Sandra Bland's Killing Exposes The Impunity Of US Police More Starkly Than Ever
By Justin Podur
26 July, 2015
By now, the facts are well known to millions, but it is worth going over them again. On July 10, a 28-year old woman, an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, who had recently moved to Texas for a new job at a university, was being followed too closely by a speeding car on a highway. She changed lanes to get out of the driver's way, and that should have been the end of the story, a non-event in her life. But the driver, 30-year old Brian Encinia, was a police officer, and he put his flashing lights on and made her pull over.
Three days later she was dead in a jail cell.
I found out about Sandra Bland's death after I watched the video of her arrest and abuse by Brian Encinia. When I watched it, I thought it was another routine example of police abuse and violence against black women in the US, like the crazed attack on a 14-year old girl in a swimsuit by Eric Casebolt in June (also in Texas).
Instead, it turned out I was watching the beginning of a long, drawn out sequence of torture and murder. Murder is the only word that can describe this, since, even if the extremely implausible story of her suicide turns out to be true, there is no way she would be dead now if she hadn't been arrested. Not unlike the murder of Eric Garner by a group of police in New York last year, the main killers being Daniel Pantaleo and Justin Damico of the NYPD. Or the murder of Walter Lamer Scott by Michael Thomas Slager, who gunned the man down while he fled. These are just a fraction of the cases that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement (which numbered Sandra Bland among its activists).
And Black Lives Matter, while gathering the numbers and leveling a systemic critique, can conceivably only focus on a fraction of the hundreds of people killed by law enforcement personnel in the US each year. Killings by US police are far higher than most other Western countries. There are different ways of counting, and different institutions doing the counting. But whether you look at the Guardian's database, the Killedbypolice.net database, the Fatal Encounters database, or some other, we seem to be living in the midst of an upsurge of murders by police, targeting especially ordinary unarmed black citizens, male or (now) female.
Watching the videos of these murders, several things stand out: the extraordinary cowardice of the police, who attack completely defenceless people from a position of complete safety; the careful attention to covering up that begins immediately after, or even during, the attack; and the steady, methodical escalation of the situation by the police until they are able to attack. For all of these things, the video and transcript of Sandra Bland's arrest by Brian Encinia, as well as the accompanying coverup operation, is the most extraordinary example so far.
Encinia is in complete control of the interaction at every moment. He pulls her over, she complies. He asks her what is wrong, she tells him she is upset to have been pulled over, and he uses this information to escalate ("are you done?" he asks). He then tells her to put out her cigarette, something she knows she doesn't have to do, but seems to do anyway. She is accepting the ticket he has written for her, when he escalates again. Before long he has opened the door and commenced the attack, during which at various points he tells her to move, and then tells her not to move.
At each stage, Sandra talks to Encinia as one human being to another, telling him the harm he is doing to her arms, to her ear, to her head, about her medical conditions; and also reminds him of the legal framework in which they are supposed to be operating. Encinia simply proceeds with his assault.
My conclusion from this video is that there was absolutely nothing Sandra could have done to save her life. From the moment Encinia decided to pull her over, he could have de-escalated at any one of twenty or thirty moments. It is easy to imagine how the same dynamic continued at the Waller County Jail, where she was detained for three days, after which the jail authorities produced her body along with a series of impossible photos, edited videorecordings, nonsense about Sandra's supposed depression, and botched autopsies that are designed to ensure that no one is ever punished for Sandra's murder. The County Sheriff is running the investigation into her death. The County Sheriff also runs the jail where she died. The discrepancies in the reports and videos that they have put forward to date, with straight faces, are, if taken at face value, a staggering declaration of incompetence. The obvious alternative explanation is that we are watching a coverup unfold.
Despite the presence in the media landscape of people like Harry Houck who will defend any violence that police do, Sandra Bland is an extraordinarily difficult person to present as a physical threat to an armed police officer. The best that Houck could come up to defend her murder with was to say she was "arrogant". Arrogant while being arrested, then suddenly depressed and suicidal, presumably. What Sandra Bland's case demonstrates is that black women are targets as black men are, that being non-threatening won't save you, that knowing the law and asserting your rights won't save you, that the legal framework that is supposed to govern and constrain police interactions with people, and investigations of these interactions after they become fatal, is viewed by police as optional.
How widely is this view that the law is optional for police shared by the US public? This view seems to be held by the police as a group, as well as most of the US media that defend them. But what do the people think? The police captured in the iconic videos of the Black Lives Matter movement are the objects of well-deserved fear, contempt, and revulsion. But they are also the recipients of widespread unearned solidarity, offered without any conditions, from within their group and from within society. Much of this solidarity is because of racism. Part of it is because of respect for the law and the legitimacy of institutions, which work better for some than for others.
A society that offers widespread unconditional solidarity to police will end up tolerating the intolerable, and it has. The idea that Black Lives Matter is the idea that this unconditional solidarity can be cracked if the facts can be heard. Maybe it could even be replaced by solidarity with the ordinary people who, more than ever after Sandra Bland's murder, are being told to live in fear that police can kill them with impunity.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti's New Dictatorship (Pluto Press 2012). He has contributed chapters to Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (University of Toronto Press 2013) and Real Utopia (AK Press 2008). He is an Associate Professor at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies.
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