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Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond

Foreword by Todd Brewster

About The Book

Named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews

A New York Times Editor’s Choice

Nautilus Award Winner

“A worthy and necessary addition to the contemporary canon of civil rights literature.” —The New York Times

From one of the leading voices on civil rights in America, a thoughtful and urgent analysis of recent headline-making police brutality cases and the systems and policies that enabled them.

In this “thought-provoking and important” (Library Journal) analysis of state-sanctioned violence, Marc Lamont Hill carefully considers a string of high-profile deaths in America—Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others—and incidents of gross negligence by government, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. He digs underneath these events to uncover patterns and policies of authority that allow some citizens become disempowered, disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, exploited, vulnerable, and disposable. To help us understand the plight of vulnerable communities, he examines the effects of unfettered capitalism, mass incarceration, and political power while urging us to consider a new world in which everyone has a chance to become somebody. Heralded as an essential text for our times, Marc Lamont Hill’s galvanizing work embodies the best traditions of scholarship, journalism, and storytelling to lift unheard voices and to address the necessary question, “how did we get here?"


Nobody Preface
This is a book about what it means to be Nobody in twenty-first-century America.

To be Nobody is to be vulnerable. 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.

To be Nobody is to be subject to State violence. In recent years, thousands of Americans have died at the hands of law enforcement, a reality made even more shameful when we consider how many of these victims were young, poor, mentally ill, Black, or unarmed. The cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; and Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas, have forced a stubborn nation to come to terms with the realities of police corruption, brutality, and deeply entrenched racism. While media coverage and global activism have turned these individuals into household names, they are not, sadly, exceptional. Instead, they represent the countless Americans who die daily, and unnecessarily, at the hands of those who are paid to protect and serve them.

To be Nobody is to also confront systemic forms of State violence. Long before he was standing in front of the barrel of Darren Wilson’s gun, Michael Brown was the victim of broken schools and evaporated labor markets. Prior to being choked to death by Daniel Pantaleo, Eric Garner lived in a community terrorized by policing practices that transform neighborhoods into occupied territories and citizens into enemy combatants. Sandra Bland’s tragic death sequence did not begin with a negligent jailer or an unreasonable cop but with a criminal justice system that has consistently neglected the emotional, physical, and psychological well-being of Black women and girls. For the vulnerable, it is the violence of the ordinary, the terrorism of the quotidian, the injustice of the everyday, that produces the most profound and intractable social misery.

To be Nobody is to be abandoned by the State. For decades now, we have witnessed a radical transformation in the role and function of government in America. An obsession with free-market logic and culture has led the political class to craft policies that promote private interests over the public good. As a result, our schools, our criminal justice system, our military, our police departments, our public policy, and virtually every other entity engineered to protect life and enhance prosperity have been at least partially relocated to the private sector. At the same time, the private sector has kept its natural commitment to maximizing profits rather than investing in people. This arrangement has left the nation’s vulnerable wedged between the Scylla of negligent government and the Charybdis of corporate greed, trapped in a historically unprecedented state of precarity.

To be Nobody is to be considered disposable. In New Orleans, we saw the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina followed by a grossly unnatural government response, one that killed thousands of vulnerable citizens and consigned many more to refugee status. In Flint, Michigan, we are witnessing this young century’s most profound illustration of civic evil, an entire city collectively punished with lead-poisoned water for the crime of being poor, Black, and politically disempowered. Every day, the nation’s homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, and poor are pushed out of institutions of support and relocated to jails and prisons. These conditions reflect a prevailing belief that the vulnerable are unworthy of investment, protection, or even the most fundamental provisions of the social contract. As a result, they can be erased, abandoned, and even left to die.

Without question, Nobodyness is largely indebted to race, as White supremacy is foundational to the American democratic experiment. The belief that White lives are worth more than others—what Princeton University scholar Eddie Glaude calls the “value gap”—continues to color every aspect of our public and private lives.1 This belief likewise compromises the lives of vulnerable White citizens, many of whom support political movements and policies that close ranks around Whiteness rather than ones that enhance their own social and economic interests.

While Nobodyness is strongly tethered to race, it cannot be divorced from other forms of social injustice. Instead, it must be understood through the lens of “intersectionality,” the ways that multiple forms of oppression operate simultaneously against the vulnerable.2 It would be impossible to examine the 2015 killing of Mya Hall by National Security Agency police without understanding how sexism and transphobia conspire with structural racism to endanger Black trans bodies. We cannot make sense of Sandra Bland’s tragic death without recognizing the impact of gender and poverty in shaping the current carceral state. To understand the complexity of oppression, we must avoid simple solutions and singular answers.

