Posted by: smstrouse | July 18, 2015

Demanding Justice for Sandra Bland

If changing lanes in traffic without signaling is a capital offense, there are a whole lot of peoUnknownple who should shaking in their brake shoes. I don’t know about anywhere else in the country, but here in the Bay area, turn signals seems to be considered optional. It’s a pet peeve, hence one of my favorite bumper stickers is: “Visualize Using Your Turn Signal!”

Having said that, I admit that I’ve been guilty of it myself at times. I even got pulled over once in San Francisco. I’d swerved into the right lane to avoid a car that had suddenly pulled out of a driveway to my left. I was at fault, no argument there. I’d acted on instinct and swerved.

To my chagrin, the cop who stopped me was really angry (OK, I probably almost hit him), but how he handled the situation has stayed with me ever since. In a very condescending manner, he asked me if I knew how to correctly make a lane change. I said I did. He then made me tell him, step by step: signal my intention, look over my shoulder to see if the lane was clear, etc. I complied, feeling humiliated but knowing it wouldn’t do any good to argue with him. Then he gave me a lecture and let me go – no ticket, thankfully – but all the way home I experienced a combination of humiliation and anger. I still think about that incident, especially when I pass that spot, and wonder why he felt that he had to act in such a condescending way. My conclusion: because he could.

My little (almost) run-in with the law is nowhere near what Sandra Bland experienced. For one thing, I’m not Black, and for another, I’m not in Texas. I got away with a lecture; Sandra ended up dead in a Texas jail. Her death leaves us incredulous, asking how in the world this could happen. Why would a cop treat a driver who had made a lane change without signaling with such brutality? Answer: because he could.

It’s come to light that the county sheriff where this happened had been fired from a previous position as chief of police because of documented cases of racism. So I have to wonder about the culture of the law enforcement community under his leadership. But I also know that anyone in a position of authority is susceptible to the temptation to abuse power. Power in itself isn’t a bad thing; we need police forces. The trouble comes when we don’t recognize this temptation to cross over from legitimate authority into abuse and educate law enforcement people to be self-aware enough to know when it’s happening. The trouble increases by leaps and bounds when abuse becomes part of the system.

My run-in with the law was a one-time thing. Sandra Bland’s was part of systemic racism and abuse of power – at both the local level where she was arrested and at the national level where we’ve never done the collective work of atoning for the sin of slavery and our on-going racism. So while I’m glad that the FBI and the state-wide Texas Rangers have been called in to investigate this case, I’m wary.

Maybe it will turn out that Sandra did mouth off at the cop who stopped her. But so what? Did that call for the extreme measures he took? No.

Maybe it will turn out that Sandra did commit suicide. But that’s no reason to write this off. If she did, it was because of the precipitating trauma she experienced.

We must continue to shine the spotlight on the abuse of power to which many in law enforcement have succumbed. We must demand justice for Sandra Bland – and for all the others who have died at the hands of out-of-control power.

Systemic racism and the abuse of power that goers with it is a national disgrace. And not one of us should be silent in confronting and dismantling it.

Texas – and everywhere else – we’re watching you.

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