Alumna Jennifer Cobbina discusses the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement as seen in this summer’s protests

by | Aug 17, 2020

The 2009 PhD graduate is an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State and authored the book "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" about the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore.
Jennifer Cobbina

UMSL alumna Jennifer Cobbina researches race, gender and crime as well as as public responses to police use of force in her role as an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. She authored the 2019 book “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America.” (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Cobbina)

Jennifer Cobbina wasn’t content to let official narratives shape her views about the circumstances in Ferguson and Baltimore that preceded the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

The University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna-turned-associate-professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University went to ground level, conducting interviews with nearly 200 residents of the two locales within two months of Brown’s and Gray’s deaths.

The things she heard about their experiences with police, both before the killings and during protests that followed, are gathered in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America.” The 2019 book explores the Black Lives Matter movement around race, justice and policing in the United States.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement earlier this year in Minneapolis and Louisville, respectively, have further crystallized the movement’s central issues and sparked a new wave of protests across the country.

UMSL Daily reached out to Cobbina (PhD in criminology and criminal justice, 2009) to discuss this summer’s demonstrations and whether anything seems different in America’s latest moment of reckoning with racism.

When “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” was published last year, did you have an expectation that it was only a matter of time before there was another incident of police violence that would again lead to widespread protests?

Yes. That is because there has not been any effort to address America’s history of racial injustice and own up to the way that racial bias and legalized racial subordination has compromised our ability to implement criminal justice. As a result, any attempts to implement reforms to the police without explicitly addressing the history of injustice, deep trauma of harmed communities and the role of the law and its institutions in producing it will not work as it should. It will be mediocre at best or fail at worst. We cannot effectively address crime reduction and prevention or community engagement and inclusion if history is ignored.

What differences do you see in the protests of George Floyd’s death and that of Breonna Taylor – and the reaction to them – compared to what transpired in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray?

Following Michael Brown’s and Freddie Gray’s deaths, tens of thousands of people protested systemic racism, police violence and broader structural inequalities. Activists were comprised largely of Black people. But you still had much of the public who were not in agreement with the Black Lives Matter movement, as many bought into the misconception that the movement only believed that Black life matters. But contained within the statement is an unspoken yet implied “too,” as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion.

This summer is the latest chapter in a story that has not been changing. In recent years, the killings of unarmed Black men, women, boys and girls have captured national and international attention. Modern-day killings of unarmed Black men, women and children have struck a conscious chord across the nation, as much of the public bears witness to the police operating with impunity.

What is new today is a critical mass of people saying, “Enough is enough.” George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths have sparked sustained protests across the world. Amid COVID-19, millions of people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in large metropolitan cities and small rural towns have taken to the streets to protest.

This is taking place because the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in 2013 after the murder acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, has been strategizing, organizing and mobilizing. It is why we now see the Black Lives Matter movement as the largest movement in U.S. history.

Social media also played a huge role in spotlighting these issues of police violence and systemic racism. While racism is not new, its blatant acts of state violence are being filmed.

In the midst of a pandemic, when most people are home, people cannot ignore or claim that they are not aware of the devaluation and oppression of Black life. Many white people have come to recognize the ways in which they may have been complicit in systemic racism and are taking anti-racist actions and seeking to dismantle systems that are inside and outside of them.

From your experience doing research in Ferguson and Baltimore, what are the main things national media has missed in its coverage of these tragedies? How different, if at all, is the national narrative from what local residents think and feel? And were you surprised by any of these differences?

In much of the coverage of these tragedies, there is often little consideration as to how historical racial oppression plays out in modern-day race relations and police practices. From the very beginning of American society, the police – first in the form of slave patrols, which were in charge of capturing, terrorizing and returning runaway slaves, and later in the form of official police departments – have historically engaged in racially biased policing. From slave patrols to slave codes to black codes to Jim Crow and to the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people, the police have upheld and enforced unjust, discriminatory laws for 401 years.

Local and national activists are all decrying systemic racism terrorizing the Black community. They are decrying police brutality. People are demanding equity, equality and justice for all.

What changes are most needed to break the cycle that keeps playing out?

