One of my friends is driving cross-country with her son right now as I type this. He turned 18 last week and this trip from New York to Yellowstone Park is a last family hurrah before he ships off to college and the rest of his life in a month or so.
I know deep down that they will arrive out west, have a grand time, and enjoy the long drive home, that the experience will be spoken of fondly for years to come between mother and son. If she happens to be pulled over by a law enforcement official in any part of the country for any reason at all, that experience, too, will be merely one more tale in the fun collection of anecdotes: “Man, don’t even THINK about speeding in” (insert state name). And we her friends will enjoy the story.
My friend and her son are white, as am I. If she gets pulled over by a law enforcement official in any part of the country for any reason at all, the anecdote will not lead me to wonder these questions:
Why was she asked to get out of the car? Why was she arrested? Did the arresting officer have a body camera on his uniform? Was it functioning? Was the dash camera on the arresting officer’s vehicle turned on? If not, why not? Why is my friend, or her son, dead today?
A privilege is a “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others” (Merriam-Webster). Thus, it is a privilege that my friend, her son, and I do not need to consider these questions at all regarding her travels, simply because every black and brown person in this country needs to pretty much assume a sad set of probable if/then situations: When a black American is behind the wheel of a car, he or she is more likely to be pulled over than a white American driver; when pulled over, he or she will be asked to leave the vehicle, which is uncommon in the vast majority of traffic stops; that when this American is asked to leave the vehicle, any reply to any question/statement from the officer may be taken as “combative,” and thus the reason for an arrest; that the arrest will be conducted with physical force even when the person being arrested is complying.
It is a privilege that I can write the above paragraph from my position of being born white. White Americans act like their accidental color is an earned reward. I do not need to consider what life is like for me, what my day is like, because no power group makes me aware of it. That lack of a worry is a privilege, because other Americans live out that worry every minute of the day. Black and brown people live in a different America than I do. Native Americans do, too. This is a soul-sickness that needs a revolution to even begin to repair it. White Americans sometimes (often? all the time?) act like we consider our accidental pigmentation a reward for hard work, and the privileges we give one another are a salute acknowledging that hard work. Others of different color are decried for not working hard enough and are thought to always need to be “taught a lesson.”
Furthermore, it is a privilege that I can write the above and consider that someone might read this and write a comment applauding me for being progressive. Or “Progressive,” a compliment with a capital P. Bunk. I have it easy. I’m white. It is all I need to know about me, as it regards those in power in this nation, it seems.
It is a matter of high-falutin, Ivory Tower, intellectual mental masturbation for me to consider how different I have it compared to others, thanks to nothing I ever did other than be born white. Am I making life better for anyone by writing the above? Or am I merely showing off my Progressive credentials for other Progressives to applaud me by writing the above? I get to have it all: know that I am white in a country that grants safety to those like me … and complain about it without doing anything. The most important question for any white American to ask and be asked is: Are you helping change this? Delete the word “helping” there. Are we changing this?
A 28-year-old woman died in a jail cell in Texas last Monday. Her name was Sandra Bland, and her name joins what is becoming a list, a litany of names of people of color who have died after encounters with the authorities; the list now numbers hundreds of names in 2015 alone. Most of the 640 on the “Killed by Police” list that I linked to are the names of people of color. Sandra Bland’s name is not on this list, not yet anyway, as her death alone in a jail cell was officially deemed a suicide.
How did we get from Point A to Point B? Point A: on Friday, July 10, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a turn. She had driven from Illinois to Texas for a job interview with her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. The interview was pro forma; her family reports that she had been hired and was to begin work on July 15. Point B: on Monday, July 13, she was found dead, alone in a jail cell after a weekend spent in solitary confinement.
In between those two points, she was arrested for “assaulting a peace officer.” The report claims that she became argumentative with the officer as he was writing out a warning, so he ordered her out of the car. The report states that she kicked the state trooper, unprovoked, when she left the car. There is no video of this moment, neither from a body camera, if the trooper was equipped with one, nor from the dash camera.
The officer forced her to the ground, and a bystander who happened upon the scene started to record the moments after that: she is heard to complain that the officer had slammed her head against the ground and that she could not hear anything at that moment: “You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear! … You slammed me into the ground and everything.” It is possible that she suffered a blown-out eardrum and/or a cerebral edema, which can kill an individual if it is not attended to for several days, or a weekend. That is speculation on my part.
She also is heard complaining about pain in her arm and shoulder; further, she told her sister on Saturday in a phone call that she thought her shoulder was broken.
Was she given medical treatment at any point during the weekend she spent in jail?
Last Monday, shortly after speaking with guards via intercom at 8:00 a.m., she was found dead in the Waller County Jail cell. The report says that she hanged herself with a garbage bag. “Trash bags are a day to day item in the cells,” Sheriff Glenn Smith said at a news conference about the matter. What type of garbage bag can hold a human being’s weight? On what did she tie the bag-noose? Or did she asphyxiate herself? Terminology matters, and the term the county jail has used is “hanged herself.” It is a strange one.
What can push a person who has driven from Illinois to her alma mater in Texas to interview for her “dream job” (her family’s language), a person facing an optimistic future, a person who spoke with her family during a weekend spent in jail but did not speak of hopelessness, to commit suicide? Is it not possible, not too obviously possible, that she died of her injuries, so suicide was viewed by the officers at the jail as the easiest way to make the story go away? Again, I am not playing reporter here. I am openly speculating.
He is reporting that Waller County Jail has had four suicides among those held there in recent years:
Learning that the Waller County jail has a “suicide” problem and that as many as 4 deaths there have been ruled as such. #SandraBland
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) July 16, 2015
Further, Sandra Bland is not the first inmate at Waller County Jail to have committed suicide after being arrested and charged with assaulting a peace officer:
We also know the last “suicide” in the Waller County jail was of someone with the same charge of assaulting an officer. #SandraBland
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) July 18, 2015
This nation has a soul-sickness at its core about race. The only good news is that we live in an era in which the names of those lost to the deeds of bullies who happen to wear uniforms are not lost, are not forgotten, are inspiring change.
But I can not look into that young woman’s smiling, silent eyes at the top of this post and take any heart in telling her that she was silenced for any good reason, for “change,” for any goddamn reason.
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