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Book Review | Hands Up, Don't Shoot

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Published onApr 01, 2020
Book Review | Hands Up, Don't Shoot

Jennifer E. Cobbina. Hands Up, Don't Shoot. NYU Press, 2019; 235 pp.; ISBN: 9781479874415.

Issues surrounding police use of excessive force continue to be a longstanding debate in the field of Criminal Justice. In the timely boots-on-the-ground work, Hands Up, Don't Shoot, Jennifer Cobbina amplifies the voices of Ferguson and Baltimore protestors by conducting in-depth interviews with residents as it relates to their everyday experience with the police. In Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Cobbina takes an “and” instead of an “or” approach in understanding the experiences often faced by residents of different intersecting identities in these communities. Further, Cobbina provides readers the opportunity to learn of the racialized experiences of these groups of protesters by including open-ended responses, which gives a detailed view of protest efforts and illustrations that aid the reader in imagining the events that had taken place during protest efforts in Ferguson and Baltimore. In the introduction, Cobbina recaps the events that led to the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michel brown. Most notably, Cobbina reminds readers that after twelve shots fired, Brown was hit six times, with two shots to the head. This disturbing, but relevant description sets the tone for the remainder of the book as it pertains to the unique experiences often faced at the intersection of race, place, and policing. Throughout the text, Cobbina reminds readers of the racialized history of the United States and critiques how the U.S. has become the "U.S. of Amnesia" in its seeming efforts to undermine the role the racialized police history of the United States plays in current-day policing. The following sections discuss each chapter and show how the historical processes addressed by Cobbina in Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, are linked to the contemporary race-based police practices, which often result in severe consequences, including legal cynicism and, most importantly, the loss of life.

Chapter one, Race and Policing, focuses closely on the concept of dangerousness and, historically, how the use of race has been instrumental in intensifying the relationship between Blacks and policing, particularly by this notion that Blackness is a link to criminal propensity. The chapter divides into two sections allowing readers to take a step back in time, starting with the 17th century, to review the racial legacies in which the police force was formed. The chapter then goes into contemporary, allowing readers to notice how although new forms have emerged, the goal of maintaining the racial status quo by utilizing formal and informal methods of social control remains the same. Later in the chapter, there is a focus on race and place and how this interconnection has been used as an “intensified opportunity” to target members of certain communities’ disproportionality. Referring to neighborhoods most likely to be heavily policed as “economically distressed,” the chapter explains how concentrated disadvantage due to racial isolation often contributes to these injustices. In the examination of social constructs, such as race, gender, and age, this chapter introduces the various ways in which Black male youths are viewed as suspicious. Further, it shows how some things that appear to be a common error by the police force are held most harshly against civilians. Data are presented that show that disproportionately exists in the number of stops (pretextual and investigatory) and arrest, particularly with Black people, which has remained stagnant over time. Also, the chapter mentions the use of stop-and-frisk as another method to gain social control. Due to the intense surveillance, this has caused many residents of these neighborhoods to foster feelings of distrust and cynicism toward police and criminal justice system.

Chapter two, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, takes a look into the everyday life of Black community members and the various ways in which they live their lives under the suspicion of the police. Using data collected from citizens across races from Ferguson and Baltimore, the data reflected that a majority of residents recounted negative interactions with the police, mostly Black residents. The data presented in this chapter debunks the myths that suggest a reason to believe that Officers have a good reason for the disproportionality that exists in traffic stops. Using traffic stop data from Ferguson, it was revealed that Blacks had a greater likelihood of being stopped and arrested. While there is an abundance of criminological research that supports this, the data presented in this chapter also indicated that Whites were more likely to be carriers of contraband. Further, it is revealed that children are not immune to this treatment. In its discussion on the widespread use of stop and frisk, through respondent accounts, we are introduced to police subjectivity in deciding what constitutes reasonable suspicion. This notion of police having supreme authority that is never to be questioned was presented through the several first-hand accounts of residents. This message was echoed by the number of nonindictments that resulted from the killings of African Americans. Being inclusive in her analysis, Cobbina spoke to the invisibility of women cases, as well as the holistic hyper-surveillance of these minoritized communities. Shows how this type of police behavior has become a norm in these communities. So much to the point where positive experiences with recalled with the police were also rooted in discrimination.

Chapter three, It’s a Blue Thing, shifts attention by focusing on race and Black police officers and the role that race plays in police diversification and in shaping Ferguson and Baltimore residents’ perceptions of the police. This chapter dispels the myth that simply adding more Black officers is the solution to arbitrary police behavior towards Black and Brown people. From chapter three, it is suggested that Black officers may be more aggressive than their White counterparts, although the outcomes from interactions may differ. It is at this point in the text, Cobbina introduces the term occupational socialization, as a possible explanation as to why this is the case. In explaining the occupational identity often undertaken by Black officers to elicit respect from colleagues, Cobbina speaks to how Black police officers, like many other minority groups in the workforce, feel the need to prove belonging and loyalty. This sense of belonging, according to the text, may come in the form of Black police officers conforming to the standards set in police culture. When officers fail to conform to this culture, they could likely face negative outcomes, such as the loss of employment and even fatal results.

