On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies

Samdra Bland 2

 

I AM tired of writing about slain black people, particularly when those responsible are police officers, the very people obligated to serve and protect them. I am exhausted. I experience this specific exhaustion with alarming frequency. I am all too aware that I have the luxury of such exhaustion.

One of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools of justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent future injustices.

Sandra Bland, 28 years old, was pulled over earlier this month in Waller County, Tex., by a state trooper, Brian T. Encinia. She was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. She shouldn’t have been pulled over but she was driving while black, and the reality is that black women and men are pulled over every day for this infraction brought about by the color of their skin.

We know a lot about Ms. Bland now. She was in the prime of her life, about to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University. She had posted on Facebook earlier this year that she was experiencing depression. She was passionate about civil rights and advocacy. According to an autopsy report, she committed suicide in her jail cell after three days. What I find particularly painful is that her bail was $5,000. Certainly, that is a lot of money, but if the public had known, we could have helped her family raise the funds to get her out.

As a black woman, I feel this tragedy through the marrow of my bones. We all should, regardless of the identities we inhabit.

Recently, my brother and I were talking on the phone as he drove to work. He is the chief executive of a publicly traded company. He was dressed for work, driving a BMW. He was using a hands-free system. These particulars shouldn’t matter but they do in a world where we have to constantly mourn the loss of black lives and memorialize them with hashtags. In this same world, we remind politicians and those who believe otherwise that black lives matter while suffocated by evidence to the contrary.

During the course of our conversation, he was pulled over by an officer who said he looked like an escapee from Pelican Bay State Prison in California. It was a strange story for any number of reasons. My brother told me he would call me right back. In the minutes I waited, my chest tightened. I worried. I stared at my phone. When he called back, no more than seven or eight minutes had passed. He joked: “I thought it was my time. I thought ‘this is it.’ ” He went on with his day because this is a quotidian experience for black people who dare to drive.

Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone in the handless dock. I check and double check and triple check these details because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I am following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a lack of humanity. There is nothing I can do to protect myself, but I am comforted by the illusion of safety.

As a larger, very tall woman, I am sometimes mistaken for a man. I don’t want to be “accidentally” killed for being a black man. I hate that such a thought even crosses my mind. This is the reality of living in this black body. This is my reality of black womanhood, living in a world where I am stripped of my femininity and humanity because of my unruly black body.

There is a code of conduct in emergency situations — women and children first. The most vulnerable among us should be rescued before all others. In reality, this code of conduct is white women and children first. Black women, black children, they are not afforded the luxury of vulnerability. We have been shown this time and again. We remember McKinney, Tex., and a police officer, David Casebolt, holding a young black girl to the ground. We say the names of the fallen. Tamir Rice. Renisha McBride. Natasha McKenna. Tanisha Anderson. Rekia Boyd. We say their names until our throats run dry and there are still more names to add to the list.

During the ill-fated traffic stop, most of which was caught on camera, Mr. Encinia asked Ms. Bland why she was irritated and she told him. She answered the question she was asked. Her voice was steady, confident. Mr. Encinia didn’t like her tone, as if she should be joyful about a traffic stop. He told Ms. Bland to put her cigarette out and she refused. The situation escalated. Mr. Encinia threatened to light her up with his Taser. Ms. Bland was forced to leave her car. She continued to protest. She was placed in handcuffs. She was treated horribly. She was treated as less than human. She protested her treatment. She knew and stated her rights but it did not matter. Her black life and her black body did not matter.

Because Sandra Bland was driving while black, because she was not subservient in the manner this trooper preferred, a routine traffic stop became a death sentence. Even if Ms. Bland did commit suicide, there is an entire system of injustice whose fingerprints left bruises on her throat.

In his impassioned new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” I would take this bold claim a step further. It is also traditional to try and destroy the black spirit. I don’t want to believe our spirits can be broken. Nonetheless, increasingly, as a black woman in America, I do not feel alive. I feel like I am not yet dead.

Reprint: On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies -By Roxane Gay | NYT OpEd (Published July 24, 2015)


Roxane Gay is the author of “An Untamed State” and “Bad Feminist” and a contributing opinion writer.

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