“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
– Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography
“For it is evident that those who regard the whole earth as their future territory will stress the organ of domestic violence and will rule conquered territory with police methods and personnel rather than with the army.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose
the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution,but more usually
we must do battle where we are standing.”
― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
This week a newly surfaced cellphone video of the arrest of Sandra Bland in July of 2015 was released to the public. Sandra took the video herself and it captures a far too familiar horror millions of people, especially the poor and people of color, endure every day in the US at the hands of the police. Stopped for failing to signal on her way to the grocery store, then brutally arrested, she was found dead only three days later in her jail cell, the apparent victim of suicide. But regardless of whether she physically hanged herself or not, her life was indeed taken by an entrenched system of white supremacy.
Sandra Bland undoubtedly understood what she was up against. She understood well the system that oppressed her. And perhaps she had understandably had enough. She asked questions about her detainment and, like anyone treated unjustly, she felt exasperated. When she was asked by the officer what was wrong she calmly explained this to no avail. When she asserted her right to smoke inside her own vehicle, and defy an unwarranted demand, she was yelled at, threatened with a taser that can be, and often is, lethal, violently thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. Her pleas for mercy and compassion were summarily ignored and ridiculed as she lay helpless on the warm, Texas grass.
Sandra Bland’s treatment is emblematic of the cruelty inherent to American society itself. A kind of sadism that permeates daily life especially in the disenfranchised precincts on the margins. There is an historical white puritanical impulse which should not be understated here either. It explains the frenzy of the lynch mobs of the past as well as the apologism for police brutality largely from the white middle class today. I saw this in the days following Sandra’s arrest and death. I see it time and time again following any incident of police malfeasance or violence. But I see it most especially when it involves the poor or people of color.
White, middle and upper class Americans, by and large, are conditioned to love and venerate their police state. It a myriad of ways it defines their national identity almost as much as the military. The police are seen as protectors of society, the supposed “thin blue line” against marauding thugs. So dissenting from this entrenched narrative is often painted as unpatriotic and even dangerously subversive. And defying often has deadly consequences. There is a mythology that reinforces all of this and it is reflected in popular culture. Hollywood perpetuates the notion that the police, prosecutors, the FBI, CIA, and other various “special agents” are simply upstanding people only interested in protecting the vulnerable and getting the “bad guy.” Corruption and abuse are almost always treated as anomalies. In this fantasy world there is no racism or class disparity that leads to crime, disenfranchisement or despair. Poverty is a footnote, if present at all. Programs and movies create a mystique around these institutions painting them with a brush of nobility, with little to no historical context whatsoever. An endless series of passion plays crudely divorced from reality.
Indeed, the bellicosity of the American Empire abroad is reflected in its domestic police forces. And they have been emboldened even more in recent years. A spate of State and Federal Supreme Court cases in the last decade have seen the courts come down almost unequivocally on the side of the police. In most states the police do not have any obligation to protect a citizen from harm. At the federal level, the Supreme Court has enshrined the right of police departments to conduct strip searches for any arrest. Statistically, there has been a sharp increase in the use of SWAT teams to address what most would consider to be non-violent drug offenses. And scores of police departments around the country have attained military hardware and tanks to carry out what appears to be a domestic war against the poor.
There is an endless list of cases like Sandra Bland and worse. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy gunned down in a park in mere seconds for playing with a toy gun. Mike Brown, shot and left out on the hot Missouri pavement for hours to die. Eric Garner, choked to death for allegedly selling cigarettes. Freddie Grey, Natasha McKenna, and Philando Castile, all are just a few names that gained national and international attention. But this racist societal framework affects poor white people as well.
Daniel Shaver was gunned down in cold blood in a hotel hallway after pleading tearfully for his life. Devon Guilford was shot to death by a state trooper for flashing his headlights in an attempt to signal the oncoming car that its bright headlights were on. Teenager Graham Dyer was killed by sadistic officers who tasered his testicles until he lost consciousness when he was handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. And then there was Kelly Thomas, a 37 year old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia and was brutally beaten to death by three police officers in Fullerton, California in 2011. Despite his repeated cries begging for mercy, calling out to God to save him and for his father, and apologizing to the officers over and over, they continued to beat and mock him until he was completely unrecognizable and unconscious. This can clearly be seen in video and audio surveillance as well as through numerous testimonies of eye witnesses. Despite all of this, Thomas’s killers were acquitted.
In addition to the long list of ordinary people targeted there are a myriad of ways the American police state operates. Guantanamo prisoners and scores of foreign citizens who are locked up in one of several of America’s foreign gulags count among America’s disappeared. Asylum seekers and migrant families are being separated from one another and placed in concentration camps indefinitely by the thousands.
And there are many political prisoners as well. Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and Chelsea Manning are just three who have gained international attention. Indeed, the US is a nation that cannot handle dissent, particularly when that dissent reveals the crimes of empire and its endless wars, identifies its real maladies in economic injustice or systemic racism, or comes from the oppressed castes of society. Others who dissented in this way were also murdered for it, from Fred Hampton, to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. It must be said then that Sandra Bland was also a Black Lives Matter activist, so her death should not be passed by simply as suicide without looking at this long and sordid history of brutal silencing, disappearing and suppression.
In truth, suicide is often the final respite of the tortured. Sometimes it is a slow death from drugs or alcohol, other times it is quick. But it is always a tragic punctuation to a lifelong litany of cruelty, dehumanization and humiliation. And for the oppressed and persecuted it often feels like the only escape. Sandra Bland was arrested for “driving while black,”but she was also brutalized because she dared to defy her dehumanization. She may have taken her life in that Texas jail cell. We may never know. But her life was most certainly cut short by an entrenched racist and oppressive system that affects people of color as well as poor whites, immigrants, Muslims, the mentally ill, LGBT, the homeless and anyone who defies their enslavement, dissents from the dominant power structure, or simply exists. And so it should be understood that under such tyranny we are all Sandra Bland.