In his new book about what he calls “an increasingly intense war on the vulnerable,” Marc Lamont Hill tells a series of distressing stories about police shootings, public health crises and other front-page issues. He draws from headlines in Baltimore, New York, Flint, Mich., and elsewhere.
But the place that truly animates “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond” is Ferguson, the small city in eastern Missouri where Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American sought for stealing cigars from a store, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, a white patrolman.
The August 2014 incident and the subsequent news that Wilson would not be indicted led to many peaceful protests, but also sporadic violence and significant property damage. A 2015 U.S. Justice Department report found that “Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.”
Hill believes that Brown’s death, and the reaction it inspired, will be part of the public conversation about race and law enforcement for years to come.
“It will be mentioned in high school history textbooks,” he writes. “Hollywood studios will make movies about it, as they now make movies about Selma.”
A professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and a regular presence on BET News and CNN, Hill makes some galvanizing arguments in these pages.
His analysis of the broad powers afforded to prosecutors and the relatively feeble resources with which most public defenders have to work sheds light on an underappreciated disparity. His examination of federal government negligence in its treatment of the mentally ill is sophisticated and sensitive. And his scrutiny of declining crime rates and mass incarceration lends fair-minded historical context to a timely debate.
Hill’s most powerful writing, though, is about Ferguson.
In his formulation, the events there were a watershed because they irrefutably demonstrated that many Americans — “particularly those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, or trans” — have been “largely erased from the social contract.”
Rather than simply rehashing the shooting itself, Hill looks deep into the past, explaining an evolving set of racial and political dynamics that led to it. He meticulously details the early 20th-century ordinances and laws designed to isolate black families and chronicles how influential white real estate agents actively supported segregation.
In the decades that followed, “white flight” and poorly conceived public housing developments solidified the gaps between black and white citizens. Hill writes: “while the Black population in Ferguson had grown from just 1 percent in 1970 to roughly 25 percent in 1990, the 2010 census revealed an even more dramatic shift to 67 percent Black.”
Meanwhile, on the day Brown was shot, 50 of Ferguson’s 53 police officers were white.
“Despite the heated claims by many observers,” Hill writes, “Michael Brown was not ‘innocent,’ as either a moral or legal designation. To the contrary, it is virtually indisputable that Brown made bad choices, both in the convenience store and in his subsequent interactions with Darren Wilson. But the deeper issue is that one should not need to be innocent to avoid execution (particularly through extrajudicial means) by the State.”
In our hyper-partisan era, Hill might not be able to persuade many readers who aren’t already on the political left. But “Nobody” is a sincere effort to do just that, and even those who disagree with him should concede that he’s the kind of social commentator — passionate but rarely hyperbolic, well-informed yet respectful of other points of view — whose ideas are worthy of our attention.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond,” by Marc Lamont Hill (272 pages; Atria; $26)