June 9, 2020
Jennifer Cobbina is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice in the College of Social Science. Her primary research focuses on the issue of corrections, prisoner reentry and the understanding of recidivism and desistance among recently released female offenders. Her second primary research area is centered on examining how race, gender and neighborhood context impact victimization risks among minority youth.
Acts of injustice against Black people – including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper and countless others – are recent examples of the state violence Black people have encountered historically in the United States. George Floyd, a 46-year old African American man, was murdered because a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers did nothing to stop it as Floyd begged for his life.
Amid COVID-19, Floyd’s killing has sparked sustained protests across the country and around the world, as thousands have taken to the streets to protest systemic racism, police violence and broader structural inequalities. We have seen cities set on fire with the anguish, pain and deep sorrow wrought by the violence visited on the bodies of Black people.
But violence, protesters and demonstrations aren’t new sights.
In many ways, the massive demonstrations that are taking place resemble the protests that took place in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland following Michael Brown and Freddie Gray’s deaths in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The city of Ferguson was a flashpoint for nationwide protests since the killing of Brown, who was unarmed and fatally killed by a white officer.
Two to three months following both young men’s deaths, I conducted nearly 200 interviews with protesters and residents of both cities. Large amounts of people took to the streets because they believed Brown and Gray were victims of injustice and these were not isolated incidents. Many felt an overwhelming obligation to demonstrate, as they understood failure to do so would result in more Black people dying at the hands of the police.
Among the activists that I interviewed, the desire to achieve change and put an end to police violence was a central factor to protest participation. However, it was not uncommon for protesters on the frontlines to become recipients of repressive military police tactics.
Though thousands of people took to the streets to protest treatment by the state, the government sent more police with high-powered weapons and military tanks. Like what we’ve seen over the last few weeks, tactics that law enforcement is using to manage protests – the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, physical force and large-scale arrests – were deployed on demonstrators.
Despite having experienced violence from protest police, those who remained committed to the movement were insistent on remaining active in protesting to bring about change. Others were deterred from engaging in subsequent street protests because of the coercive ways that authorities policed protest. Yet, even amid that, many adapted different ways of engaging in the overall ideological goal of the Black Lives Matter movement through community action, like organizing, strategizing, voting and mentoring neighborhood youth. There was an overwhelming resolve to fight to root out systemic racism and put an end to police violence that continued to rob Black people of their lives.
As I mentioned in my book, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, ending police killings of Black people will not take place by continuously investing in the police. America’s long history of state-sanctioned violence against Black Americans reflects persistent inequities in the criminal legal system. The movement for Black Lives and many other activities have called for reinvestments of federal grants to education, employment and social services in Black communities, which has been shown to improve community safety. This framework calls for cities to divest in policing and prison expansion and to invest instead in resources that create safety for Black people and people of color, including high quality public schools, clean and affordable housing, mental health care, and the creation of living wage jobs with healthcare and other benefits.
Ending the killing of Black people requires doubling down on investments in communities – not the police or the criminal legal system.
Redistributing resources from the criminal legal system into cultivating institutions within poor communities is vital. When we break these structural systems of oppression and seek an alternative vision for safety that takes power away from the hands of police and puts it into communities, we will begin to put an end to denying many marginalized people their humanity.