method of scoring political points.
Donald Trump has frequently invoked Chicago for political gain.
He is immersed in those kind of politics. It comes as second nature to him, and I think partly because of the fact that his worldview was formed in New York City at precisely the time when New York was going through its own version of that, when New York was the murder capital of the country and was seen as lawless and unruly and disordered.
—Chris Hayes, author of A Colony in a Nation
The title of your book comes from a Nixon quote. He talked about criminal justice issues in a more coded way. Trump has a clumsy way of speaking that exposes the racism and xenophobia at the heart of some of the conservative platform.
Absolutely. It’s so funny if you compare Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order speech to the Trump 2016 version. Nixon’s was way more deftly done, with a lot more faux equanimity, like “Let us have order, but let us also acknowledge the necessity of progress.” Donald Trump is just like, “I am the law-and-order president. We will bring back law and order.”
Which is why Trump’s inauguration speech has been compared to one Bane made in The Dark Knight Rises—Trump sounded like some kind of comic-book supervillain. There’s also not much difference between how Trump talks about ISIS and people of color in Chicago.
It’s all these undifferentiated threats. The impulse originates from the same political space: white fear. This paranoia that besets the mind of the conqueror that, even though you’ve won and you’re holding your ground, at any moment it will be taken by the forces of darkness and disorder—whether that’s a slave revolt or attack by indigenous people. That’s a really deep American inheritance in our political psyche.
Doesn’t American foreign policy also fit, in a more literal sense, within your ideas of the Colony and the Nation?
I compare the project that today’s police have to that of counterinsurgency. In Iraq, soldiers are also asked to be diplomats and bureaucratic mentors, conflict resolvers. This was the whole Petraeus model, and there’s debate about whether it is effective or not. But fundamentally there is a mismatch between what the individual is being trained to do and what they’re being asked to do.
Are Democrats really that much better than Republicans on criminal justice issues? Chicago has had a Democratic regime throughout the era that these problems have gotten worse.
At a local level there’s very little difference. The politics which are operating aren’t really partisan—they’re the politics of white fear, the politics of order and control.
Rahm Emanuel’s response to the increasing crime rate and the controversy after the release of the Laquan McDonald video was to fire the police superintendent and move to hire some 1,000 new cops.
He is very much playing from the old playbook, because what works and what doesn’t remains so unclear. There’s also the question of the politics of this, which remain very complex and dicey: Is he doing this to unsully the reputation of the city or to actually address the real human crisis going on in these neighborhoods? And there’s no real linear relationship between adding cops and reducing crime. There’s something maddening about the fact that they close schools, cut mental health services, and now there’s money for a thousand new cops.
As you mentioned in the book, crime has gone down precipitously [nationwide] after it peaked in the early 90s. The police departments took a lot of credit for it. They said that policing strategies like “broken windows” worked.
I don’t want to be too cynical about this. Policing strategies really did change and crime really did go down, and I think a large portion of police bureaucracies do genuinely want to see crime go down. When these two things happen on top of another—when crime went down after tactics changed—I don’t think it was cynical for them to take credit for it. I think they really thought these two things were causally related, and I think many still do. And I don’t think it’s a ridiculous idea that there’s some connection, but I don’t think the data bears out that there’s near the connection that a lot of people think it has. And it reinforces this idea that the way you bring down crime is through a kind of order and maintenance.
It’s the mystery of our time: Why has the crime rate changed so much over the last generation?
It’s sort of amazing that we still don’t really know. It’s such a massive social shift. New York City goes from 2,200 murders to 350 with essentially the same population. That’s a crazy transformation, and it remains an important and poorly understood social phenomenon.
Just like it’s a mystery why Chicago’s murder rate jumped so much since last year.
Yeah, and I think that’s part of what makes it feel so maddening. There’s a growing theory put out there by a growing body of criminologists and thinkers embodied by the book Ghettoside by Jill Leovy that because policing has shifted to proactive crime prevention and order maintenance you see less investment in solving crimes and solving homicides. You’ve seen homicide clearance rates fall at the same time you’ve seen the number of homicides drop dramatically. That’s bizarre—you wouldn’t think that’d be the case. But the point is, when people literally get away with murder, you get more murder. And particularly when the state can offer no protection, people will take the law into their own hands. Which is what you see in Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides—there is a violent act for which the perpetrator pays no penalty, for which there is revenge and then another violent act. Those beget each other in a cycle, and that’s not something which is unique to Chicago or large American cities, it’s a universal truth in areas in which the law has a tenuous hold. And that’s one of weird paradoxes of modern policing. These places are incredibly policed and there’s an incredible amount of police-citizen interaction, yet they’re also underpoliced at the same time.
Did we give Obama a free pass when it came to policing and prison issues? Are liberals at fault for being apathetic and not pushing for a better system and just expecting Obama to deliver change?
There’s definitely some of that. Obama took some good but small steps in the final years of his second term, and the DOJ’s hands-off approach to state marijuana legalization was genuinely important and not at all a given. Just ask Jeff Sessions. As far as the pushing—sure, but I also think in the sphere of criminal justice and policing people focus way too much on the president and national politics. Criminal justice policy is made at the local level by city council members, mayors, elected DAs, state reps, governors. That’s where pressure and leverage and just showing up matter the most.
You also point out that there are a lot of liberals who seem to want whites to serve the same draconian sentences as black and Latinos—a color-blind justice system instead of a more humane approach.
The way that gets expressed is people say: We’re going to have this punitive state, so let’s be broadly punitive and seek equality through uniform application of the state’s power. As opposed to looking at a famous wealthy defendant who has lots of lawyers and is enjoying the full fruits of constitutional due process that the vast majority of criminal defendants don’t have. Why not level up and show more mercy instead of leveling down and sending the privileged into the pit of the American justice system?
The class issue also tends to get ignored. You cite a statistic that the incarceration rate for white people is still two and a half times the rate of France.
We’re seeing this burgeoning epidemic of opioids in huge swaths of white working-class America and this downward mobility and decline and social unraveling that’s happened in a lot of those communities. And what’s been happening is that the Colony has been expanding and moving out past the borders of race.
Once these problems affect more middle-class white people, do you think there will be more done to fix them?
There’s this New York Times piece about when addiction has a white face, there’s more empathetic language about addiction. It’s also a real test to see if our policies will get more empathetic, and I’m not convinced that they are because the punishing impulse towards law and order is so strong.
What’s the media’s role in this?
I don’t think crime reporting in and of itself is the problem, but especially during the peak crime years, stoking those fear synapses was what a lot of the reporting and coverage of local news did.
And you’re doing crime reporting on All In, right?
I mean, we do and we don’t. For us in cable news, some of those same models are used to talk about terrorism—sensationalize and terrify people.
Can you explain some of your solutions to bridging the divide between the Colony and the Nation?
Well, I don’t have them. The brute fact is that we democratically erected this system and we’re going to have to democratically unmake it. Before you get to the programmatic things you do to change things, there has to be a shift in how people think about law and order and race and crime, and how folks react when they feel threatened or fear. That’s the project of the book, to get people thinking about the necessary precondition of shifting the politics. v