Despite the centrality of race within American life, Nobodyness cannot be understood without an equally thorough analysis of class. Unlike other forms of difference, class creates the material conditions and relations through which racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are produced, sustained, and lived. This does not mean that all forms of injustice are due to class antagonism, nor does it mean that all forms of domination can be automatically fixed through universal class struggle. Rather, it means that we cannot begin to address the various forms of oppression experienced by America’s vulnerable without radically changing a system that defends class at all costs.

This book is my attempt to tell the stories of those marked as Nobody. Based on extensive research, as well as my time on the ground—in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, Atlanta, Hempstead, Flint, and Sanford—I want to show how the high-profile and controversial cases of State violence that we’ve witnessed over the past few years are but a symptom of a deeper American problem. Underneath each case is a more fundamental set of economic conditions, political arrangements, and power relations that transforms everyday citizens into casualties of an increasingly intense war on the vulnerable. It is my hope that this book offers an analysis that spotlights the humanity of these “Nobodies” and inspires principled action.

About The Author

Darnell Barnes

Marc Lamont Hill is currently the host of BET News and Black News Tonight and is the Steve Charles Chair in Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University. He is the founder and director of the People’s Education Center and the owner of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia. He has authored or coauthored several books, including Nobody and We Still Here.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (May 2, 2017)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501124969

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Raves and Reviews

“With Nobody, Hill marshals the full weight of multiple scholarly traditions to expose complex, ancient, and intersecting injustices of American racism. This is the book that respects Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and all the other lost black women, men, girls, and boys by taking them seriously. This is the book we needed to understand how we got here and to understand what it means to be here. This is the definitive text. It will remain so for generations.”

– Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University and Editor-at-Large,

“Marc Lamont Hill is the most courageous and progressive voice in 'Main Stream Media,’ whose new book, Nobody, is a subtle and persuasive historical and contemporary analysis of our state of emergency in America. He gives new meaning to the now popular idea of "intersectionality" with intellectual gusto and political urgency!”

– Cornel West, author and professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University

“An essential primer on the relationship between anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence, Nobody chronicles historical and social developments around race, class, gender and the role of the State in America which have served to develop, maintain, and expand an expendable underclass. In Hill’s book we see how repression breeds resistance, the very same dynamic that has led to an upsurge in the Black Freedom Movement that seeks justice for all of us.”

– Alicia Garza, cocreator of the Black Lives Matter Network

“Marc Lamont Hill proves once again why he is one of the leading voices on race in America. With its fresh insight and careful on-the-ground reporting, Nobody is a powerful call to action that gives a voice to our most vulnerable communities. As with anything Hill writes, this book is essential reading.”

– Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress

“Marc Lamont Hill has written the book we desperately needed. No mere chronicle of recent anti-Black violence, Nobody digs deeper, revealing how the killing fields of urban America were tilled by seven decades of Jim Crow and four decades of neoliberalism, turning the very people who brought the prospect of genuine justice, democracy, and citizenship to America into a disposable nation of ‘nobodies.’ But as Hill reminds us, precarity is not death, the market is not God, and an equitable, just future is in ‘nobody’s’ hands.”

– Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and author of Freedom Dreams; Thelonious Monk; and Africa Speaks, America Answers

“Picking up the baton that James Baldwin left behind, Nobody gives urgent voice to the generation of the descendants of the poor, unacknowledged people Baldwin captured so vividly in his 1985 classic, The Evidence of Things Not Seen.”

– ESSENCE Magazine

Nobody provides a comprehensive look at the effects, where police are shooting unarmed minority citizens, and their drinking water is literally poisoned . . . . It will constantly energize you and never bore you.”

– The Intercept

“[Hill] challenges us to join a new generation of activists prepared to organize, agitate and act (against the backdrop of state sanctioned violence, economic injustice, social misery, and appeals to fragmentation and fear) on the eminently reasonable proposition that our “nobodies” will not have a fair shot at becoming “somebodies” until we reduce the unconscionably high – and growing – gap between America’s “have-gots” and our “have-nots.”

– Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, Florida Courier

“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, The Kansas City Star

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