Review: Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, edited by Maya Schenwar, et al.
eagle at eyrie.org
Sun Sep 13 21:29:37 PDT 2020
Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?
edited by Maya Schenwar, et al.
Editor: Maya Schenwar
Editor: Joe Macaré
Editor: Alana Yu-lan Price
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Copyright: June 2016
Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? is an anthology of essays about
policing in the United States. It's divided into two sections: one that
enumerates ways that police are failing to serve or protect
communities, and one that describes how communities are building
resistance and alternatives. Haymarket Books (a progressive press in
Chicago) has made it available for free in the aftermath of the George
Floyd killing and resulting protests in the United States.
I'm going to be a bit unfair to this book, so let me start by admitting
that the mismatch between it and the book I was looking for is not
entirely its fault.
My primary goal was to orient myself in the discussion on the left
about alternatives to policing. I also wanted to sample something from
Haymarket Books; a free book was a good way to do that. I was hoping
for a collection of short introductions to current lines of thinking
that I could selectively follow in longer writing, and an essay
collection seemed ideal for that.
What I had not realized (which was my fault for not doing simple
research) is that this is a compilation of articles previously
published by Truthout, a non-profit progressive journalism site, in
2014 and 2015. The essays are a mix of reporting and opinion but lean
towards reporting. The earliest pieces in this book date from shortly
after the police killing of Michael Brown, when racist police violence
was (again) reaching national white attention.
The first half of the book is therefore devoted to providing evidence
of police abuse and violence. This is important to do, but it's sadly
no longer as revelatory in 2020, when most of us have seen similar
things on video, as it was to white America in 2014. If you live in the
United States today, while you may not be aware of the specific events
described here, you're unlikely to be surprised that Detroit police
paid off jailhouse informants to provide false testimony ("Ring of
Snitches" by Aaron Miguel Cantú), or that Chicago police routinely use
excessive deadly force with no consequences ("Amid Shootings, Chicago
Police Department Upholds Culture of Impunity" by Sarah Macaraeg and
Alison Flowers), or that there is a long history of police abuse and
degradation of pregnant women ("Your Pregnancy May Subject You to Even
More Law Enforcement Violence" by Victoria Law). There are about eight
essays along those lines.
Unfortunately, the people who excuse or disbelieve these stories are
rarely willing to seek out new evidence, let alone read a book like
this. That raises the question of intended audience for the catalog of
horrors part of this book. The answer to that question may also be the
publication date; in 2014, the base of evidence and example for
discussion had not been fully constructed. This sort of reporting is
also obviously relevant in the original publication context of
web-based journalism, where people may encounter these accounts
individually through social media or other news coverage. In 2020, they
offer reinforcement and rhetorical evidence, but I'm dubious that the
people who would benefit from this knowledge will ever see it in this
form. Those of us who will are already sickened, angry, and depressed.
My primary interest was therefore in the second half of the book: the
section on how communities are building resistance and alternatives.
This is where I'm going to be somewhat unfair because the state of that
conversation may have been different in 2015 than it is now in 2020.
But these essays were lacking the depth of analysis that I was looking
There is a human tendency, when one becomes aware of an obvious wrong,
to simply publicize the horrible thing that is happening and expect
someone to do something about it. It's obviously and egregiously wrong,
so if more people knew about it, certainly it would be stopped! That
has happened repeatedly with racial violence in the United States. It's
also part of the common (and school-taught) understanding of the Civil
Rights movement in the 1960s: activists succeeded in getting the
violence on the cover of newspapers and on television, people were
shocked and appalled, and the backlash against the violence created
Putting aside the fact that this is too simplistic of a picture of the
Civil Rights era, it's abundantly clear at this point in 2020 that
publicizing racist and violent policing isn't going to stop it. We're
going to have to do something more than draw attention to the problem.
Deciding what to do requires political and social analysis, not just of
the better world that we want to see but of how our current world can
become that world.
There is very little in that direction in this book. Who Do You Serve,
Who Do You Protect? does not answer the question of its title beyond
"not us" and "white supremacy." While those answers are not exactly
wrong, they're also not pushing the analysis in the direction that I
wanted to read.
For example (and this is a long-standing pet peeve of mine in US
political writing), it would be hard to tell from most of the essays in
this book that any country besides the United States exists. One essay
("Killing Africa" by William C. Anderson) talks about colonialism and
draws comparisons between police violence in the United States and
international treatment of African and other majority-Black countries.
One essay talks about US military behavior oversees ("Beyond Homan
Square" by Adam Hudson). That's about it for international perspective.
Notably, there is no analysis here of what other countries might be
Police violence against out-groups is not unique to the United States.
