Since last Thursday, the social media world has been asking #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland. As the days pass and the social media pressure rages, more details are being brought to the public as we seek concrete answers. We want to know how Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman from Chicago who had just traveled down to Waller County, Texas to begin her dream job, was stopped for a routine traffic violation that escalated into her being arrested for assaulting a public servant on Friday, July 10 and ultimately her death by “self-inflicted asphyxiation” three days later. Yesterday, we were informed of the dashcam video of the original traffic stop.
The video has just been made available to the general public, but even yesterday, Cannon Lambert, the Bland family’s lawyer, had said that officer Brian Encinia failed to follow official traffic procedures. This was previously assumed by many when he was put on desk duty. After pulling Bland over, Encinia returned to give her a written warning. He proceeded to ask her put her cigarette out. Bland responded by asking Encinia why she would have to put out the cigarette in her own car. The officer became agitated, demanded Bland get out of her car, and as she refused and reached for her cell phone to tape the incident, he attempted to open her door and threatens her with a Taser.
He is quoted as saying, “I will light you up!”
Under extreme duress, Bland was forced to exit her own car for reasons that had no legal grounding. And again, the conditions that the official statement that Bland committed suicide was based off of lose credibility. Some information is surfacing around the jail camera video the morning Bland died, which we can hope will lead us to asking the questions necessary to understand how exactly Bland had access to a plastic bag and how that plastic bag ended up around her neck. But for the details we gain for what exactly happened in the jail cell, we have to look at a broader context, according to which Bland should never have been asked to exit her car. No initial statement of suicide absolves the state of being guilty for Bland’s death.
We don’t know which hands exactly took Bland’s last breath.
We do know, however, that those hands are tied to a state apparatus according to which police officers are wrongfully allowed to exercise unnecessary and excessive force against people despite it violating their constitutionally-protected rights. We do know that her death was completely preventable and that she’s is not the first person, even within recent months, who has fallen victim to these kinds of circumstantial extrajudicial killings.
In March, Walter Scott was shot five times in the back after running from a police officer who should never have pulled him over in the first place. Scott was cited for having his third taillight out despite the fact that South Carolina law only requires one working light. The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore is similarly not only plagued with gross negligence but with, as Baltimore State’s Attorny Marilyn J. Mosby levied, the very fact of false imprisonment. Though Gray surrendered, bike patrol officer Lieutenant Brian W. Rice had no just cause for approaching Gray because no crime had been committed, and the knife officers later happened to have found him carrying was carried legally.
Police forces’ inability to hold themselves accountable to the law itself with all people at all times is costing many of us our lives.
The fact of the matter is that it is not illegal to ask an officer a question. The American Civil Liberties Union, in their “Know Your Rights pamphlet,” notes that it is important for those who are being stopped to ask “Am I free to go?” in order to know the difference between being arrested and detained. Being able to question police is a citizen’s duty to keeping them in check while also exercising our rights. Furthermore, Bland’s question was justified because the demand was absurd. She was violating no law by asking the officer why he could ask her to put out her own cigarette in her own car. The situation violated none of the County’s statutes prohibiting smoking in public places. Bland was furthermore violating no law by reaching for her phone to potentially record the officer in question.
Despite all of this, however, we are only now beginning to lift the burden of responsibility for Bland’s death off of her own dead shoulders.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has now announced that Bland’s death will be treated “like a murder.” If justice is genuinely going to be done for Bland and the many cases like hers (those that we can name and those that have remained hidden for circumstances that are beyond our control and over-regulated), this metaphoric murder must be taken into account as an actual one.
Proxy must be properly expanded to include and go beyond Bland’s Waller County jail cell that Monday morning. The circumstances according to which she ended up there must be addressed and used to properly situate how she ended up being hung by a trash bag. These include the factors that make it possible for an officer to exploit power to seize someone after being subjectively insulted, the disproportionate tendency for those seized to be racially marked, especially when asking about the circumstances of the encounter, and the similar tendency for the criminal justice system to rarely hold officers accountable for police misconduct.
Without doing so, we leave a killer on the loose. One that illicitly manipulates the criminal justice system to dispose of people at whim, particularly black people. One that includes police officers who continue to maneuver the world by protecting and serving the law only insofar as they are above the law itself. One whose laws have never been made to serve and protect all of us equally. One that we, unfortunately, call our society, and that will continue to run rampant if we do not institute concrete systematic change.
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