Chapter four, We Stand United, is dedicated to informing readers on the reasons why Ferguson and Baltimore's protestors marched. Mentioning details of two high-profile cases, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, this chapter provides details on protestor accounts for these events. As well, it gives clarity to the cause of the emergence of social movements and protests, such as political institutions failing to address the concerns of groups with concerns. In efforts to come together to take collective action, the chapter shares four reasons why individuals come together to protest: victims of injustice, not isolated events, desire to affect change, and moral duty to get involved. Participants feeling like they were victims of injustice is what initiated the need to protest as participants felt that the treatment towards them was unjustified with a perceived lack of remorse and acknowledgment of wrongdoing of police. This chapter brings to the forefront the question, is the police force above the law? The chapter then goes into a discussion regarding grassroots organizing and how the desire to affect change was a central factor in protestors' decision to protest. The chapter makes known that many of these instances do not receive media attention and underestimated data due to police agencies not being required to submit data on police shootings.

In mentioning the increasing use of technology in the U.S. and its importance in mobilization, this chapter illustrates how activism and organizing have taken place through social media platforms in efforts to avoid inaccurate media accounts of events. Cobbina does this by connecting the events that occurred shortly after the police shooting of Michael browns. In routing her point back to the very title of the book, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Cobbina explains how media played a pivotal role in social movements. Most notably, she mentions how the media was important in starting the movement that resulted from Michael Brown being shot while his hands were up. In looking into the importance of protest movements, Cobbina does, however, address the issues around “Slacktivism” where people protest efforts are exclusive to online involvement with limited boots on the ground. The chapter takes a turn also to show how mainstream media outlets play a role in how protest efforts are perceived mostly by displaying riots and violent acts of protest negating to give media coverage to the peaceful demonstrations, which were more dominant among protesters.

Chapter four, I Will Be Out Here Every Day Strong, informs readers of the risks associated with protesting, which include protesters' emotions, motivation, and identity being tested when confronted with repressive police tactics. In mentioning how the police force has become increasingly militarized, this chapter speaks to the disparities that exist among Blacks and Hispanics when compared to Whites. As well, Cobbina introduces three types of protestors—Revolutionary, Intermediate, and Tourist. This adds a unique contribution to the literature by recognizing the heterogeneity in protestors. In addressing repressive tactics used by the police, the author includes examples used to control protesters, such as acts of intimidation through surveillance, perceived hostility, verbal assault, and arrests. Further, violent repressive tactics are implemented thorough tear gas and rubber bullets, gun threats, and the use of physical force. An interesting mention was the difference in responses among protesters where Baltimore protesters had more favorable impressions than Ferguson protestors. Cobbina mentions that the “soft approach taken by the Baltimore Police Department was more favorable to respondents. However, this approach eventually became militarized as it was not designed for mass demonstrations.

In chapter six, Public Disorder, Cobbina introduces the Flashpoints Model of Public Disorder created by David Waddington and colleagues as a general framework analysis. Overall, this chapter offers a new conceptual framework to examine large-scale disorders. Making the primary argument that the situations of unrest that occurred in Baltimore and Ferguson cannot be analyzed through a single-factor lens, Cobbina examines these events from a multivariate framework, which includes structural, political/ideological, cultural, contextual, situational, interactional, and institutional/organizational. This model is then used by the author to analyze the events that had taken place in Ferguson and Baltimore, illustrating the flashpoints of each event.

In presenting key arguments critical to understanding the protests that had taken place in Baltimore and Ferguson and why they matter, Cobbina’s Hands Up, Don’t Shoot challenges us to consider the perspectives of protesters and residents most susceptible to police violence. This work also unpacks the resistance strategies used to fight oppression. Overall, it adds a significant contribution to the policing, social movements, and victimization literature. The arguments in this work were grounded in theory. They offered explanations to address the current discourse regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and how the very point of this movement was to show that all lives matter. However, it appeared that some were disproportionately valued. In addition, not only did this work speak to the everyday lived experience of protesters and residents and their perceptions of policing, but attention was given to addressing the later consequences that negatively impact communities who stand situated at the intersection of race, place, and policing.


Waddington, David, Karen Jones, and Chas Critcher. 1987. Flashpoints of Public Disorder. In The Crowd in Contemporary Britain, edited by George Gaskell and Robert Benewick, 155-189. London: Sage.

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