Even within the context of recent cases of US police brutality, the death of Sandra Bland, a young black woman arrested by a Texan policeman after a traffic stop two weeks ago, is deeply troubling. Dashboard footage shows an officer losing his temper with Bland after she refuses to put out her cigarette and then, after barking orders at her and attempting to remove her from the car, pulling out a taser and threatening to “light you up” if she doesn’t step out of the vehicle. Bland is then moved out of range of the camera, where a heated argument and scuffle ensue. During the altercation she pleads with the officer to stop hurting her, and warns him that she has epilepsy. Neither exchange seems to help. Forcibly subdued and charged with resisting arrest, Bland was placed on $5,000 bail. While her family tried to raise the $500 that would have secured her release she apparently committed suicide – by hanging herself with a garbage bag in her cell.
Most commentary has focused on the legality of the police officer’s verbal exchanges with Bland. Was it a justifiable traffic stop, or had she changed lanes without signalling because she was being tailgated by the police car? Must you extinguish a cigarette if a policeman asks you to? Was Bland being arrested for a traffic violation, or for something else? The list of unanswered questions grows with each news cycle. There is also another set of questions about the apparent suicide. Here again, further doubts and theories keep surfacing, fed by the outrage at having yet another US police force respond evasively to a case of inexplicable police violence directed against an African American.
Important as they are for posterity, however, the legal niceties of the officer’s initial confrontation with Sandra Bland obscure a more important issue, one that can get lost in the details of each new case of a minority death at the hands of US police. Even if there were a legal justification for the arrest (for instance, US police officers do have the legal authority to instruct a driver or passenger to get out of a car) – that would neither excuse nor explain the officer’s hostility, which did far more to escalate the situation. The tense quality of the policeman’s exchange with Bland is revealing throughout their conversation. Early on he observes that she looks annoyed. Then, as she explains her frustration at being stopped for such a minor infraction, he interrupts: “Are you done?” The lack of sensitivity meant that an important detail — that he was issuing a caution not a ticket — got entirely lost in the aggression. Once the policeman started shouting at her the rest of the encounter took on a grimly familiar inevitability.
The violence of America’s police forces, particularly when directed against minorities, is inextricable from the country’s aversion to an honest reckoning with its long history of racism. It is also connected to America’s baffling reverence towards firearms. Several major cities have tried, in some cases with surprising success, to make their police departments more diverse and less prone to racial profiling. But the fact remains that a country with 300 million privately held guns will tend to produce a highly militarized police culture, prone to snap judgements, often on the basis of racial stereotypes, since the officers often assume that they are working under the threat of lethal violence. Furthermore, at least half of America’s 12,500 local police forces are relatively small – 10 officers or fewer – and their prejudices are often shared by those who monitor them.
In his searing memoir, ‘Between the World and Me’ – written as a letter to his 15-year-old son – Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy.” Later on he adds, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.”
The difference between mainstream and minority perspectives on this question became painfully evident when the New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Coates’s book but wondered whether he wasn’t distorting American history. With characteristic optimism Brooks asserted that the upside of America nearly always compensated for its problems: “There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis.” (A specious line that Coates would later dismiss with the memorable observation that “before Lincoln every president was a Jefferson Davis.”) Brooks never seemed to touch on Coates’s larger point, however, one articulated with a moral force that recalls James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, namely that social problems like racism don’t go away as easily as we might like them to, and historical legacies inform a society’s institutions long after the ideas that underwrote those legacies have been discredited or refuted.
Police violence – in the United States, the Caribbean or elsewhere – and the prejudices that sustain it, cannot be divorced from historical legacies that affect the wider political culture. It is folly to believe otherwise. It is also difficult, if not impossible, to move beyond a culture of violence and impunity until this hard truth has been acknowledged and used as a basis for serious reforms. Unfortunately the US ‒ and many other countries ‒ has yet to absorb this insight fully. Until it does, the sort of violence routinely used against minorities like Sandra Bland will continue to fester, often with equally tragic outcomes.