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In the long, hot summer of 1968, Richard Nixon accepted the Republican nomination for President with a speech in Miami that promised ‘law and order’.
Racial tensions were running high. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; destructive riots had torn through major US cities; and the ink on America’s civil rights legislation had barely dried. But there was Nixon, speaking at the Republican National Convention, offering hope for a better day.
“Let us build bridges,” he said. “Build bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates black America from white America. Black Americans, no more than white Americans, they do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don’t want to be a colony in a nation.”
- Chris Hayes Host of MSNBC's 'All In with Chris Hayes'; editor-at-large at The Nation; and author of the new book, 'A Colony in a Nation'
An Excerpt from 'A Colony in a Nation' by Chris Hayes
When was the last time you called the cops?
I’ll go first.
It was a few years ago. I heard a couple arguing loudly on the street outside my apartment. “Arguing” probably undersells it—he was screaming as he leaned over her, his voice punching her ears: “How stupid are you!?! What were you even thinking!?! ” and so forth. The argument echoed through the dark in the leafy, affluent neighbor- hood I live in. Here we are unused to street noise of that particular type. I listened for a few minutes, and then some part of me thought, I know how this ends. So I dialed 911 and told the dispatcher what I was hearing. A few minutes later, from the dark of my apartment, I peeked out the window and saw the swirling blue light of a police cruiser. The car pulled over, and two cops approached the couple. I stopped watching and went to bed. Mission accomplished.
But whatever happened to that couple? To that woman?
I have no idea. I thought at that moment, and would still like to think, that I called the cops because I was trying to protect her from a conflict that was likely to end in violence. But maybe I just wanted peace and quiet restored to my peaceful and quiet neighborhood. As much as I told myself in that moment that I was calling the cops on her behalf, I have no idea if she would’ve wanted me to make that call, or if it made her life any better. For all I know, the encounter with the police only made him angrier, and she bore the brunt of that anger in their apartment, hours later.
Whatever became of her, one thing is clear to me in retrospect. At the moment I called the police, I could not have told you what law was being broken, what crime was being committed. I dialed that number not to enforce the law but to restore order.
There are fundamentally two ways you can experience the police in America: as the people you call when there’s a problem, the nice man in uniform who pats a toddler’s head and has an easy smile for the old lady as she buys her coffee. For others, the police are the people who are called on them. They are the ominous knock on the door, the sudden flashlight in the face, the barked orders. Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror.
I’ve really felt the latter only once, at the 2000 Republican National Convention. I was twenty-one years old. My then girlfriend-now-wife’s father, Andy Shaw, a journalist, was covering the convention, and she and I decided to head to Philadelphia, both to see him and to take in the sights and sounds of thousands of Republicans assembling to nominate George W. Bush for president. After a train ride down from New York, we met Andy outside the convention center. Kate and I drew stares from convention delegates who were in country club attire, since we were dressed like the scruffy college students we were. People asked if we were protesters. The three of us began to make our way through the multilayered security checkpoints. At the first one, as we put our bags through a metal detector, I suddenly remembered that I happened to have about thirty dollars worth of marijuana stuffed into my eyeglass case in a side pocket of my travel bag.
Luckily the bag went through the metal detector with no problems, and as I picked it back up, I smiled to myself in relief at my near miss. But then the security line continued, and we passed through another checkpoint, and another. We finally rounded a bend to find yet another group of Philadelphia cops, with another metal detector; worst of all, this group seemed to be rifling through every bag.
I felt a pulsing in my temples as I watched an officer open the main pocket of my bag and search. Then he opened the second pocket and finally the side pocket with my eyeglass case. He reached in and was about to put it back in when he stopped and gave it a shake, realizing there was something inside.
He opened it, and his head jerked back in surprise at what he’d just found. He quickly turned his back to me and called over two other cops, one on each side. The three of them stood shoulder to shoulder, huddled, discussing.
My vision started to peel in at the corners, and I felt briefly possessed. I envisioned running; it seemed tantalizingly possible. Liberating. I could get away before they had any idea who I was or whose bag it was. Did I have anything identifying in there? I must’ve.
But then, my girlfriend and her father were standing right there, so flight probably wouldn’t work. With tremendous effort, I overrode the impulse. “I think the cops just found weed in my bag,” I whispered to Kate. And then in despera- tion, searching for someone to fix the situation, or at the very least to absolve me of this idiotic mistake, I walked over to my future father-in-law and blurted out, “Andy, I think the cops just found weed in my bag.”
The cops continued to confer ominously.
Andy was confused. “What? Why’d you bring weed?”
And at that very moment, before I could answer (and really, what could I have said?), the police officer who’d found the drugs put my bag on a table and looked at me, as if to say Go ahead and take it.
