Book review: Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond

Nobody forces the reader to look at the structural and systemic violence in our underlying political, economic, and social systems. The book is a grim reminder of how far we are from our purported values enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We allow the most vulnerable in our society to be used and abused, as though they are not human, as though they are valueless. We blame them for the violence done to them when really all of us are responsible.

Hill walks us through several prisms through which to view the violence done to the vulnerable. He uses examples of recent people—black men and women—killed, but the term vulnerable applies to everyone in our society who is potentially subject to state violence due to racism or transphobia, or based on gender, poverty, or class.

“Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin were not killed simply because they were Black, although it is entirely reasonable to presume that they would still be alive if they were White. They were killed because they belong to a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black.” (page 28)

Hill looks how the state and the police adopted the academic theory of “broken windows” and took it to a racist extreme. The idea of broken windows argues that even small things in a neighborhood like graffiti or a broken window must be fixed immediately, or they send a message of not caring. However, rather than caring for communities and neighborhoods, police focused on minor rule-breaking behavior that led to violence against the vulnerable and directed police resources away from more serious issues.

Along the way, Hill shows how disorder, which often causes this rule-breaking behavior, increased due to more mental illness and drug dependency on the streets.

Both, I argue, come from us taking our eyes off of the major issues. Mental illness and drug dependency are not crimes. They are health issues. Reagan cut funding for mental health services, pushing people suffering from severe mental health issues onto the streets. The War on Drugs made drug use a crime.

Rather than helping people with mental health issues or drug dependencies (or both), we push them out and then criminalize them. The homeless (often suffering from mental illness) and the drug-dependent end up in prison, which doesn’t solve the long-term problem and doesn’t heal those suffering.

Putting them in prison does sweep them out of sight and out of mind. We no longer have to feel for those suffering because we don’t see them. We no longer have to feel bad for not funding social services or health care for them because they are criminals. (Though you can argue that we are spending an awful lot of money on prisons, incarcerations, and all the professionals needed to arrest, try, and maintain people in the criminal justice system.)

Along the way, we have broken our social contract, our civil society, and our humaneness by treating the vulernable like rubbish. There but for the grace of God go I….

Hill also points out that the bail system was originally meant to make sure that people are around to stand trial. These days bail is not set for those who might skip town but rather used as a means to generate revenue, usually from the economically vulnerable who can least afford it.

Hill discusses plea bargains at length—its history (including its unconstitutionality) and how the prosecutor-defending attorney-judge triad works together. The focus of the criminal justice system is not to determine the truth. The focus is efficiency. How many people can we push through the court system and how quickly?

Court trials are time-extensive and expensive. It is quicker and less expensive to push a plea bargain, regardless of guilt.

This emphasis on plea bargains owes itself to two things: increased arrests and mandatory minimum sentencing. Over the past several decades, our love of being tough on crime has had unintended consequences. We are arresting more and more people, which means more and more people need to be processed through a criminal justice system that cannot accommodate these numbers. One way to get more people through the system faster? Plea bargains rather than a trial by a jury of your peers.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has reduced the role of the judge and increased the power of the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides the sentence (plea bargain) and pressures the defendant to accept the deal, or face the possibility of the mandatory minimum sentence.

In our short-sightedness, we are economically ruining ourselves—trials cost money, but locking up more people for longer times costs in terms of actual money and lost productivity/revenue. But we are also ruining the lives of the people we lock up—rightly or wrongly—and the lives of those in their families who are negatively impacted by them going to prison.

“…incarceration, like war, is traumatic, has its greatest impact on the lives of the young, and visits horror not only on the one serving time but also on family, friends, and other loved ones.” (page 124)

We have allowed profit to corrupt the system. Private prisons benefit from the huge numbers of people that we send their way. More arrests mean more people pushed through the judicial system. More people pushed through the judicial system means more plea bargains. More plea bargains mean more people sent to prison rather than put on trial to determine their innocent or guilt. More people sent to prison means more money for the people running the private prisons and the services attached to the prisons.

(Logically, for-profit prisons cost more, not less, than government-run prisons. The profit motive means you have to make money on top of the costs of caring for inmates—unless you skimp on the food, housing, and healthcare for those entrusted to your care.)

Hill also looks that the proliferation of gun laws, particularly those castle laws and the stand your ground laws that developed from them. Man has a right to defend his castle/home, but in other milieus, he must back down, if at all possible.

Recently, castle has been redefined to refer to one’s body. Your castle is wherever you are. You should not need to retreat. Ever. Manliness and race are weirdly intertwined with this notion of your body = your castle. Manliness is about standing your ground; (white) men to do not run away, thus, retreat is not possible.

Taken to their logical conclusion, these stand your ground laws, which extend the castle laws to see your body as your castle and thus your self to defend, suggest that women should have control over their bodies, for example, in terms of contraceptives or abortion. In actuality, these laws and the ideology underlying them apply only to men, white men.

“In essence, these new laws declare that a person’s body is as much a castle as a brick-and-mortar abode. Of course, few of the conservative politicians—libertarians aside—who have pushed the extension of the castle doctrine would see the clear resonance with the argument for women’s reproductive rights that would naturally flow from such an idea. After all, at its ideological core, this doctrine is about male identity, male property, and male bodies.” (pages 98-99)

Hill also looks at the rise in emergency managers, where governors appoint financial managers to take over local municipalities in place of elected officials, and the horrible impact on communities and the people in those communities.

The most notable example is Flint and its ongoing, three-year water crisis. In order to cut costs, the emergency manager in charge of Flint decided to no longer buy water from Detroit but to get water from Lake Huron. Before the infrastructure could be built to pipe the water from Lake Huron, Flint was pulled off of Detroit’s water and forced to use water from Flint River, a river full of chlorides. The corrosive water corroded the existing pipes, which leached lead in the water and deposited it into the bodies of the inhabitants.

All was done to save money but in the end, it will cost billions more to rip up and replace pipes and to pay for services for those who lives have been irreplaceably damaged. (Not to mention the suffering caused by damaging children whose health cannot be restored.)

The fad in the last couple decades has been to run everything like a business, whether it is a university, a grade school, or a city. But people forget the raison d’etre behind government and business. They are fundamentally different and serve different purposes.

Businesses exist to make money. Government exists to care for the people. For some reason, people want the government to get out of the caring for the people “business” and get into the making money off of the people business. (Quotes around one instance of the word business but not the other was intentional.) In the process, people suffer and lives are destroyed—whether it is shunting people off to prisons rather than giving them health care, or privatizing Medicare or Social Security.

Hill’s book covers a number of important areas and provides lots of food for thought. He seeks to spotlight “the social, cultural, and economic conditions that undermine the lives of the vulnerable.” In the end, “vulnerable” can refer to all of us, the people who the government should be caring for. Instead, we are more and more the people who business is profiting off of—at our expense.

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