Vol. 30 No. 5 (June 2020) pp. 81-85

HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT: WHY THE PROTESTS IN FERGUSON AND BALTIMORE MATTER, AND HOW THEY CHANGED AMERICA, by Jennifer E. Cobbina. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 244 pp. Cloth $89.00. ISBN: 9781479818563. 288 pp. Paper $25.00. ISBN: 9781479874415.

Reviewed by Anna Gunderson, Department of Political Science, Louisiana State University. Email: agunderson@lsu.edu.

HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT: WHY THE PROTESTS IN FERGUSON AND BALTIMORE MATTER, AND HOW THEY CHANGED AMERICA is an important addition to our understanding of political science, social movements, and police brutality. Jennifer E. Cobbina builds a rich narrative on the causes and consequences of police brutality, relying on a series of interviews conducted in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, respectively. Her careful attention to detail and use of rich qualitative evidence provides a wide scope for examining police brutality and subsequent protests, but she casts perhaps too wide a net to fully address each of the ambitious questions Cobbina seeks to answer.

Cobbina begins the book with a retelling of the facts of the Brown and Gray cases, both young Black males who died after interactions with the police; in Ferguson, Brown was in an officer-involved shooting with a White police officer, and in Baltimore Gray died as a result of officer use of force. These events ignited a firestorm of protests and public attention to police brutality in these two cities and sparked a nationwide conversation about the role that race and racism play in officer use of force. This is the context which serves as inspiration and subject of Cobbina’s book. She uses these two events to pose a series of questions: how does race condition civilian interactions with the police (and, with Black police officers specifically)? How did civilians get involved in the subsequent protest events after Brown and Gray’s deaths and how did the repressive police actions during the protests influence the future likelihood of participants protesting again? Finally, why did the events in Ferguson and Baltimore capture national attention? This ambitious book seeks to provide at least a tentative answer to all of these questions using powerful qualitative work and theoretical rigor on race, policing, and protest. [*82]

Chapter 1 details the racialized history of law enforcement and how policing originated to support the institution of slavery and the subjugation of Black Americans. After slavery was outlawed, Black Codes – criminal laws that created new offenses like “loitering” and “vagrancy” to target free Blacks and imprison them – took its place. These Black Codes soon faded, replaced with Jim Crow laws that codified different rules for Blacks and Whites through the mid-twentieth century. The Civil Rights movement sought to eliminate these laws and fight for social justice, though that movement was met with repressive policing tactics in response. Cobbina argues that this legacy of slavery and dominance shapes Blacks’ contemporary attitudes about the police and the criminal justice system. She then details the myriad evidence pointing to disparate outcomes for Whites and Blacks in police activities like traffic stops and police surveillance. For example, “many police use race – Blackness – as an indicator of criminal propensities” (p. 23). These inequities are even further compounded by de facto racial segregation, resulting in lower perceptions of police legitimacy and vast differences in public opinion about policing across racial categories.

It is in this context – in which Blacks experience disproportionate police attention – that Chapter 2 begins. This chapter details the personal experiences of those stopped by the police and the idea that Black Americans are “guilty until proven innocent.” Cobbina introduces the qualitative interviews used in the remainder of the book: a series of in-depth interviews with 100 Ferguson residents and 92 Baltimore residents in the aftermath of Brown and Gray’s deaths. In analyzing these interviews, she finds that most subjects had negative experiences with the police. These negative experiences centered around common police actions – like aggressive policing, stop-and-frisk procedures, and police discourtesy – and Black participants were more likely to report negative experiences than White respondents in both cities. Some also reported positive interactions with the police as participants reported police are “just trying to do [their] job[s]” (p. 51). Overall, this chapter suggests that White interviewees were afforded respect by the police, whereas Black interviewees were treated with suspicion and presumption of wrongdoing.

Chapter 3 considers how the integration of Black police officers specifically influences citizens’ evaluations of the police. Cobbina found three, sometimes conflicting, themes in her qualitative work: “Black officers were viewed as courteous and understanding; Black police were depicted as aggressive in nature; and Black law enforcement was described as facing occupational socialization on the job” (p. 57). Though some respondents mentioned how Black [*83] police officers may be more likely to understand the local Black community and culture, others thought Black police officers were even more harsh than White officers in an effort to conform to police culture and seek acceptance from their colleagues. Cobbina argues that these inconsistencies highlight how simply increasing diversity in police forces does not necessarily address structural problems in our institutions or neighborhoods.

