Sandra Bland was a rebel in the classic sense, as Albert Camus defined it: “What is a rebel? A woman who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. She is also a woman who says yes, from the moment she makes her first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all her life suddenly decides that she cannot obey some new command. What does she mean by saying “no”?
“She means, for example, that ‘this has been going on for too long,’ or ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no,’ ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ In other words, her no affirms the existence of a borderline.”
Sandra Bland had reached her borderline before her life was snuffed in Waller County by racist, vicious agents of the state. Suicide (unlikely) or murder, she was Camus’ quintessential rebel, who had decided enough was enough, who felt “that the other person (in this case Brian Encinia and the state he represents) ‘is exaggerating,’ that he is exerting his authority beyond a limit where he begins to infringe on the rights of others.” Encinia’s order for Sandra Bland to put out her cigarette was an example of the arbitrary, brute stupidity of the state, a stupidity replicated a million times daily in our totalitarian, hyper-violent global culture, where what matters is the diktat, not logic or law, much less simple decency. Encinia’s command, couched in the velvety, menacing tone of “official” request, “You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?” was as clear an example of the lawlessness of the state as one could witness. Encinia’s “request” had the same legal standing, and the same threat, as if he had “asked” Sandra Bland to pull out her own teeth. It was a command to forfeit her humanity. Sandra Bland, the rebel, refused. The state demonstrated the consequences of such refusal.
The state is the self-perpetuating social compact we have entered into for “protection” against a murky enemy that would destroy our cherished security and “values.” Minorities, notably African and Native Americans, especially those who “look” the wrong way, in appearance or the direction of a glance, are seen, even in this putative post-racial era, as vaguely connected to this enemy, hence more likely to be targets of the state. Brian Encinia’s puerile and sadistic actions were the perfect embodiment of the blunt and arbitrary machinery of the state. Normally the state is “invisible,” but in the same way Sandra Bland saw Encinia’s patrol car approaching rapidly behind her, it can appear suddenly and menacingly in our rear-view mirrors. The terror implicit in such an unexpected approach can elicit a spontaneous and erratic response, which, even if venial, can lead to horrendous consequences, as in the case of Sandra Bland failing to signal a lane change.
The state, a super-construct of collective self-coercion, demands obeisance, in ritual and randomized form. Ritualistic obeisance is standing for the national anthem. Random obeisance is submitting meekly to agents of the state. Ritualistic obeisance is more powerful because its enforcement, or reinforcement, is internal, with external threat as last resort. Failing to stand for the national anthem before a football game can get you badly hurt. Random obeisance can backfire on agents of the state, but only if an individual is not isolated. If there are people together manifesting sufficient psychic and physical power, agents of the state often back down, at least until reinforcements arrive.
Sandra Bland responded rationally to the specter of a police car speeding up behind her, changing lanes to allow the car to pass. She was being a good citizen, at the same time knowing the terror implicit in a possible interaction between her and the police, a terror the state has imbued in all of us, especially minorities. Brian Encinia, an agent of the state, demanded obeisance. Sandra Bland, unhappily isolated, did not cross the borderline of rebellion until the moment of the order to put out her cigarette. “Up to this point yes, beyond it, no.”
From such things comes revolution. The question now to be asked is how close to the borderline are we? Focus, understandably, has been on the state’s war against African Americans, but the state war against all of us continues to accelerate. The list of social and environmental outrages is lengthy and unceasing. We live in a world where a minority is master and the rest are slaves. We are a colonized people. Everywhere the master class threatens, demanding obeisance. Isolated, Sandra Bland rebelled, and the state killed her. If we rebel together, the state, which is in fact our own construct, a chimera, will fold.
All praise to Sandra Bland. It is to her we owe our obeisance, not the state.