It’s surely small comfort to Sandra Bland’s family that there’s an audio and video recording of her arrest, since she died (off camera) in a Texas jail three days after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. A Texas prosecutor said on Thursday that according to medical examiners, the #BlackLivesMatter activist did indeed, as previously asserted by jail authorities, commit suicide by fashioning a plastic trash liner into a noose and hanging herself. Her family, meanwhile, says she was looking forward to a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, and would never have taken her own life.
As in the case of Eric Garner, choked to death by New York police after allegedly selling loose cigarettes, or Walter Scott, shot in the back by police in South Carolina after a traffic stop for broken brake light, the video did not prevent the police abuses. The videos do, however, expose these horrific injustices, and are a wakeup call to anyone who doubts that African Americans are regularly profiled and brutalized by American police.
Over and over again Ms. Bland correctly asserted her legal rights, and over and over again, Trooper Encinia crossed the line into flat out bullying. There is no other word for someone seeking to dominate and control another by threats of force and by physical assault.
(fast-forward to 1:35 for video of Ms. Bland’s arrest)
Let’s be very clear.
You have the right to smoke a cigarette in your own car. Unless it poses some kind of threat, a police officer does not have the right to order you to put out the cigarette.
At a routine traffic stop, where there is no physical threat to the officer, police do not have the right to order you out of your car.
Police do not have the right to point a stun gun (taser) at your head unless there is a physical threat.
You absolutely have the right to record an encounter with the police, as long as doing so does not impede their lawful work.
What is clear from the arrest video is that Officer Encinia wanted to assert his dominance over Ms. Bland, even though it was a routine traffic stop for failing to signal. At every opportunity where he could ratchet up the tense encounter or calm it down, he chose to escalate. Ms. Bland was treated like the enemy, rather than a citizen motorist who had committed only the most minor infraction that caused no harm to anyone.
The beginning of that same video above (around the 1:20 mark) shows the officer making a sudden U turn and immediately speeding up to go after Ms. Bland, a black woman with Illinois plates driving in rural Texas. Why? We don’t have a reason for this, and it smacks of old history of northern African Americans being hassled and brutalized by white Southerners. (See, for example, the horrific story of Emmett Till.)
Ms. Bland says on the video she changed lanes to allow the officer to go by as he rapidly approached her. Once out of her car, she asks fourteen times why she is being arrested. She gets no answer. There was no ground to arrest her. Once she’s handcuffed, the officer checks her purse and car for anything illegal and finds nothing.
The officials in Texas seem satisfied with the evidence that Ms. Bland did indeed take her own life. But consider the devastating emotional damage caused by racism. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality. Racism isn’t just depressing, it actually causes depression.
Officer Encinia clearly agitated Ms. Bland. She accused him of slamming her face to the ground and hurting her wrists. But the emotional damage was likely the most excruciating of all. Ms. Bland was a woman who knew her rights, and discovered that they meant nothing when she correctly asserted them.
After three days’ incarceration from an incident stemming from a traffic stop, Ms. Bland’s death is a horrific reminder of the work that needs to be done.
Black lives matter.
Update: More information from the New York Times on Ms. Bland’s suicide:
Ms. Bland had told two jail intake workers on July 10 that she had tried last year to kill herself after losing a baby and told at least one of them that she had experienced bouts of depression. Yet they did not place her on a suicide watch or summon a mental health expert to evaluate her, steps national experts say should be standard practice. Nor did they follow other mandatory procedures aimed at protecting inmates at risk, state inspectors said last week.