Point Austin: Death in Custody
Sandra Bland's death a truly American story
"I'm going to call out racism whenever I see it."
– Sandra Bland
The grim paradox of the most notorious recent death in custody of a young African-American (we need to make that distinction, because the pattern is so persistent) is that if Sandra Bland hadn't died in the Waller County jail, we would never have seen the police video that shows a state trooper behaving like a macho thug instead of a peace officer. Amidst the ongoing and mostly aimless/pointless/irrelevant debate over the precise details of what happened to Bland before and during her unjust incarceration, is the simple fact that she was in jail not because of anything she did or said, but because of who she was and the petty tyranny of the officers who stopped and arrested her.
She died because she was guilty of driving while black.
Nothing that happened afterward explains away that stark and historical fact, and the sort of cheap institutional brutality that declares we are all equal before the law – but some of us are more equal than others. We can surmise that the cops may have sped up behind her because of her out-of-state plates or her proximity to the university, but the "failure to signal" by a driver trying to get out of the way is a generic cop pretext to roust somebody. Once the stop was made, race was certainly no longer just a subtext.
Bland's refusal to defer politely to the trooper's authority has been criticized as either disrespectful or foolhardy. To me it recalls Rosa Parks' defiant refusal to be treated like a second-class citizen – a small but real heroism that ended in Bland's martyrdom to human rights. She was perhaps a troubled soul, but (as her online postings reflect) also a young activist, trying to find her place in the growing movement against racism and police brutality.
Power and Privilege
While it appears that her death was self-inflicted, what killed Sandra Bland was a combination of official oppression and social injustice. Instead of beginning her new job and a new phase of her life after an apparently difficult time at home in Illinois, she was under suspicion of a felony, far away from her family, and trying somehow to arrange bail without ready access to resources. It's likely she felt that new job and new life slipping away, and her interaction with the trooper suggests she was no longer willing to endure the routine insults that inevitably accompany black skin. As Slate's Jamelle Bouie commented, "If you are inclined to blame Bland for her arrest (and by extension her death), then you're sanctioning an America where police command total deference, where you have to obey regardless of what you've done or what's the law."
Some years ago, on a West Texas highway heading back toward Austin (and more guilty of an infraction than Bland), I was given the Macho Trooper treatment by an officer flexing his chest and his badge, to the point of making me stand in a ditch below him so that he could berate me from above, like any bully seizing his advantage. I was old and jaded enough to choose deference over defiance; had I been in my recalcitrant 20s, I might have let him goad me into resistance and a worse outcome. But I have no doubt that my white-skin privilege also protected me in that confrontation; I was just a dubious out-of-towner in need of a stern scolding – not, say, a black Houstonian requiring a tangible reminder of good ol' boy Texas justice.
Death in Texas
Because of the national notoriety of the incident, and the shaming of the Texas Department of Public Safety, there are various investigations in progress, including legislators looking into jail practices and perhaps even a Department of Justice review. All that's to the good – Bland's death should at least generate more than bootless mourning as its consequence. But as Bouie also noted: "Unfortunately, the best odds are that no one will face consequences or accountability for [Bland's] arrest, jail time, and death." Perhaps this high-profile death will indeed produce a few reforms in police practice, although it remains a national disgrace that it takes yet another filmed and widely publicized abuse of power to inspire action on what should be standard procedure.
In the meantime, I recommend a stomach-turning review of The Guardian's "The Counted," an attempt to track the number of people killed by U.S. police, in dismal comparison to other nations. I also suggest watching a few of Sandra Bland's homemade online videos addressed to her chosen audience of "kings and queens" hoping to better their lives and those of African-Americans more generally. She was a real person, full of touching hope and ambitions, subject to flaws and depression, trying to make the world a little better, about to take on a new life in Texas. We gave her no welcome.