Once I saw Sandra Bland’s smiling face in the news reports, I didn’t want to watch the video of her arrest. It was going to be a level of wrongdoing and injustice that would be intolerable to watch, burn my eyes.
What had to have happened between her joyful look in the photographs probably supplied by her loving family and the reports of her alleged suicide in jail would be outrageous, assault everything I keep wanting to think is true about America. We are mostly good and fair. Do I still believe this? I don’t know.
What I believe but can’t fully face is this: it’s so much worse than we think it is.
We only really get what has been going on, what we have been told has been going on forever, because now there is video. Before, when we heard the stories, we might have thought the descriptions of interactions between law enforcement and Black men and women were exaggerated, the confrontations painted with hyperbole. Because we believe so much in law and order, we figure law enforcement must follow the law and we think that their training would emphasize de-escalation rather than force. After all, weren’t police once called peace officers?
The video gives lie to the notion of law enforcement as peace officers. Instigation officers is the best new name. Starting something terrible when nothing needed to be terrible. Sandra Bland did a simple thing, a tiny thing, a thing people do all the time everywhere. She changed lanes without signaling. And for that, she suffered a show of authority and power so vastly disproportionate to the offense or the risk she posed to the arresting officer. Watching the video, it seems to me that Sandra Bland was struggling because she rightfully perceived she was fighting for her life.
One of the worst things about watching the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest? The arresting officer didn’t seem to care that his brutal behavior was being recorded by the dash cam. He felt so totally justified, it didn’t matter that his threats and incredible overreaction were being taped. He felt assured of his defense. Many things are sickening in this tragedy. That is one of the more depressing ones.
All along, I’ve wanted to blame rogue cops. I wanted to think that it was rogue cops in Milwaukee who killed Ernest Lacy in 1981. I believed it was rogue cops partying too much who beat Frank Jude nearly to death in 2005. And still more rogue cops who sat in the front seat of their squad car while Derek Williams struggled to breathe and eventually died handcuffed in the back seat. And even as my friends and people I worked with told me ‘this stuff happens all the time,’ I still wanted to think it was a rogue cop who rousted a sleeping man in a public park, instigated an altercation and shot Dontre Hamilton 14 times, killing him in the sunshine of a spring morning for no reason.
Because if it’s a rogue cop who does this terrible stuff, it’s the exception, an anomaly, an especially racist cop, a cop with poor training, a cop who has been damaged in some way, no long capable of being a good police officer. It means the majority of cops can continue to be good and fair even if there are dozens, hundreds of rogue cops, thousands. Still most cops, most people would be good and fair. I get to keep thinking most people are decent despite what I know about institutional racism. I understand how policies and practices have disproportionately affect Black children and families. I analyze the data and I drive through my town and no matter how things change, they stay the same, one city so incredibly divided – racially, economically, educationally, socially.
I know all that. But I still wanted us to be mostly good and fair. We’re not.
There is no indication that Officer Encinia, the ‘rogue cop’ who arrested Sandra Bland, thought two seconds about the dash cam filming a silly traffic stop that within minutes burst into flames because Sandra Bland exerted her rights and was strong in her own defense. He felt compelled not in the least to comport himself professionally, to be a peace officer. Why is that? Because he knew his department, law enforcement, the country had his back? Because he was confident that his law enforcement colleagues would have the same reaction? That they would watch the video and nod their heads. Yes, they’d say, you certainly did have reason to use more force. She wouldn’t put out her cigarette. Is that what he was thinking? Or didn’t he have to think about it?
I don’t know what he was thinking. We will probably never know.
But I do know what I am thinking. All of this: it’s so much worse than we think it is.
And I have been a fool not to have understood this sooner.