Marc Lamont Hill
Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Toronto: Atria Books, 2016
250 pp. $35
9 781501 124945
Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray.
These names, and far too many others, should be instantly recognizable as those of young African-Americans whose lives were taken by law enforcement authorities or vigilantes in the years since the U.S. elected its first black president.
Some were armed and others were not. Some had committed crimes while others hadn’t. Some of their assailants were white and others were black. But they would all likely be with us today had they not been born black and poor.
As Ta Nehisi Coates wrote, addressing his son, in his masterful Between the World and Me,
And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if that destruction is the result of an unfortuante reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy … All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
Morehouse College political scientist, CNN commentator and VH1 host Marc Lamont Hill takes a somewhat broader approach in his latest work, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond. Yes, the aforementioned individuals were victims of their own blackness in a country plagued by deep-seated prejudice against African-Americans, but there are also cultural, socioeconomic and, of course, political factors at play. They weren’t simply targeted for being black, but because they were “nobody,” to borrow the book’s title.
“To be Nobody is to be vulnerable,” writes Hill at the beginning of the book.
In the most basic sense, all of us are vulnerable; to be human is to be susceptible to misfortune, violence, illness and death. The role of government, however, is to offer forms of protection that enhance our lives and shield our bodies from foreseeable and preventable dangers. Unfortunately, for many citizens – particularly those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, or trans – State power has only increased their vulnerability, making their lives more rather than less unsafe.
In other words, Hill is making the case for intersectionality. In doing so, he lambasts state violence against the vulnerable, but also examines the factors that got us to where we are now – from the white flight that made Ferguson, Mo., a majority black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force to the austerity measures that lead to the emergency management system that tainted the Flint, Mich., water supply with lead.
The author writes with the eloquence and passion he’s become known for as a public intellectual. Take this fiery speech as an example:
Michael Brown’s corpse was left in the street for four hours because he was Nobody, a member of “a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black.” But it wasn’t only his blackness – “his death was only made more certain because he was young, male, urban, poor, and subject to the kinds of legal and social definitions that devalue life and compromise justice.”
Perhaps the most novel aspect of Hill’s book is when he deals with the gendered angle of police brutality, using the death of Sandra Bland as a case study. Bland, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and ended up committing suicide in her jail cell, was forced out of her car and arrested because the officer didn’t like her attitude. This was a case not only of state-sanctioned racism but of male dominance.
He quotes the black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper, who observed that the officer, Brian Encinia, “expected that she wouldn’t question him. He wanted her submission. Her deference. Her fear.” But nobody put it better than Bland herself when she told Encinia, as per his car’s dashboard camera, “Don’t it make you feel good, Officer Encinia? You’re a real man now (emphasis Hill’s).”
In jail, Bland’s story becomes a symbol of Hill’s entire argument. After being arrested for being a strong black female who stood up for herself, Bland is unable to pay her bail. Suffering from mental health issues, she takes her own life. This is a powerful indictment of America’s war on the poor, black, female and mentally ill. She lived and died as Nobody.
In the book’s section on mass incarceration, appropriately titled “Caged,” Hill critiques Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. He shares much of her “trenchant analysis,” but objects to her narrow focus on the African-American experience. As Hill writes, “The trend toward incarcerating more African-Americans is matched by the trend toward incarcerating more Latinos, the trend toward incarcerating more women … and the trend toward incarcerating more new immigrants.”
With characteristic wit, he says, “If there is a ‘new Jim Crow,’ it is joined by a new ‘Jane Crow,’ a new ‘Diego Crow,’ and a new ‘Jim Crow Jr.'” True, and this is an important part of Hill’s analysis, but many would see Alexander’s narrow focus as an asset rather than a weakness. In any case, Hill’s work is more of an extension of Alexander’s analysis than a rebuttal.
However, because Hill casts such a wide net, dealing with America’s war on the vulnerable as a whole, his book occasionally seems a bit unfocused. This broad approach is a double-edged sword – it provides valuable context for America’s war on the vulnerable, taking his argument beyond racism, but with that, the reader’s expectations are raised.
Since the vast majority of the examples he draws from concern African-Americans, his argument for intersectionality sometimes comes up short. It would have served his argument to address the plight of Native Americans, for instance.
Still, Hill’s book is undoubtedly worth reading for anyone concerned with the present state of affairs in the U.S. And it’s analysis can easily be applied to the current standoff in North Dakota between the Standing Rock protesters and a militarized police force over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Though it may lack the poetic vigour of Coates or Alexander’s laser-like focus, Hill has nonetheless provided a very valuable addition to the canon of non-fiction regarding the African-American experience in the 21st century.