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Sandra Bland and Toeing the Thin Blue Line

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Texas law enforcement officials may or may not have murdered Sandra Bland in her jail cell earlier this month, three days after her arrest during a routine traffic stop. At a Monday press conference, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis – who is charged with investigating Ms. Bland’s death – implicitly blamed the victim: “Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped.”

We’ve heard this before, especially in response to police killings of African Americans. Michael Brown, killed by Ferguson police, was “no angel.” Freddie Gray, killed in Baltimore, was “no saint.” Former altar boy Patrick Dorismond, killed by the NYPD, was “no altar boy.” Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and countless others have been similarly described, as though this is a mitigating – or worse, justifying – factor.

This “no angel” discourse is more than a weak, offensive excuse for police misconduct; it is more than an attempt to change the story. It’s also a threat. To the rest of us – particularly if you’re black – it says: Fall in line, or you’ll have only yourself to blame if you get shot.

If you haven’t watched the newly released video of Bland’s arrest, it tells a very tidy story, picking up with the tail end of Officer Brian Encinia’s previous stop. This is the “save the cat” moment, showing Encinia as a friendly, chatty officer, happy to hand out warnings instead of tickets. Encinia then pulls Bland over, ostensibly for failure to signal when changing lanes. He senses Bland’s irritation and asks about her state of mind; she seems to take his inquiry at face value, acknowledging that yes, she’s irritated at being pulled over, as anyone would be. Encinia’s own mood then seems to turn on a dime, and Officer Friendly is gone.

“Are you done?” he asks sarcastically, when she finishes responding to his question. Bland: “You asked me what’s wrong and I told you.” Things escalate quickly — after Bland declines to put out her cigarette, Encinia orders her out of the car, pulls a Taser, shouts “I will light you up!” and reaches into the car to drag her out. When she emerges, Encinia orders her to a location that is out of frame of the dashboard camera, and a scuffle is heard, with Bland shouting, “You’re breaking my wrist!”

(NOTE: The 49-minute video was re-uploaded Wednesday after being pulled down for several hours by Texas officials following criticism that it may have been edited. Officials deny the charge, although they acknowledge some “technical problems.”)

Was Bland, as D.A. Mathis has it, “combative”? Was she “not a model person”? As an empirical matter, this is a hard claim to support: She never escalates the situation. She shows the officer enough respect that she takes his question (“Are you okay?”) seriously and answers it honestly. She knows the law and is willing to assert her rights: When Encinia opens her car door and tries to physically pull her out, she grows more agitated but remains coherent, noting, “I’m not under arrest. You don’t have the right to take me out of my car.” Encinia, seemingly realizing his own error, quickly states (for the first time) “You are under arrest.” He does not say why.

What Mathis (who has his own history with the intersection of belligerence and race) appears to be accusing Bland of is insufficient deference, otherwise known as “contempt of cop.” If you smile at the police officer, swallow your pride and frustration, pretend you’re being handed an ice cream cone instead of a ticket, then you’re doing your duty as a citizen and you’ll be fine. If you acknowledge that getting a ticket sucks, or if you assert your rights (read: if you’re uppity), well, sorry, you have only yourself to blame, sister. Try to be more blindly deferential next time.

Sandra Bland was in fact a model person and citizen. She was a Black Lives Matter activist focused on improving her community. She knew the law and asserted her rights. Without her, Waller County, Texas, and the U.S. are a little worse off. We need more Sandra Blands, people who understand that blind deference to authority not only conflicts with our Constitutional rights, but enables and encourages greater and greater abuses among those who hold power.

My fantasy is to live in a world where cops don’t act in a way that makes me flip them off. I’d settle for a world where asserting one’s rights doesn’t justify one’s arrest – or death.

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