Nothin New Under the Sun: Truth, Reconciliation, and State Sanctioned Killings

Today is the born day of Ida B. Wells.  There’s even a google doodle in her honor.  This amazing woman fought tirelessly against racial and gender oppression.  She is the grandmother of intersectionality.  Born into slavery in Mississippi, she advocated around issues ranging from lynchings to women’s suffrage.  Ida B. Wells is one of my personal heroes.  She never backed down and always spoke her mind.   As I think about the legacy of our ancestors, and their tireless battle against state sanctioned killings of Black people I think of Sandra Bland.  By now many are aware that Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, Texas.  She was allegedly arrested after a “routine” traffic stop.  While the “investigation” is underway there are many questions that must be answered.

My mom used to say there ain’t nothing new under the sun.  Sadly, in the case of people of color dying in police custody that is true. Reading about the death of Sandy Bland, like many others I am appalled.  How does one go from an alleged “traffic stop” to lying dead in a jail cell three days later? The suicide while in custody line has been used over and over again, in this country and abroad.  Most notably the Apartheid era police would give some lame excuse for people dying in custody such as suicide or “hunger strikes.”  From the little information we have so far, the circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s death do not add up. How does a young woman, ecstatic about starting a new job at her college alma mater, end up taking her own life? And what roll, if any, did the use of force during her arrest play in her untimely death.  From the video, Sandra is questioning the use of force during her arrest.  Did she receive medical treatment for any possible injuries? Was there head trauma from having her head slammed on the ground? Do we really believe that just before being release she decided to hang herself with a plastic bag?

Police disproportionately treat people of color with a brutality and disdain generally displayed by those who abuse animals. In fact if they were abusing animals, there would be harsh penalties. Now some people may say well these people must be doing something wrong, or they shouldn’t have talked back.  Here’s the thing. Police do not have the right (constitutional or otherwise) to use any force they see fit just because they are police.  That’s not the standard. We admonish people for mistreating animals but it is ok for police officers to maim, beat, and kill people of color with no evaluation of appropriateness of anger, intimidation, and force.

As a person of color, interactions with police often are anything but “routine.”  Not to say that other people do not also have issues in encounters with police (if you are aware of them you should speak up), but Black and Latino people disproportionately have interactions that result in severe bodily injury or death.  Black and Brown lives are not valued and we are systematically treated as if we are not worthy of basic considerations afforded to our white counterparts.  How many videos must we watch of white arrestees mouthing off, being belligerent, or even using force against officers who are detained without severe bodily harm or death? In many encounters police do whatever they want without concern for the life and liberty of people of color taken into custody.

Americans have a disconnect in the way they view the treatment of people of color today, and historical accounts of brutality during the American Jim Crow era and Apartheid South Africa.  We cannot continue to rest on the accomplishments of the ancestors decades before us.  There are still persisting issues and disparities in the treatment of people of color at various points in the criminal justice system.  Sandra Bland is another name for us hold up as we continue to demand system wide change.  We need local, state, and national accountability.  Local District Attorneys and police departments are too eager to discount violence against Black and Latino people as routine police activity against those who “deserved” what they got.  They are also too close to the police involved to have an objective view point.  Force is not always necessary, and the use of force in arrests and seemingly benign encounters needs to looked at more closely.

We cannot keep standing by while new names are added to the list of those taken by excessive and egregious police action.  Ida B. Wells said “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”  The present is always the time for addressing injustice. As state and local governments prove themselves to be unable to properly investigate these killings, the DOJ needs to ramp up its presence. We need more than just sound bites and politicians showing up for memorials or speaking at funerals. We demand real, sustainable change.

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