While the first three chapters focus on policing more generally, the next two chapters shift the focus to the protests that occurred after Brown and Gray’s deaths. Chapter 4 asks, why did protestors choose to march in Ferguson and Baltimore? Cobbina again marshals her qualitative interviews and proposes four key reasons why protestors in both cities got involved: that Brown and Gray were victims of injustice (Brown was “killed like an animal. It’s unjustified like, ‘no, this [is] not right,’” (p. 76)); that the deaths of both men were not isolated events (“It could be my little brother. That could be me,” (p. 85)); a moral and ethical responsibility to get involved (“Someone was killed and you want to show solidarity … I felt it was my civic duty as a Black male, you know, to show that, you know, we stand united and that all Blacks are not thugs, drug dealers, robbers, hoodlums,” (p. 93)); and the desire to affect change (the source of the problem of police violence is “the institutionalized and systematic oppression of people of color,” (p. 91)). Social media also helped protestors to mobilize, as visceral images of police violence and repressive policing tactics during the protests spread among the residents of Ferguson and Baltimore.

Chapter 5 considers the future actions of those who participated in the Ferguson and Baltimore protests. Cobbina characterizes three types of protestors: revolutionary protestors, who participated in some form of collective action every day or every other day; intermittent protestors, who engaged in collective action at least four times; and tourist protestors, who participated less than three times in collective action or expressed more curiosity than commitment. She then investigates how these types of protestors responded to police acts of intimidation, escalated use of force and strategic incapacitation (like use of tear gas, rubber bullets, or physical force), and negotiated management strategies coupled with violent repressive tactics like tear gas or rubber bullets. Cobbina finds that individuals who were committed to the movement continued to be actively engaged after these repressive tactics, and even tourist protestors were motivated to engage with the ideological goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in other ways after the protests. That is, participants’ motivations to address the existence of racially [*84] biased institutions more broadly were not significantly influenced by police reactions to protests.

Chapter 6 concludes by asking, why Ferguson and Baltimore? Why did these cities experience massive uprisings? Cobbina uses the Flashpoints Model of Public Disorder here, “a multivariate framework that explains why some disorderly incidents flare up (“flashpoints”), triggering a volatile reaction, while others fail to ignite” (p. 128). This framework explains how structural, political/ideological, cultural, institutional/organizational, contextual, situational, and interactional factors contributed to the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. These uprisings were the product of a complex set of causal factors, including racial segregation, racially biased policing practices, and contemporary police responses to Brown and Gray’s deaths and the protests alike. Cobbina argues that this model helps us understand collective uprisings can happen in geographically diverse places and that common factors help to explain their rise.

HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT is an ambitious work that seeks to understand a variety of causes and consequences of protest movements about police brutality. Cobbina marshals impressive qualitative evidence and provides some tentative answers to vital questions in political science like, how does America’s history with racism influence contemporary policing? How does our understanding and evaluation of policing differ by race? Do Black police officers help or hurt these problems? Turning to protests, why do protestors march? What influences whether those protestors march in the future? And finally, why Ferguson and Baltimore? Why did those cities erupt in chaos?

If anything, the impact of this work is somewhat attenuated by the breadth of the topics Cobbina covers. Some of the questions the book seeks to answer are underdeveloped as a result of the vast scope of the research. Though the ambitious scope of the book underscores the immense societal and political importance of police brutality and inequities in police violence, the relatively brief mention of these important topics, deserves greater attention (in particular, unpacking Chapter 3, on the perception of Black police officers, is an important contribution to future work). However, Cobbina should be applauded for her careful consideration of the causes and consequences of protest activity about police violence. Her rich, qualitative work still leaves open many vital questions about democracy, police violence, and racial inequality and her book lends essential insights to the contemporaneous protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. [*85] HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT is informative, timely, and of immense importance to the study of protest movements and police brutality.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Anna Gunderson.