If the past five or so years have taught America anything about policing, it's that a lack of trust between police and communities of color is an ongoing problem. But why?
In her tightly focused and morally important book, Hands Up, Don't Shoot, Jennifer E. Cobbina, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, analyzes how the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of police resulted in sustained protests in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore — and how we got there.
What recommends the book in part is that, unlike many academic books, it doesn't presume prior knowledge on the part of the reader. To her credit, Cobbina is careful to establish historical and cultural context for the deep-seated distrust so many African Americans feel toward law enforcement in a way that makes the book accessible to a wide readership (a paperback version is available for a significantly lower price than the hardcover).
She begins with the historically unjust, power-imbalanced relationship African Americans have had with the police, writing that the "relationship between Blacks and law enforcement has been contentious throughout American history ... Faced with the threat of slave insurrection and the chronic problem of slaves fleeing captivity, many state legislatures in the South in the 1700s passed restrictive laws controlling and regulating the movement of slaves through what was known as 'slave patrol.' "
She goes on to note that after slavery, during Reconstruction, numerous Southern states moved to pass what were known as "Black Codes," which were "criminal laws that created new offenses, such as 'loitering' and 'vagrancy,' punishable by fines, imprisonment, and forced labor for up to one year ... Black Codes opened up a market for convict leasing, in which people in prison were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder for state profit." Chillingly, she concludes that "while Black people were rarely imprisoned during the era of slavery, criminalization had become the resolution for dealing with freed Blacks."
Fast-forward from Reconstruction to our era of mass incarceration today — and problems of policing and justice pertaining to race persist. Cobbina chooses to focus on Ferguson and Baltimore as representative cases for good reason: Both are African American-majority cities with high poverty and histories of racial disparity, and both experienced high-profile deaths of African Americans involving police that catalyzed large-scale protests. And protesters had a lot to protest about. In reports from 2015 and 2016 respectively, the Department of Justice found significant evidence of racial bias in policing in Ferguson and, in Baltimore, policing that stood in violation of federal anti-discrimination law and the Constitution.
Given all of this injustice, Cobbina does something else that sets her book apart: She gives a voice to people directly affected by law enforcement practices by allowing them to speak for themselves.
For instance, Justin, a black resident of Baltimore, recounts how he was walking with a friend who was carrying a crushed empty beer can in a bag he was going to throw away across the street when a police officer arrived and said "get on the ground" more than once. Justin was confused by the seemingly disproportionate command, and confused, he couldn't square the officer's tone with the still nebulous offense. Then, according to Justin, the officer said, "If I tell you to get on the ground again, I'm going to shoot you in the back."
Then there are outright claims of violence, such as this one from Darryl, a black resident of Ferguson:
"I mean, I got locked [up] by them before where they beat me up, man, when I had a seizure ... When they released me to the hospital I still had active warrants ... [When] I came back to file a complaint they locked me up again ... and I got assaulted again ... I had knots on my head when I got out of there."
When Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore died at the hands of the police, each community decided it was time to act. Tremaine, a black Baltimore protester, put it simply: "It is our duty. This is our duty, I believe that if someone — if you, for instance, committed a crime, and I saw it and did nothing I am worse than you."
Some eyewitnesses to Brown's death say he had his hands up before he was shot repeatedly. Cobbina writes that in Ferguson, the "initial shock of Brown's violent death turned into disbelief and seething rage. Not only did many perceive that a deep sense of injustice had taken place but ... they also found themselves the recipients of unjustifiable police contact." According to Cobbina's research (for the book, she drew from interviews of nearly 200 residents of Ferguson and Baltimore within two months of the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray), among Ferguson protesters "63 percent reported personal and 76 percent reported vicarious experiences with police that were negative in nature prior to Brown's death."
In Baltimore, many residents and protesters were angered by what they saw as the inhumane treatment that led to Gray's death. And, like in Ferguson, prior negative experience with police led protesters out into the streets there, too. In Baltimore, like in Ferguson, the protests served a dual purpose. They were expressions of outrage at the specific deaths of African Americans at the hands of the police, yes. But they were also about reforming (or abolishing) a system of policing and criminal justice that is historically and therefore structurally in no small measure set against the interests and the well-being of African Americans.
After police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, communities protested in anger and defiance. And that anger was just the beginning; the end will only come when black lives are consistently treated as equal in value to white lives in the eyes of the law. There's a lot of history to face before America gets there, but the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore set the country further on the way.
Cobbina aptly quotes Maya Angelou, who wrote that "history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.