No one has entirely solved this problem, but versions of this problem
have been handled with far more success than here. The US has a
comparatively appalling record; many countries in the world,
particularly among comparable liberal democracies in Europe, are doing
far better on metrics of racial oppression by agents of the government
and of law enforcement violence. And yet it's common to approach these
problems as if we have to develop a solution de novo, rather than ask
what other countries are doing differently and if we could do some of
The US has some unique challenges, both historical and with the nature
of endemic violence in the country, so perhaps such an analysis would
turn up too many US-specific factors to copy other people's solutions.
But we need to do the analysis, not give up before we start. Novel
solutions can lead to novel new problems; other countries have tested,
working improvements that could provide a starting framework and some
map of potential pitfalls.
More fundamentally, only the last two essays of this book propose
solutions more complex than "stop." The authors are very clear about
what the police are doing, seem less interested in why, and are nearly
silent on how to change it. I suspect I am largely in political
agreement with most of the authors, but obviously a substantial portion
of the country (let alone its power structures) is not, and therefore
nothing is changing. Part of the project of ending police violence is
understanding why the violence exists, picking apart the motives and
potential fracture lines in the political forces supporting the status
quo, and building a strategy to change the politics. That isn't even
For example, the "who do you serve?" question of the book's title is
more interesting than the essays give it credit. Police are not a
monolith. Why do Black people become police officers? What are their
experiences? Are there police forces in the United States that are
doing better than others? What makes them different? Why do police act
with violence in the moment? What set of cultural expectations,
training experiences, anxieties, and fears lead to that outcome? How do
we change those factors?
Or, to take another tack, why are police not held accountable even when
there is substantial public outrage? What political coalition supports
that immunity from consequences, what are its fault lines and internal
frictions, and what portions of that coalition could be broken off,
pealed away, or removed from power? To whom, institutionally, are
police forces accountable? What public offices can aspiring candidates
run for that would give them oversight capability? This varies wildly
throughout the United States; political approaches that work in large
cities may not work in small towns, or with county sheriffs, or with
the FBI, or with prison guards.
To treat these organizations as a monolith and their motives as uniform
is bad political tactics. It gives up points of leverage.
I thought the best essays of this collection were the last two.
"Community Groups Work to Provide Emergency Medical Alternatives,
Separate from Police," by Candice Bernd, is a profile of several local
emergency response systems that divert emergency calls from the police
to paramedics, mental health experts, or social workers. This is an
idea that's now relatively mainstream, and it seems to be finding
modest success where it has been tried. It's more of a harm mitigation
strategy than an attempt to deal with the root problem, but we're going
to need both.
The last essay, "Building Community Safety" by Ejeris Dixon, is the
only essay in this book that is pushing in the direction that I was
hoping to read. Dixon describes building an alternative system that can
intervene in violent situations without using the police. This is
fascinating and I'm glad that I read it.
It's also frustrating in context because Dixon's essay should be part
of a discussion. Dixon describes spending years learning de-escalation
techniques, doing hard work of community discussion and collective
decision-making, and making deep investment in the skills required to
handle violence without calling in a dangerous outside force. I greatly
admire this approach (also common in parts of the anarchist community)
and the people who are willing to commit to it. But it's an immense
amount of work, and as Dixon points out, that work often falls on the
people who are least able to afford it. Marginalized communities, for
whom the police are often dangerous, are also likely to lack both time
and energy to invest in this type of skill training. And many people
simply will not do this work even if they do have the resources to do
More fundamentally, this approach conflicts somewhat with division of
labor. De-escalation and social work are both professional skills that
require significant time and practice to hone, and as much as I too
would love to live in a world where everyone knows how to do some
amount of this work, I find it hard to imagine scaling this approach
without trained professionals. The point of paying someone to do this
work as their job is that the money frees up their time to focus on
learning those skills at a level that is difficult to do in one's free
time. But once you have an organized group of professionals who do this
work, you have to find a way to keep them from falling prey to the
problems that plague the police, which requires understanding the
origins of those problems. And that's putting aside the question of how
large the residual of dangerous crime that cannot be addressed through
any form of de-escalation might be, and what organization we should use
to address it.
Dixon's essay is great; I wouldn't change anything about it. But I
wanted to see the next essay engaging with Dixon's perspective and
looking for weaknesses and scaling concerns, and then the next essay
that attempts to shore up those weaknesses, and yet another essay that
grapples with the challenging philosophical question of a government
monopoly on force and how that can and should come into play in violent
crime. And then essays on grass-roots organizing in the context of
police reform or abolition, and on restorative justice, and on the
experience of attempting police reform from the inside, and on how to
support public defenders, and on the merits and weaknesses of focusing
on electing reform-minded district attorneys. Unfortunately, none of
those are here.
Overall, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? was a disappointment. It
was free, so I suppose I got what I paid for, and I may have had a
different reaction if I read it in 2015. But if you're looking for a
deep discussion on the trade-offs and challenges of stopping police
violence in 2020, I don't think this is the place to start.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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