Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (Review)Historians in the News
tags: Puerto Rico, policing
Don S. Polite, Jr. is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of South Carolina.
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.
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