I believe it is necessary to divest in police and prison expansion and to invest instead in resources that create safety for Black people and people of color. This includes high quality public schools, clean and affordable housing, mental health care, the creation of living wage jobs with health care and benefits, youth development programs and social programs. Investing in human-centered services would help to stabilize communities. Rather than continuing to feed a culture of control, we must advocate for creating a culture of care where individuals, especially Black and brown people in marginalized communities, are nurtured so they can thrive. Cries to defund the police are about investing in social policies that prevent people from experiencing violence and harm in the first place. That is the way we transform and claim healthy, safe futures for our children, our elders and everyone.

In addition, we have been repeating history for 401 years because the U.S. has not publicly and systematically addressed the history and legacy of slavery. If healing and trust is to transpire, we need to:

  • Recognize pain and harm. As a nation, we need to engage in truth-telling about harm that has been caused.
  • Take responsibility for pain in an unconditional way. Acknowledge without making excuses.
  • Make reparations for harm. Restitution and reparations need to take place to ensure non-recurrence of harm.

The United States is not the only country that has a violent history. Apartheid took place in South Africa, genocide took place in Rwanda and the Holocaust took place in Germany. But there has been a commitment to truth and reconciliation in South Africa. Rwanda has understood the necessity for transitional justice – measures taken to redress human rights abuse – in order for there to be healing. People who visit Berlin, Germany, will encounter stones and markers of Jewish families who were abducted and taken into concentration camps. These countries offer examples as to how we as a country can heal and move forward.

What made you want to become a criminologist?

I was always interested in why people commit crimes and how to promote desistance from crime. I was outraged by the systemic barriers in place that make it difficult for people with a criminal record to integrate back into the community. The reality is one’s debt is never paid even after a person has served his or her time. I wanted to better understand the challenges people with a felony record faced and amplify their voices so systemic change can happen.

What made you decide to pursue your PhD at UMSL? How was your experience? Which faculty members were most influential for you?

When I was a junior in college, I knew I wanted to be a professor. I was fortunate to have an African American professor mentor me and encourage me to apply to several doctoral programs. Honestly, I ended up going to UMSL because they offered me the most funding as a graduate student, and it was great to see that they were ranked top 10 in criminology and criminal justice.

I had a great experience at UMSL and learned a lot. Jody Miller influenced me the most, as she taught me how to do rigorous qualitative research. I was drawn to this type of methodology and received extraordinary training from her. Rod Brunson and Beth Huebner also served as my mentors, and I continue to collaborate with them today.

Did your interests in police-community relations and prisoner reentry and recidivism originate before you started in the doctoral program, or did they develop during your time in the program and afterward?

All of these interests originated while in the doctoral program and afterward. While in the doctoral program, I had a large interest in prisoner reentry and the challenges people faced following release, which increased the odds of recidivism. I also paid attention to the role of race in the reentry process.

My interest in police-community relations did not develop until a few years after I received my PhD. While I was well aware of the role of race in the criminal justice system, I didn’t actually study this issue empirically until I conducted research in Ferguson and Baltimore in which I sought to understand activists’ experiences with the police.

I know another UMSL PhD graduate, Thomas Holt, is now the director of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State. Do you do much work with other UMSL PhD graduates or collaborate with any UMSL faculty members?

I have collaborated with Chris Melde on a grant on school safety. This project is a mixed-methods longitudinal study of the causes and consequences of school violence among youth who transition into high school. We chose to conduct the study in Flint, Michigan, because the city has high rates of community crime, including violent crime. This project examines: 1) the nature and interconnectedness of school and community violence in Flint, Michigan, among fifth-ninth grade students, 2) how school and community violence impacts and is understood by students in the transition from elementary schools (K-eighth) to a large high school and 3) how this information can be utilized to develop a comprehensive plan to improve the transition experience for youth as they enter high school.

The ultimate goal is to promote school safety. The plan is to reduce the threat of victimization for students (both on the way to and from school as well as on school grounds), increase school engagement, improve mental health and reduce the probability of dropout.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Global exchange
Eye on UMSL: Global exchange

Provost Steven J. Berberich presents an UMSL sweatshirt to Han Liming, who visited St. Louis over the weekend as part of a delegation from its sister city in Nanjing, China.

Eye on UMSL: Global exchange

Provost Steven J. Berberich presents an UMSL sweatshirt to Han Liming, who visited St. Louis over the weekend as part of a delegation from its sister city in Nanjing, China.

Eye on UMSL: Global exchange

Provost Steven J. Berberich presents an UMSL sweatshirt to Han Liming, who visited St. Louis over the weekend as part of a delegation from its sister city in Nanjing, China.