Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

This short, sharp and powerful collection of essays is a stirring inspiration in the search for liberation and justice, finds Adam Tomes


Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, ed. by Maya Schenwar, Joe Macaré, and Alana Yu-lan Price (Haymarket Books, 2016), xii, 197pp.

Police failing to serve and protect

Police violence against Black, Brown, Indigenous and other marginalised communities has been drawn into focus by the age of social media and in the midst of a racialised presidential election cycle. This short, sharp collection from Truthout of essays by activists and scholars from the affected communities, engaged in the struggle on the ground shines a forensic light into the oppression. As Alicia Garza, co-creator of Black Lives Matters notes, ‘Black people are fighting for our right to live while Black’ (p.ix).

One of the key benefits of the first section of the book on the police’s failure to serve and protect, is the way we get a sense of the depth of the issues. There is the constant refrain of the names of the victims and statistics throughout the book. They haunt the mind and bring about a burning desire for justice. Whilst repetition is often viewed as negative, the chant of the main names and statistics only serves to force the reader to face the human cost head on: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice and many, many more. The names fit into the nightmarish statistics such as the estimate from The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that a Black person is killed by the police or a vigilante every 28 hours (p.53).

At the same time, the opening section manages to make the violence feel very human in a painful but eye opening way. Danette Chavis is interviewed in the essay ‘Killing the Future’ about the death of her son. Her pain and the pain of her family is handled with solidarity and love. But it makes the author’s heart hurt and it made mine hurt too. The image of her youngest daughter who would ‘sit up and look out the window, waiting for him to come home’ (p.20) reminds the reader in all too haunting and clear way, the impact of police violence on families of colour.

One of the strengths of the essays is that the focus moves beyond a concentration on violence directed at Black males to show the systemic nature of the problem. There is a powerful discussion of violence and Black women lives, Black transgender lives, Latino lives and Indigenous community lives. By widening the discussion, the role of the police and the role of the state are brought centre stage whilst discussing how the liberation of these groups is important to the liberation of all. The intersection between ‘stolen lands, stolen lives and stolen liberty’ (p.143) is the basis for an analysis to understand the whole and the basis for transcending the ‘divide and conquer mentality of the power structure’ (p.145) to build a movement.

The systemic nature of violence

Police violence ‘is and has always been state-sanctioned violence’ (p.122). And the first section of the book very clearly raises the question ‘how can citizens be killed by agents of the very state that represents them, and no one be held accountable?’ (p.10).

The systemic nature of the violence is explored through the lens of history. Black lives were made property during slavery, then from emancipation onwards slavery was transformed into ‘systems of economic, political and social disenfranchisement’ (p.x). This transformation has been made possible by policing that reinforces an economic structure that preys on Black lives and ‘stealing Black lives at gunpoint is the most visible and violent evidence of history repeating itself in the present’ (p.11). The essays also explore how the violence goes beyond the theft of life to the theft of time, money and bodily integrity. An example of this is the use in Texas of ‘invasive and degrading vaginal cavity searches’ (p.82) by the side of the road to search for drugs after routine traffic stops. This humiliating police tactic was so widespread in Texas, it had to be banned by the state legislature in 2015.

The use of violence and torture towards those of colour is further placed in the context of imperialism by the US. As Adam Hudson argues, slavery‘built modern capitalism’ (p.48) in the US and today the prison-policing complex acts ‘like giant vacuum-cleaners over poor, Black neighbourhoods, sucking money from people who have little to begin with’ (p.15). This is necessary for the police to ‘pay the rent’ (p.16) by arresting and charging people for minor offences. Racial profiling and stop and frisk reflect the racism inherent in society and the fear of Black and Latino bodies, especially young males. In 2011 in Philadelphia, of nearly 200,000 stop and frisks, 90% were young people of colour (p.16). Danette Chavis comments in discussing her son, who was killed by the police, make it all too clear, ‘My son was stopped by police a lot. He felt powerless and depressed. I told him it was how he dressed. I don’t believe that today’ (p.17).

Whilst the young US Empire was building capitalism, it needed to build its own sense of identity. This identity was manufactured around the ‘elite identity of … the white American’ (p.136). In order to create this identity, a story of righteous conquest needed to be constructed whilst Indigenous peoples were exterminated and ‘a dehumanised Black workforce was shackled to the task of building a new empire’ (p.136). Today this identity is reinforced by an education system that has ‘sanitized, softened and whitewashed’ (p.137) the history of Indigenous and Black communities.

There is a sense that here, perhaps, there is room for further essays, in a second edition, that could explore in more depth the impact of neoliberalism on the changing nature of police violence. This changing nature includes the militarisation of policing, the marketization of policing and prison services. The neoliberal project has targeted the poorest and most marginalised directly, especially Black, Hispanic and First Nation communities. An overview of the increasing inequality driven by austerity, the ongoing crises in the US political and economic system would develop further the powerful and radical criticism of the state offered in this edition.

Communities building resistance and alternatives

The second half of the book is based around the accounts of activists on the ground and how they are confronting police violence and building alternatives. The US has seen a ‘resurgence of direct action and civil disobedience reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s’ (p.125). As in the first part of the book, the actions are rooted in their historical context. This links current struggles to the actions of Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer and Frederick Douglass.

The chapter ‘We Charge Genocide’ is written by activists who were part of a project formed after the killing of Dominique Franklin Jr (Damo) by the police in Chicago in 2014. Taking their name from the title of a petition taken to the UN in 1951 which cited the death of over 150 in police killings of Black people in the US, this young group of activists took a report on police violence to the UN Committee Against Torture. In taking young people of colour, who had experienced police violence first hand, they brought ‘truth … powerful narrative … unconventional action’ (p.121) right into the space of representatives and advocates where normally cold numbers and data dominate.

The essay by Kelly Hayes, an Indigenous activist, on Building Black and Native Solidarity is particularly powerful. The project set about creating a space where ‘Black and Indigenous people could reflect on our shared struggle, and effectively build together in a common cause’ (p.142). In essence it was a process of allowing different groups to be honest about their history and give unique names to their own struggles in order to be ‘better prepared for understanding what actual solidarity means’ (p.141). The dream of the struggle is ‘freedom for all’ (p.145) and to get there together. The radical lessons from these collaborative struggles offer a path for oppressed communities to transcend ‘the divide and conquer mentalities of the power structure that wants us to view ourselves as more different than alike’ (p.145).

The aim of these struggles is to ‘build a world in which we all get to be whole’ (p.123). It is about centring those at margins by race, sexual orientation, class and gender to ‘transform our social relationships and institutions to be radically inclusive’ (p.123). This raises powerful questions about how this transformation should take place and what is the vision for the future. Campaigning for change and winning reforms are critical steps in the process but the vision for the future must be based on a transformation to where the police are no longer required not police reform as policing is ‘used by the state to enforce law and maintain social control and cultural hegemony through the use of force’ (p.115). This point is best expressed by Rachel Herzig in her article ‘Big Dreams and Bold Steps’:

Making incremental changes to the systems, institutions and practices that maintain systemic oppression and differentially target marginalized communities is essential to shifting power. Taking aim at specific problems and demanding change helps build power among repressed communities in ways that are more lasting and sustainable. Without a strategic long-term vision for change, however, today’s reforms may be tomorrow’s tools of repression’ (p.111).

In the end the answer to the questions, who do you serve and who do you protect, are made clear. The police ‘are accountable to the interests they were designed to serve’ (p.11) and those interests are those of the ‘wealthy elite’ (p.18). Ultimately this means ‘abolishing the police state and ending the very source of crime, which is poverty itself’ (p.19).