The suspicious death of Sandra Bland three days after an unnecessary, illegal, and violent arrest has reminded tens of millions of people that while national awareness of the problems of endemic societal racism and rampant police abuse may have risen in the year since Michael Brown was murdered, the police have not been deterred in their application of crimes and violence against the public–particularly against people of color, the mentally ill, the very poor, and the homeless. In today’s environment where more and more people are pulling out their cameras to film the police because they expect that the police may violate someone’s rights, it should be unfathomable that police would continue to brazenly commit crimes against the public during a period of increased scrutiny, but as civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson likes to remind people, the police will continue to abuse and kill people.
Police get away with their crimes for a multitude of complicated, and often intertwined, reasons. Racism. Classism. Corporations that profit off of incarceration. Corporations that profit off of prohibition. Politicians who are bought by those corporations and by police unions. Expectations of revenue generation by municipal governments. Qualified immunity for cops who commit crimes. Internal Affairs departments that are expected to clear cops of criminal wrongdoing. Chain of commands who believe it is their responsibility to clear cops of wrongdoing. Prosecutors who are eager to paper over cop crimes so that they can continue their symbiotic relationship with the police. Judges who overlook rampant police corruption as they eye higher benches or reelection campaigns where they will be attacked if they don’t come across as tough on (non-cop) crime. These are just some of the reasons, and these reasons give many people comfort in believing that they don’t directly contribute to the problem because they are not members of any of the aforementioned groups. However, one reason that we can directly attribute blame to the general public for is its desire to make excuses for criminal cops by blaming the victim.
In the Sandra Bland case, no reasonable person who believes in basic civil liberties could side with Officer Brian Encinia. Sandra Bland was unnecessarily stopped for a minor traffic infraction that would only result in a ticket in jurisdictions where revenue generation or harassment of a particular community (e.g., the Black community) is a priority. At the conclusion of the stop she was unnecessarily and illegally ordered to put out her cigarette in her own car. She legally (and righteously) refused to put out the cigarette, as is her right. For that, Encinia threatened her with arrest, pointed his taser (a deadly weapon) at her face, and proceeded to assault her. She was ultimately unjustly arrested for assault on a public servant, despite being the victim of assault. She then spent three days in prison because she dared to flex her basic Constitutional and human rights. On the third day the state alleges that she committed suicide.
“In Prisons, it is not at all uncommon to find a prisoner hanged or burned to death in his cell. No matter how suspicious the circumstances, these deaths are always ruled ‘suicides.’ They are usually Black inmates, considered to be a ‘threat to the orderly running of the prison.’ They are usually among the most politically aware and socially conscious inmates in the prison.”
~ Assata Shakur, 1987
In the Sandra Bland case, there are millions of people who blame Sandra Bland for her own arrest and death. For example, there are overtly racist people like Heather Martin of Allen, TX who sing the praises of Jesus and limited government but who will eagerly back an officer “every time” they commit crimes against any “uppity, mouthy, and criminal [Black people].” Backed by a Confederate flag, she proclaims that #PoliceLivesMatter, making it clear that Black lives do not matter to her.
There are also overtly racist people like retired NYPD Detective Harry Houck who argue that nothing bad would have happened during the stop had Sandra Bland dispensed with her “arrogant attitude” and simply been respectful to Officer Encinia.
They talk about how people (and they mean Black people) should simply shut up, treat the police officer with respect, and comply with all of his commands if they want to get through a stop without any problems (e.g., being arrested, assaulted, or killed). They shift the burden from the police, to not commit crimes, to the victim, to not question or talk back to police officers. Therein lies a problem that highlights our society’s failure to acknowledge its racist history, its racist present, its fixation on power and authority, and its failure to place civil liberties (the thing that many believe makes America great) above a cop’s expectation of being respected by the public.
But the Confederate flag waiving, bootlicking, cop apologizing, #PoliceLivesMatter crowd does make one point that is worth listening to–Black people sometimes should choose to comply instead of die. They get it right for the wrong reasons; they believe that Black people are inferior human beings, and that people in blue uniforms should be allowed to dispose of them if they don’t “act right.” But as most Black people will tell you, they’ve essentially been told the same thing by their parents, stemming from their parents’ desire to see their children survive to old age.
At the Peaceful Streets Project, we go into the streets to document interactions between the police and members of the public, and when we see police violating people’s rights, we challenge them. When they violate our rights, we challenge them. In the attached video, we challenged them quite vocally, with plenty of expletives, when they illegally detained and searched us for documenting their actions during a copwatch in the Rundberg region of Austin, TX. Compare and contrast our behavior to the so-called “arrogant” behavior that resulted in Sandra Bland being illegally arrested and assaulted.
Why did a Black man come up to us at the end of that incident and ask, “how the fuck do you talk to them goddam laws like that?” The answer is because he was amazed that we weren’t beaten and arrested for what we said to the police. Not everyone has the same ability to stand up for their rights or the rights of others. If you are homeless or extremely poor, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. If you are mentally ill, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. If you are Latino or Arab, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. And if you are Black, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. Sandra Bland is just one of tens of thousands of examples of that unfair and unfortunate reality.
It is for the aforementioned reasons that cops should NOT be respected by society. That they are so eager to use violence and commit crimes against people means that they are not productive members of society who deserve our respect. That they are even more likely to use violence and commit crimes against the most disadvantaged members of society means that they are bullies on top of being non-productive members of society. But just because they shouldn’t be respected doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be feared. When we stand up to the police, we fear for our lives and liberty. We understand that we are often dealing with violent thugs who have no qualms about committing crimes against us. But we also acknowledge that we have strength in numbers, we have cameras rolling, and most of us aren’t Black, Latino, Arab, homeless, extremely poor, or mentally ill. We are far more likely to survive a police encounter than Sandra Bland or someone who looks like her. That is privilege, and we will use our privilege to push back against police.