MSNBC’s Chris Hayes Tackles Criminal Justice in Scripps Talk

MSNBC news commentator Chris Hayes discusses his book.

Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s “All in with Chris Hayes” prime-time political talk show, spoke with Scripps College politics professor Vanessa Tyson about his newly-published book, “A Colony in a Nation,” on Monday at an event at Garrison Theatre.

“A Colony in a Nation” details the ways in which policing differs across the United States. Hayes characterizes poorer neighborhoods, frequently occupied by people of color who experience particularly harsh policing, as colonies within the country, with the police acting as an occupying army.

“[In] part of this country, law enforcement and the law and criminal justice function the way an operating system does on your laptop. It hums in the background,” Hayes said during the event. “In the colony, which [consists of] precincts, largely people of color, but not exclusively, law enforcement functions like a computer virus. … It intrudes constantly, it disrupts constantly.”

Scripps brought Hayes to campus to share his unique perspective on race relations in the United States.

“As a long-time journalist, who spent time on the ground reporting from Ferguson, [Hayes’] perspective on how race is impacting communities is unique,” director of public events and community programs Corrina Lesser wrote in an email to TSL. “It’s also part of a larger conversation that we’ve been having at Scripps and the Claremont consortium about one of the most important issues in our country today.”

Hayes’ book was inspired partly by interviews with citizens and police officers he conducted while reporting on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown, and in Baltimore, Maryland, over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

“I was amazed by the level of rage and humiliation that black residents of Ferguson felt,” Hayes said. “Every single black resident of Ferguson I spoke to had a story, multiple stories about being harassed, humiliated” by police.

According to Hayes, the colony developed because, at every level, the criminal justice system has shifted from upholding the law to maintaining order.

“What we want, all of us, is safety and security,” Hayes said. “That’s a distinct thing from order. Order is a certain kind of way in which things are in their place … What we get is this machinery of enforcement … in which the job of the police officer isn’t so much enforcing the law, but enforcing order.”

Hayes said police officers are ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle many of the disturbances to which they regularly respond.

“The same people that we put guns in the holsters of, who are there to get the bad guys, are doing things that, in another context, we can essentially imagine as care work, particularly in the context of mental illness and addiction,” Hayes said. “That’s not what they are professionally trained for.”

Tyson wrote in an email to TSL that some of Hayes’ most important insights in “A Colony in a Nation” relate to the impact of white fear on society.

“He ties in empirical evidence and in-depth interviews to make a case that white fear — which manifests in various forms — truly drives racial inequality in contemporary U.S. society,” Tyson wrote.

Hayes also covered topics at the core of the colony, including white fear and white threat, and their role in modern American politics.

“A Trump rally is a quite sophisticated, finely-honed machine of invoking [white fear],” Hayes said. “He is a demagogue, particularly in those environments, but they have something in them that’s already potent,” which Trump capitalized upon through collaborative “call and response” tactics.

According to Hayes, while the Trump administration will bring additional challenges to the colony, it has limited power to change the enforcement of law.

“Everything about [Trump’s] rhetoric and politics points towards a more punishing, occupying force. That said, the administration of the colony … is not really done by the president. It’s done by thousands of different municipalities,” Hayes said in an interview with TSL.

The Trump administration has also brought new challenges for Hayes as a journalist.

“I’ve never worked harder than I have in the last 60 days. It requires a huge amount of attention. The sheer amount to consume and synthesize has grown,” Hayes said. “The Trump administration eats up the news cycle every day.”

Hayes has attempted to address these challenges by focusing primarily on the most important stories from the Trump administration.

“There are more and less substantive stories about him, and I think one of the things we’ve been trying to focus on is which of these stories are more substantive,” Hayes said.

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