The Remedies to Come after Sandra Bland’s Death

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July 26, 2015; New York Times

Sandra Bland’s funeral was held in Lisle, Illinois on Saturday, but the controversy over the circumstances of her arrest and death still roils. Charles M. Blow, the respected New York Times columnist, interviewed several of Bland’s friends in the days leading up to the funeral, all expressing disbelief that she committed suicide despite the findings of a Waller County, Texas autopsy.

Blow describes part of the controversy regarding how Bland was treated during the traffic stop:

Some have criticized her for her stance during the traffic stop, suggesting that if she had behaved differently, with more respect for the officer, she might have avoided arrest.

“Maybe. But, it must always be remembered that the parameters of ‘respectable behavior’ are both raced and gendered. The needle moves to differing positions for different people. That is, I believe, one of the reasons that this minor traffic stop so quickly escalated.

“How dare a woman not present as a damsel? How dare a black person not bow in obsequiousness?

“The officer’s irritation seemed to build in direct response to Bland’s unwavering defiance. She refused to break, crumble and cry. She refused to express fear. She challenged his authority, his character and his expression of masculinity.

Blow indicated that Bland’s family and friends intend to press for action on her case. In the words of Pastor James Miller of DuPage AME Church in Lisle, where the funeral service was held, “You can disrespect a strong black woman if you want to, but you’re gonna pay for that.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) spoke about the highly questionable traffic stop that resulted in Bland’s jail cell death three days later and announced they had written to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a full federal investigation into the incident.

Some people have suggested that Bland was already dead before or soon after she got to the jail, corroborated (they feel) by issues concerning the mugshot. While experts contradict the likelihood of the mugshot of a dead person whose death wasn’t announced until three days later, the issue has gotten some resonance with conspiracy theorists, including the Anonymous hackster group, which has called for a national “a day of rage for Sandra Bland and all who have been murdered at the hands of ruthless law enforcement officials who know no honor.” Writing on Counter Current News, Zeidy David gives significant weight to the mugshot controversy and credits the “Anon Intel Group” as well as discussions on “Black Twitter” for the argument that Bland might have been murdered, though her jailhouse calls to get help in raising bail money make the dead-mugshot theory difficult to accept.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi contends that the police are responsible for the death of Bland regardless of whether a police officer actually killed her or if she killed herself in the cell. Taibbi points out “how much mischief can arise from the fact that a person may be arrested at any time for ‘failing to obey a lawful order,’ which in the heat of the moment can mean just about anything.” Cataloguing all the possibilities that police can use to stop people with virtually no cause, Taibbi observes:

You add all this up, and we’re talking about millions upon millions of stops, searches and misdemeanor arrests and summonses that clearly target black people at a far higher rate than the rest of the population.

“And if you’re continually handcuffing people, sitting on them, putting knees in their backs and dragging them to jail in cases when you could have just handed over a summons, a certain percentage of these encounters are going to end in fights, struggles, medical accidents and other disasters. Like the Bland case.”

Taibbi dismisses the argument that Bland would still be alive if she had not changed lanes without signaling, if she had put out her cigarette when asked (without justification, by the way), or if she had been more polite.

“We’d call it murder if a kidnapping victim died of fright during the job,” Taibbi writes. “Of course it’s not legally the same thing, but a woman dying of depression during an illegal detention should be the same kind of crime. It’s especially true given our long and sordid history of overpolicing misdemeanors.”

Taibbi concludes as follows:

But while playing things cool might prevent killings in some instances, it won’t stop police from stopping people without reason, putting their hands on suspects or jailing people like Bland for infractions that at most would earn a white guy in a suit a desk ticket. That’s not just happening in a few well-publicized cases a year, but routinely, in hundreds of thousands or even millions of incidents we never hear of.

“That’s why the issue isn’t how Sandra Bland died, but why she was stopped and detained in the first place. It’s profiling, sure, but it’s even worse than that. It’s a systematic campaign to harass people, using misdemeanors and violations as battering ram—a campaign that’s been going on forever, and against which there’s little defense. When the law can be stretched to mean almost anything, obeying it is no magic bullet.”

In the aftermath of Bland’s death, there have been numerous protests across the country and hashtagged social media campaigns around #SayHerName, #SandraBland, and #SandySpeaks. One protester in Texas wearing a “Justice for Sandra” t-shirt told the Guardian “there was negligence all around concerning [Bland’s] care… Something positive has to come out of this, or it’s going to get worse.”

There could well be more action in Texas against the arresting officer than just slapping him on the wrist for violating Texas state trooper politeness protocols and perhaps against the Waller County officials whose treatment of Bland was inexplicable. But the bigger issue is changing the system that leads to the arrests, detentions, and deaths of a disproportionate number of blacks at the hands of police. At times, the cause prompting protests seems quite clear, but the solutions hard to grasp or articulate.—Rick Cohen