Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

edited by Maya Schenwar, et al.

Cover image

Editor: Maya Schenwar
Editor: Joe Macaré
Editor: Alana Yu-lan Price
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Copyright: June 2016
ISBN: 1-60846-684-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 250

Buy at Powell's Books

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 CantĂș), 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 for.

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 political change.

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 doing better.

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 those things.

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. Other countries have tested, working improvements that could provide a starting framework and some map of potential pitfalls. When we instead try to invent our own solution from first principles, we may introduce new, avoidable problems.

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 attempted here.

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 it.

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

Reviewed: 2020-09-13

Last modified and spun 2020-10-10