Since I have publicly expressed my feeling about the Sandra Bland tragedy, I have had a few people reach out to me to explain the possible perspective of the officer. They contend that the officer was trying to be nice to Sandra but she was being rude so, understandably, he was irritated. This ‘understandable’ irritation was the source of the events that followed.
I respect the honesty of my friends. It is difficult to express those thoughts to a black person if you are well-intentioned. I figured this blog post might be useful for people who have been harboring the same thoughts but have been unable to engage in meaningful conversation about it.
Here are four reasons why police force is not fair response for black people being “rude”:
- As representatives of the state, police officers are given both power and responsibility. Officers are given the power to stop, fine and detain people if specific legal conditions are met. It is important that we stick to these conditions because that power to stop, fine and detain is so great we can’t afford to have individuals exercising it based on their fleeting emotions.
So much of US law is written with the expressed purpose of holding representatives of state accountable to using their power responsibly. Exempting officers from these laws and this norm will prove to be an egregious mistake that affects people of all races.
2. Violence is supposed to be an absolute last resort. This is true for both civilians and officers. We are not legally or morally allowed to be violent toward someone unless they pose an immediate threat to our physical well-being. Threatening to cause someone bodily harm and throwing them to the ground are clear examples of violence.
Here, the case of Sandra Bland is particularly disturbing because a man is forcefully removing a woman from her car, threatening to “light her up”, and then pressing her head into the ground. The police are given authorities that civilians do not have but this does not include the right of a man to abuse a woman. If that cop were Sandra Bland’s boyfriend, what transpired would clearly be seen as domestic abuse. When women give attitude, men walk away if they feel their tempers flaring — they are not allowed to touch a woman in a moment of anger.
3. America is a pluralistic society and “rude” is terribly culturally subjective. There are laws that, we can fairly argue, ought to transcend culture because of their clearly destructive social and individual outcomes — do not steal, do not murder, do not rape etc. The command to “just behave” though is a difficult one to defend because “behaving well” means so many different things in so many different contexts. In some countries, my walking on the street without male supervision is considered misbehavior.
I point this out because I do believe that my Midwestern white friends may hear Sandra Bland’s tone as much more confrontational than I hear it (and it’s not just because I have a vested interest). When I hear it, I hear a slightly irritated black woman who is still respectfully expressing her grievances. This direct language may be off-putting to you if you are used to polite and passive aggressive but if you have had extensive interaction with members of black communities, you know that we are more direct and expressive in our use of language. Being more direct doesn’t mean that you are violent.
4. The command to be nice and polite to the police is an easy one to follow if the police have always been nice and polite to you (and your grandfathers and your great grandfathers etc.). The task of being polite is more difficult if in both historical and contemporary contexts, the police have met members of your community with hostility. It’s hard to be polite when you are afraid and discouraged.
We can all agree that no member of the American society should be allowed to harm an officer. However, demanding that we all like every cop shows a level of social and historical ignorance that is counter-productive and void of compassion.