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SLU Social Justice Night Features Author Who Studied Impact of Ferguson Unrest

Professor and author Jennifer Cobbina interviewed nearly 200 people about their experiences during unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore.
St. Louis University

Jennifer Cobbina found herself deeply affected by the 2014 protests in Ferguson. She called the St. Louis region her home for five years while she worked toward her doctorate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

Just two months after the unrest began, Cobbina, now a Michigan State University criminal justice professor, had the opportunity to explore her concerns about Ferguson and its residents by participating in the Ferguson Research-Action Collaborative project. 

Through the project, Cobbina conducted 100 interviews with Ferguson protesters and residents. Cobbina shared their detailed accounts about race and policing and their experiences in her latest book, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

She will discuss her findings from Ferguson and her book at St. Louis University’s Social Justice Night at the Center for Global Citizenship at 6 p.m. Sept. 19. 

“People had so much to tell as it relates to their experiences they had with the police and their perceptions of the police, so I wrote the book because I did believe that their voices needed to be heard,” Cobbina said. 

Michael Mancini, co-director of the SLU Doerr Center for Social Justice, said he hopes the event will help attendees better understand how to build healthy communities in order to have an effective justice system.

“We have a tremendous issue with gun violence in St. Louis, so I’m hoping this work can address that issue and multiple issues around criminal justice that is equitable, sustainable and just — moving forward,” Mancini said.

Black officers, black residents

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” not only examines the Ferguson protests, but also the impact of the 2015 demonstrations in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray. During her time in Baltimore, Cobbina noted the accounts of 92 protesters and residents for her book. 

Cobbina said the book dives deeply into how and why both Ferguson and Baltimore became sites for protests against racially biased policing. She also looks at what energized Black Lives Matter and other movements, as well as how police strategies during the protests determined and encouraged future street activism. 

Cobbina found that 25% of the 192 residents in her study had negative encounters with black police officers. She found these experiences were more common among African Americans in Baltimore than in Ferguson. 

“Many people believe that diversifying the police force will help to reduce police violence against people of color, particularly African Americans,” Cobbina said. “Before I did my study I also thought that the answer was to hire more black officers, but what really surprised me was knowing that people argue that African Americans operate aggressively when they encounter other black civilians.” 

Cobbina said another 25% of residents and protesters believed that black officers are courteous and understanding, but that percentage largely came from people who lived in Ferguson. 

“I realized that a lot of that was based upon perceptions, because at the time of Michael Brown's death over 90% of the police force in Ferguson was white, so you actually had few encounters with black officers in Ferguson,” Cobbina said. “But in Baltimore nearly half of the police force is black, so a lot more Baltimore residents in the study actually had run-ins with black officers, and some of these run-ins were negative in nature.”

Cobbina’s book has descriptions from people who were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, as well as accounts of the militarization of police and how their methods affected protesters. 

Resources and solutions

Cobbina said when the Ferguson unrest unfolded, America took notice because “it humanized the victims of police brutality and shed light on the inequities within the criminal justice system.” 

In “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” Cobbina notes that because the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore spilled over across the nation, society can use the events to learn where to place resources for communities of color. 

“I argue that rather than putting more dollars into the police and into prisons, investments need to be made in individuals and marginalized communities,” Cobbina said. “And those funds should be used on prevention and intervention initiatives for at-risk youth and young adults.”

She also said money should be allocated to discussing mental health, substance abuse and homelessness. 

“We know that joblessness and poverty rates are high in these communities, so I’m arguing that we take a more holistic approach, which involves putting more funds into the community, which is the push we need to address many of these structural problems that are taking place in these marginalized communities,” Cobbina said.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

Send questions and comments about this story tofeedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.