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."