My reaction while watching the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest caught me by surprise. I wept. Ugly wept. I suppose I’ve been thinking about weeping like that since first hearing about her story and seeing hashtags like #IfIDieInPoliceCustody scroll by on my screen.
You should watch it. You can do so here.
I started weeping when Sandra Bland made the choice (which wasn’t a choice) to leave her car. I recognized her voice and words and body language as someone who was scared for her life but trying to maintain her dignity in the face of a police officer who was trying to maintain his pride after being challenged. You can hear it in Sandra Bland’s repeated “for a fucking traffic ticket.” And you can hear it in the police officer’s “This right here says a warning. *YOU* started creating the problems.” Hopelessness versus Defensiveness. Helplessness versus Power.
When I worked as a Dean of Security, I was called a lot of things that attacked my gender, race, (what students thought was) my religion, and my body type. I had a lot of irritated teenagers (and teachers) talk to me with a lack of respect. I was threatened, glared at, stomped at, and there were a lot of eyes rolled and teeth sucked in my direction. Over five years as a Dean of Security in a Brooklyn high school, I lost my temper once with a student. But I didn’t put my hands on her.
Watching the full video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I recognized the escalation. I can identify several times where the police officer goaded Sandra Bland into reacting. I can hear the fear in Sandra Bland’s voice come out as anger and rebellion. I can hear the despair in her voice. And the fear. So much fear.
As teachers we had to take the high road despite being taunted and dared because we were professionals. And human. It helped to have empathy for our students. It helped to know something about their lives and their dreams. But it wasn’t easy. And not all of the teachers or fellow Deans of Security were successful at finding that high road. It doesn’t feel good to be challenged or to have your plan for an organized and calm day to be disrupted by someone else’s behavior. We all have our lives and stresses and bad days and illnesses and crappy spouses and children and neighbors. But that’s living in a world with other people. That’s life.
Police officers have even more of a calling to take the high road. For one thing, they are armed. For another, they — quite literally — have the law on their side. The medical community’s mantra of “Do No Harm” must apply to officers of the law ten-fold. When it doesn’t, the personal biases and prejudices and hatreds and resentments cost lives and harm us all. This is not an issue that happens to someone else. If it happens to one, it is happening to us all. (And let’s not pretend this is only in Texas.)
We need to get past the point where Pushing the Envelope is demanding that people are treated as human beings. And that’s going to take those of us with privilege to stand up and risk some discomfort and strife. It’s going to take some in the police force and emergency services to stand up and speak out. If we say we believe everyone should be treated as a human being, there can be no tiered belief system. And we all have to swallow some pride and drop the defensiveness if we hope to move forward.