I figured as soon as I reached out and acknowledged the bag was mine, they’d slap the cuffs on. But when I went to grab the bag . . . nothing happened. I picked it up.
Kate, her dad, and I walked into the convention center together. Her father said, amusedly, “You probably shouldn’t do that tomorrow.”
Out of morbid curiosity, I went into the first bathroom inside the arena, fished out my glasses case, and flipped it open. Sure enough, the weed was still there.
This story is one of my better ones. “The time I almost got caught with drugs at the Republican National Convention” is fun to tell because, ultimately, nothing bad came out of it. And with the advantage of hindsight, I can look back and know that even if I had been arrested, it would’ve been no more than an embarrassing hassle. I’m a straight white guy. I was a college student. I had access to lawyers and resources and, through all that, a very good chance of convincing someone that the world would keep spinning on its axis if I pleaded to a misdemeanor and got a little probation, and we all just pretended it hadn’t happened.
Luckily for me, that harrowing encounter is the closest I’ve come to the criminal justice system. But over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground reporting both on criminal justice and on the growing social movement to change how it operates. And in hundreds of conversations with people in Baltimore, Charleston, Chicago, New York, Ferguson, Dallas, and elsewhere, I’ve had occasion to think about the enormous distance between their experience of the law and my own.
On a warm October day on the Westside of Baltimore, I stood interviewing Dayvon Love in the parking lot of a public school where he once coached debate. I was there to talk about policing and crime and the trauma of lives lived dodging both with no cover.
Earlier that year, in April, a young man named Freddie Gray had died in police custody. His death triggered public mourning, calls for official resignations, protests, and unrest. The city was now bracing for the trials of the officers who had been indicted for causing Gray’s death. (None of them would be convicted. Midway through a succession of trials, after a hung jury and a mistrial for one officer and three acquittals, the prosecutor would throw in the towel and drop the rest of the charges.)
Love was a good person to have that conversation with. He speaks with an uncanny and particular cadence that comes from a life steeped in competitive debate. Born poor on the Westside, he discovered debate as a teenager through a pro- gram in his school and got hooked. “My initial motivation was that I needed to get into college for free,” he says when I ask what led him to debate. “So I just thought, ‘I am going to get really good at this so I can go to college for free,’ and that’s what happened. But along the way I was able to meet people who helped me think about debate as a broader tool for social justice.”
Today Love coaches high school debate on the Westside and works as a political activist. His 2008 debating team, composed entirely of black students from one of Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods, won the national championship. Run-ins with police were simply part of life in his neighborhood, Love told me, and no amount of bookishness or respectability was a shield.
One night his life almost changed. “I was seventeen years old, it was the day of a debate tournament. I’d won first place, and that night I was catching a bus to go to New York to see a friend.” He had met the New York friend through Model UN just a few weeks earlier. On his way to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning, Love and his father were pulled over by police. “They say I match the description of someone who stole a woman’s purse.”
The police began to search the car. More cruisers pulled up with their lights flashing. They took Love out of the car and had him stand in the middle of the street. At one point, one shined his police light right into the teenager’s face “And you heard them ask the woman, you know, ‘Is this him’? And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ And so luckily I had the presence of mind to think, ‘We had just stopped at the ATM to get the money I needed for my ticket.’ So I explained to them, I said I had just got the money that I needed to pay for my ticket.” Love happened to have the receipt from the ATM; the time stamp corroborated his story. “And luckily they let me get away, but that easily could have went in an entirely different way.”
By “entirely different way,” Love meant being swept into the vortex of a penal system that captures more than half the black men his age in his neighborhood. By “entirely different way,” he meant an adulthood marked by prison, probation, and dismal job prospects rather than debate coaching and activism. If he hadn’t been so quick on his feet, if the woman hadn’t been unsure the police had the right person, everything might have been different.
Fair to say that Dayvon and I, in our ways, both dodged a bullet, but the similarities ended there. I actually did some- thing wrong: I was carrying an illegal drug. I wasn’t quick enough on my feet to defuse the situation, and even if I had been arrested and booked, it all almost certainly would have worked out fine in the end. The stakes felt very high, but they were actually pretty low.
Dayvon, on the other hand, had done nothing wrong. Unlike me, he was quick enough on his feet to successfully defuse the situation. And while for me the stakes were in reality rather low, for him they weren’t. Everything really could have changed in that moment for the worse. Out of those two brushes with the law, we both ended up with the same outcome: a clean record and a sigh of relief. But it took vastly different degrees of effort and ingenuity to get there.
Excerpted from A Colony In A Nation by Chris Hayes. Copyright © 2017 Chris Hayes. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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