The terror that filled me made my heart race and stomach dance. Tears threatened to break free from my widened eyes. My hands shook as I took inventory of my situation. Full stop at stop sign. Check. Hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2? Check. Seatbelt secure? Check. My preschooler strapped tightly into her car seat? Check. There was only one thing out of order.
One of my taillights was out.
I’d mentioned this to my husband a few days prior but, in the hustle and bustle of life, we just hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. That happens, right?
Of course it happens. But in that moment, as the blue lights of the cop car flashed behind me, I was acutely aware that other things happen also.
Sandra Bland happened.
In that moment, a week or so after the Sandra Bland story hit, a couple of days after my 40th birthday, I was terribly clear that a broken taillight, a minor infraction, could turn into something else entirely. I understood that because I was in an area that didn’t get many “like me” driving through it, any questions I might have about being stopped, any perceived tightness in my words or anger in my eyes, could very well lead to my death.
And even as the cop passed me and my breathing returned to its normal rate, I still gripped my steering wheel until my knuckles whitened. The “scare” had me so out of sorts that I pulled over to the side of the road to get myself together. After listening for a few seconds to my daughter, obliviously singing “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack, I pulled back onto the road, as unsure as ever about how I could live free as a Black woman in this country; how I would teach my daughter how to be a Black girl in this country. How would I live in an environment where someone’s perception of me as person of color—who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it—could, perhaps, deceive them into believing that my death in the hands of those in authorities, no matter how sketchy the circumstances, had to be justified? How would I live in a place where my own perceptions of those in authority, those who have taken an oath to protect and serve me and my family would always—always—be tainted by the one too many instances where that authority was abused and that oath was broken?
And probably the saddest question I’ve had to ponder is this: How would I reconcile being part of a Christian community that, way too often, perceives these stories of injustice as overblown, isolated, lacking in “critical” information, and ultimately, not worthy of any action or stand?
It’s not okay for an unarmed person to die in police custody. Angry words, though powerful, though sometimes even subject to consequences, are never a license to kill.
I know, I know. Sandra Bland’s death was ruled a suicide.
Although there are still many unanswered questions about the circumstance of her death——I’m willing to concede the possibility that she killed herself. PTSD is real. Just as real as a subdural hematoma.
I’m also very willing to say that the unnecessary but all too common actions of Officer Brian Encina led to her killing herself. I’m even more willing to say that the possibility of Officer Encina having unfounded perceptions of Sandra Bland—perceptions formed by stereotypes and generalizations—could have deceived him into thinking that it was somehow okay to treat someone violating a minor traffic law, someone not unlike myself with the broken tail light, with such force and aggression as he did when he yanked this woman out of her car and slammed her onto the ground. His actions, and Sandra’s perception that she actually had certain rights as a driver—namely to question the requests of the officer—led to her death as well.
“If she had only cooperated with the cop, she wouldn’t have been arrested.”
I’ve heard this quite a bit. And a part of me knows where this thinking comes from. As humans, we want a reason for horrible things happening. We desire truth and facts and specifics because it helps us place these awful injustices in boxes that we can see, feel, and understand. The same goes for those who say, “there’s not enough information available about what happened.” For some, the evidence of injustice alone is not enough. Even video of the aggressive actions of a cop are not enough. We need a reason. Some White Christians, those who would be potential allies in movements against injustice, often need to be absolutely sure there’s enough reason to stand up for some reason. They need perfect victims. They need to know that there’s nothing nefarious about the victim—marijuana in the system, stealing cigarellos, owing child support—that would make them look bad. Sadly, a woman getting her head smashed into the ground by a police officer for not putting out her cigarette is just not enough information.
There’s some blood at the root of this thing, for sure.
I wonder what would have happened if Jesus needed more information about the woman caught in adultery before standing between her and the stones held by men prepared to put her to death. What if He said, “I can’t defend her yet. All the facts aren’t out.”
Oh to be more like Him.
Plus, I’m not sure that Sandra’s cooperation would have made a difference. It’s possible, sure. But it’s equally possible that the deeply held stereotypes Bland, in biased eyes, fit—that she was just another Black person up to no good; that her questioning of authority was indicative of the typical angry Black woman and needed to be put in check—had taken root in the mind and heart of the officer. The truth is, there have been numerous cases where cooperation—whether it’s having one’s hands up in a posture of surrender or answering questions—has not rendered a different outcome as hers. Sandra, a voice in the online #BlackLivesMatter movement, knew that too.
Let’s dump the respectability argument once and for all.
I think it’s way too easy for those in denial about the deep racial wounds that exist in our country and the threads of white supremacy woven in our justice system and dare I say, in the Church, to believe that cooperation from victims in these cases is somehow more significant than accountability and restraint and the following of procedures from officers who abuse their authority. This is not surprising, I suppose. It was the same narrative played out with Jesus. What happened to Christ in the custody of authorities prior to His crucifixion, some would argue, was also a result of His lack of cooperation. Questioned by the Sanhedrin, brought before King Herod and Pontius Pilate, Jesus chose the authority given to him by God over the authority given to these men. He knew His rights.
I hear you super-saved, church folk out there: How dare you compare this woman to Jesus?
Robin Caldwell, a PR professional and a sorority sister of Bland gave me some insight on this: “[Sandra] was a believer. A lifelong AME. Her family [was filled] with strong women of faith. She was edgy—so am I—but she believed. The bible says ‘render under Caesar what’s Caesar’s and God’s to God.’ In some way, I’d like to think that she was a good steward over her earthly citizenship because she questioned the arrest. She asked questions. She didn’t submit blindly to authority.”
And ultimately, whether from suicide or murder, she died because of that.
As, I believe, Jesus did for all for us.
So maybe, just maybe that’s Sandra’s legacy. And the legacy of women like Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith and many others who have died suspiciously in police custody. Maybe their deaths will make so much noise, create so much change, that their bodies will stand in the place of mine. Or my mother’s. Or my Frozen-loving daughter’s.
God, I hope so.