I wasn't planning on writing this article. As a white British woman (who many would therefore refer to as "privileged") I didn't feel it was necessarily my place to add my voice to the many black intellectuals, public figures, and ordinary people protesting loudly these past weeks about what has happened to Sandra Bland. I did however, feel compelled to share my growing sense of outrage and anger at Sandra's treatment on my friend's facebook page, my black friend's Facebook page, who was readily posting updates and comments as the case unfolded. I shared with her some of my thoughts, my rage, and my own personal story. She encouraged me to share it more widely, feeling that the more voices (black, white, yellow, purple or green voices... after all... do sounds and voices even really have a colour?) speaking as loudly as they can the better.
So... in light of the horrific outcome of Sandra Bland's arrest and subsequent death (and by the way... even if she did commit suicide I still believe the police to be responsible, for harassing, violently manhandling, locking up and needlessly arresting her, and possibly jeopardising her new job - all for a traffic violation!)... I want to share a story with you.
When I was 17 years old, I was walking along one afternoon in Ealing with my then boyfriend D. He was telling me a story, in which he at one point did an impression of someone and said something along the lines of "and he was like "f*ck off mate"". A stranger walking close behind us told D. approached us and quite aggressively that he shouldn't be using a swear word in public (Note: it was clear in D's tone that his use of a swear word wasn't in any way aggressive, and neither of us had been drinking). D. promptly told him to "mind your own f*cking business", at which point the stranger revealed he was a plain clothes policemen and started to get seriously heavy with D., and told him he was arresting him. Now things started to get heated as obviously we were both outraged that a policeman could eavesdrop on a not very loud private conversation between a couple, and apparently be so desperate to show off his authority that he deemed telling young people off for using a swear word a good use of police time.
D. and I were arguing with him vocally, telling him we have every right to say what we like and that he should leave us alone. I was very upset and started crying. The police officer refused to answer our simple questions about why he was arresting D. and D. was violently bundled to the ground, his faced pushed into the concrete and he was handcuffed (note: at no point had D. or I been violent towards the police officer). The police man called for back up (back up!?) and suddenly there were about three or four police cars and vans present. It looked like a full on police crime scene. D. was loaded quite violently and still handcuffed into the back of a van. Our friend B. who had been nearby with some other friends came over to see if he could help and to help me protest at the violent treatment of D. and he was also roughly handcuffed onto the ground and loaded into a van.
Luckily, they were both released that night with no charges but the event certainly left its mark on many of us. The idea that you, a human being, breaking no laws that you know of, can suddenly be accosted by the police, and that they expect you to simply roll over and comply with their every whim otherwise violence will be inflicted upon you and you will be arrested, was very shocking to me. I couldn't understand why should one person be forced to follow unreasonable orders of another person wearing a badge/ uniform, unless of course they are being arrested for a crime, or unless the police requests are clearly explained and for some rational reason.
Please don't get me wrong... I am not daring to suggest that my own mild experience could ever compare to the horrors of what Sandra, and countless others have been through. Nor is my story intended to imply that I, in any way or form, could ever understand the struggles of Black America or other ethnic minorities. But I do believe alongside the very serious race issue there is also the issue of police accountability and brutality.
When I watch the video of Sandra Bland, her arguing with the cop about why she should be made to step out of her car, or to put out her cigarette, simply because he decides to (aggressively) order her to, seems completely reasonable. Especially when you consider she was pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes in order to get out of the way for his police car (as she clearly states). Legally he may be entitled to "lawfully order" her to step out of the car, but surely a clear explanation/reason should be given? Instead he threatens to "light her up" with his taser and physically grabs at her. She is prevented from calling her lawyer. She is prevented from recorded the incident on her phone. She asks him a total 14 times why she is being arrested. He refuses to answer her... until she begins to protest this "arrest" (which she clearly can't understand the reasons for) at which point he then states he is arresting her for "resisting arrest". This makes NO sense to me at all. As Jesse Williams tweeted: "You can't arrest someone for resisting arrest. That's bullshit. Clearly state the charge & when resisted, that's an additional charge".
I'm not attempting to tar everyone with a single brush. I am grateful for the protection that the majority of decent and hard working police afford society. I understand that there are a lot of police out there who behave professionally, and who risk their lives, often facing very difficult and dangerous situations. But a single female, refusing to simply rollover and obey your petty commands (such as putting out your cigarette) is not threatening. It's simply an ego-check. And I worry that like too many insecure bullies are being put in positions of power, where they get to demand reverence from anyone, at any time, without feeling like they have to explain themselves. What next? If a police person walks up to you and "lawfully orders" you to lie down and lick his boot do you have to? If you refuse and demand to know why, are you then "resisting arrest"?
Anyone who says (and there are many) that Sandra Bland, or any other black American (or in fact any citizen anywhere) should know better and just do as they're told when a cop tells them to no matter what is once again victim-blaming. It's effectively equivalent to suggesting no women wear short skirts as it's just too tempting for all those rapists out there. And not everyone will have been raised show automatic trust and reverence for authority. In the case of Sandra Bland her hesitance to get out of her car when ordered to do so was (in her words) for fear of being abused and stunned by his taser. Do you really blame her? A black activist fully aware of so many high profile stories about controversial treatment of other black Americans by the police in recent months and years?
You (and maybe I) may opt for the safe option - to politely carry out any instructions given to us by an officer without question - but those who don't (for reasons of fear or anger or anything else for that matter) don't deserve to be punished with violence and arrest. People have bad days, mental health issues, chips on their shoulders. None of these things warrant abuse. Or would you prefer we lock up everyone in the world with an "attitude problem"? The onus is on the police officers to be level headed and reasonable with the public, not vice versa. They are the professionals, paid by us, they are there to serve and protect us.
Proper training, awareness of racial biases and acknowledgement of the issues is now more essential than ever. Of course the police need some powers, some authority, but it needs to be exercised appropriately and proportionally. And we as citizens should be able to question police actions and to know why we are being asked to do what we are being asked to do without fear of harm. It's called human rights. And all of us deserve to be afforded that.