Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico

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In Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico, Marisol LeBrón explores a troubling notion that seems to undergird police work—that harm and death, though unfortunate, are always expected outcomes of police work. The book explores the ways that this belief that policing, by necessity, is accompanied by death, has only grown within Puerto Rico since the 1990s. While this is a Puerto Rican narrative, it fits within a larger question of race and policing. In 2020, several murders of African Americans by police has brought greater global scrutiny and attention to the racist system of policing globally and throughout the United States. Policing Life and Death is a story of U.S. policing and a local narrative of Puerto Rican reliance on policing, as well as how Puerto Rican activists imagine new forms of safety in their communities.

The central question that guides this book is how policing initiatives in Puerto Rico since the 1990s has created an environment in which certain populations are subject to increased levels of surveillance and violence. The impetus of this comes from a renewed focus on crime reduction started by Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rosello also known as, mano dura contra el crimen. Reacting to rising crime rates, Governor Rosello focused his campaign and administration on a “tough-minded approach” to crime. This approach, even after Rosello left office, dictated the baseline interaction between the state and the public through police for the next several administrations. Key to this was the disparate impact and use of punitive measures via policing. As Lebrón argues, “punitive governance plays a central role in producing and reinforcing discriminatory understandings of race” (11). The book explores how policing in Puerto Rico reinforces boundaries of harm along lines of race, class, sexuality and geography that leave the marginalized exposed to more harm. But LeBrón also displays the varied ways communities push back against the material and ideological harms the state inflicts on their communities.

LeBrón offers a balance between analysis on policing and anti-policing activism, and as such brings a rich interdisciplinary approach as well as a diversity of voices to bear. Policing Life and Death critiques colonialism and neo-liberalism. Given the relative opaqueness of police and departments, LeBrón offers a variety of insights which included, “external investigations and evaluations of the Puerto Rican police department, internal police memos, federal and local governmental records, court documents, political speeches, US and Puerto Rican press accounts.” LeBrón also incorporates methods from fields such as American studies, Latinx studies, Black studies, carceral studies, feminist studies, queer studies, and critical ethnic studies.

In Policing Life the Death, LeBrón brings attention to the material harms on vulnerable populations through this “tough on crime” approach. The insistence on public safety in Puerto Rico reified beliefs of criminality based on race and geography. In chapter one, LeBrón illustrates that lockdown of public housing by police, aided by the Puerto Rico National Guard, advanced a “war on crime” on Puerto Rico’s public housing residents. But these lockdowns did not result in decreased violent crime. When violence increased, this reality was explained as a policy success. The increased violence was positioned as an expected by-product of breaking drug rings and gang activity. Along with actual police abuse of power, this resulted in a situation where residents of public housing were deprived of rights, rendering them more vulnerable to violence.

While the geography of race and class play a central role in many of the chapters, other divisions along lines of gender and sexuality are explored adeptly. In chapter three, LeBrón looks at the politicization and policing of underground rap and its supposed linking with crime and criminality. This chapter specifically focuses on young, poor males, primarily from public housing as the carriers of crime. Chapter five points to how politicians simultaneously mobilized rhetoric that shifted away from mano dura, but ultimately, the policies remained fundamentally the same. Public housing, and the working poor remained the primary focus of policing, surveillance, and anti-crime initiatives.

In chapter five, LeBrón explores police violence during the University of Puerto Rico strikes from 2010-2011, and the ways students were able to use their own position within the public to push back on policies that were often used against other sectors of the island. Chapter six analyzes the power of diaspora and social media to shape narratives of worth and belonging. This chapter looked at the rallying of social media around two high profile murders, and how the wider public debated concepts of gender and sexuality in the larger frame of fault and blame. Lastly, chapter seven looked at new community initiatives in Loiza, Puerto Rico to propose new methods of violence prevention in lieu of policing.

The strength of the text lies in several episodes in which a cohesive narrative of how rhetoric and ideology impact actions and treatment of actual people and communities. This is when the real people that exist within these systems come to the fore throughout the book. For example, in the chapter on the University of Puerto Rico strikes, LeBrón speaks to the attempts by university students to create cross-class alliances with private campus security. What is most striking about this episode was that the private security brought onto the campus were young Black males from the predominantly Black city of Loiza. This episode demonstrated the ways in which policy and decision-making sought to create tensions along lines of race, class, and social standing. This was one example of where perceptions of race, class, and policing were most deliberately weaponized against students and young workers.

While overall, the book does a compelling job of speaking to the populations who are most targeted by these policies, there are times where race is more foregrounded than other points. The chapter where security is hired from Loiza is an incredibly telling and compelling episode where race is central to the events and the public reaction to it. Similarly, the chapter which brings in the heavy emphasis on music is an example of race stereotyping of behavior. While there is detail to establish the ideological linking of race to space, particularly in regards to public housing, there are indeed points where the discussion of race does recede from the narrative. If there were more public comments or images throughout the text that hinted at the underlying assumptions of race, space, and behavior then there would have needed to be less front-loading to carry that argument. On a similar note, I would have been curious to know if there were larger trends and difference of opinions along racial lines within the island of Puerto Rico or in the diaspora. That is especially true when questions of gender and sexuality were so heavily analyzed in later chapters, particularly the social media blackouts and boycotts of media personality, La Comay, in chapter six.

Regardless, Policing Life and Death presents a timely and hopeful book to the canon of Puerto Rico, policing, and colonialism. It clearly demonstrates how policing is both highly local and transnational. This goes for activism, as well. If the problems are indeed global, so are the potential solutions. LeBrón goes much further than a critique of just policing, pursuing larger questions around housing, and broader public services and governance. As much as this book demonstrates the failings of a neo-liberal order to answer the call for equity while repeatedly failing to serve the needs of those they claim to serve, it also shows that there are links of progress to be had. There is much here to be gained not just for academics, but for activists looking beyond and across borders for questions and solutions.

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Don S. Polite, Jr.

Don S. Polite, Jr. is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of South Carolina. His research interests include Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States since 1876, and Race, Empire and Citizenship. His undergraduate thesis was entitled, "Arturo A. Schomburg: Redefined Revolutionary Afro-Puerto-Rican Black Historian," written under the guidance of Professor Leslie Brown. His dissertation explores Schomburg’s broader significance as a diasporic thinker and figure. Follow him on Twitter @Polite_DPJ.