Sandra Bland as a Teachable Moment

I first heard the name Sandra Bland in relation to the Martin O’Malley free-for-all shoutdown that occurred at NetRoots, ably reported here by streiff.  I almost did not pay any attention, but then saw a follow-up this morning on Fox.  Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to watch the full video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety.  I found that it summed up a number of core issues that this great nation is grappling with illustrated through the real-life actors who lived it.

The setting itself has a very long history of racial conflict.  You get the feeling that in daily interactions, a fair number of citizens grit their teeth and smile in circumstances that aren’t all that pleasant.  Accusations fly back and forth at town meetings, apparently, and among the groups which self-identify racially, there is a high degree of sensitivity.

Enter a police officer who is a white male and a driver who is a black female.  The dashcam begins with Officer Encinia releasing a driver whom he had pulled over with a cordial warning and what sounded like a pleasant conversation.  It would appear that he is willing to pull over citizens for minor infractions and issue warnings without anything further.  He repeated several times that there would be no cost to the driver.  Then he lets her go and begins driving again.

A very short time later he proceeds through an intersection and the car ahead of him changes lines without signaling.  His dashcam activates as he turns on his lights and she pulls over rather quickly.  It is unclear whether he knew it was a female driving nor if he knew she was black.  The only fact up until this point is that she changed lanes without signaling, which is a violation of the traffic laws.

Officer Encinia gets out and the first time he walks over, you can see that he follows what must be standard training, walking over to the passenger side and unbuttoning what could be a taser or weapon.  At this point, from his viewpoint, what he may know is that police officers are sometimes killed at routine traffic stops.  It is a rare occurrence, but it happens and, lately, the most publicized tensions have been among police officers and drivers of different self-described race.  His voice sounded even and polite as he leaned in and let Ms. Bland know the reason she had been pulled over and requested the standard documents.

Ms. Bland must have either given him an expression of disdain, murmured something or made some type of gesture, because the Officer then asks her “What’s wrong?”  For roughly 20 seconds after he asks, nothing is said, and then he asks her how long she had been in Texas, probably because she had registration from another state.  He had to ask her a second time for her license and her tone with him appeared fairly abrupt.

From Ms. Bland’s point of view, it would appear that she did not like nor trust police officers and that she supported campaigns which highlighted perceived racial injustice in the application of law toward black people.  Her tone toward the police officer indicated that she was not pleased with what was going on.  The Officer then went away for almost five minutes before returning, this time on the driver’s side of the vehicle, armed with a clipboard with a ticket ready for her signature.

From his tone and his body posture, it appears he was feeling frustrated with Ms. Bland, but not at all threatened.  They then exchange dialogue with each other that escalated the situation.  The Officer asks her if she is alright and her direct response was “I’m waitin’ on you… you… this is your job.  I’m waitin’ on you, whatever you want me to do?”  He then says to her “Well you seem very irritated,” to which she replies “I am.  I really am, because I feel like you stopped me… what am I getting a ticket for?  I was getting out of your way, you was speedin’ up, tailin’ me, so I move over, and you stopped me.  So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so [inaudible].”

Then he asks “Are you done?”  “You asked me what was wrong and I told you.”  “OK.”  “So now I’m done, yeah.”  “OK.”

A few seconds later he asks her if she would mind putting out her cigarette, using “please” and repeating the request.  She then told him that since it was her car, she didn’t have to put out her cigarette, at which point the officer asks her to step out of her car.  For the next few minutes, they both say things to each other out of anger and frustration and the end result is that she is arrested and jailed, which ultimately led to her death, whether by suicide or homicide.

If I were to pull out of my driveway and exceed the speed limit, I could get pulled over.  I have three options, under the circumstances.  I could be courteous and polite and accept a ticket without any discussion.  I could advocate for why I felt a ticket was unwarranted under the circumstances.  Or I could whip out my phone camera and start questioning every facet of what the police officer was doing.

A police officer has a certain measure of delegated authority.  Our Courts and our society allow them a fair amount of discretion in various situations.  Dashcams are used in order to support or undermine claims most normally made by defendants later.  A police officer could search my car if they felt they had probable cause.  They would have to prove it, but they could do it and then argue about it later.  They have that power.  If I refuse to comply with any requests, they can arrest me.  They would have to justify it later, but they could do it.

Police officers who are out on the street are a bit like soldiers.  They understand that the majority of the time they are not at risk of injury, but sometimes they are and when they are, that they need to defend themselves.  At the same time, while they are taught to be courteous to citizens, they also are human beings and if you want to make someone upset, try questioning their authority solely because they have exercised it on you.  Once a police officer has made that decision, your most prudent course of action is to obey the law and then argue about it later.

Our current President is teaching us that some of us are above the law.  Iran is above the law and Cuba is above the law.  Illegal immigrants, certain black groups and others are above the law.  And so we have a growing number of citizens of all colors and stripes who are openly belligerent to police officers.

Ms. Bland could have accepted the ticket, which turned out to be a warning, anyway, and I would not be writing about her now.  Her death is tragic and her life does matter to me.  However, the origin of this woeful tale begins with simple manners.  Police officers most often do not become frustrated and angry with compliant citizens.  The cases in the public eye over the past few years have never involved a law-abiding citizen.  They have involved people who are already angry, frustrated, convicted or otherwise in a situation where while they should all still be alive today, they started something that did not end well.

Time and time again, we are focusing on the disproportionate outcome rather than the origin.  Iran is going to produce nuclear weapons and most probably use them.  Their initial behavior has let us know their intent, and yet we want to act like they will not.  Trayvon Martin was in an area with a recent spate of burglaries, dressed in a manner that could be intimidating and acting belligerently toward George Zimmerman.  Of course, we will never know exactly what happened, but a jury ended up concluding that Zimmerman was not criminally responsible.

Although it is possible, had Mr. Martin worn different clothing, been out in daylight and not had substance issues which resulted in suspension from school, the situation with Mr. Zimmerman might have ended before it had started.  But by suggesting this, this is a dangerous area, because by my logic, women who are raped might be raising such probability by drinking heavily and wearing suggestive clothing while hanging out in a bar after dark.  Somewhere there is common sense that tells us that probability is probability and that why we lament the human condition, we cannot eliminate it or modify it.  In other words, no one wants their sister, mother, daughter, etc. to become the victim of a crime, but for those of us who are asked for our input, most of us would be inclined to offer guidance on reducing one’s chances to become a victim in the first place.

We pass laws for a reason.  Some laws are just and some are not.  In this case, we have a result which no one wanted, the loss of life.  I fully support a homicide prosecution if that is what is discovered occurred.  What I do not support, however, is insisting that violating the law, resisting arrest or antagonizing police officers and claiming that race is the sole factor in an event is the remedy for these tragedies.  If we want to look at real tragedies, why not discuss Planned Parenthood and its role in racial inequality or look at our immigration policy and its impact on the Black community?

In the meantime, if we want to have an honest dialogue on race with our post-racial President, why don’t we discuss morals, ethics and the social lessons of gangster rap?  Why don’t we discuss the stereotypes employed by Hollywood and the propaganda of the cinema?  Why don’t we stop focusing the lens on the South and start focusing it on places where many more deaths and much more destruction is being caused?  In that regard, why don’t we turn Sandra Bland into a teachable moment ourselves?