I have been riveted by the case of Sandra Bland. She was followed by police because she was a young black woman driving a car with out-of-state plates in Texas. She was pulled over as she changed lanes without signaling to allow a trooper to pass. Her traffic stop escalated when the trooper discovered Sandra knew her rights in a police encounter. She was booked into jail on a $5,000 bond for assaulting a police officer on a Friday night. By Monday morning, she was found dead, hanged in her cell.
I’ve been reporting on too many instances of police abuse of citizens to believe their version of events. Why did Sandra Bland have access to an industrial sized garbage can and its liner in her cell to allegedly hang herself with? I’ve been to jail; they take from you any shoelaces or belts, and there is nothing in a cell that isn’t bolted down. Besides, what sort of garbage are you going to produce in a jail cell that requires a 50-gallon trash bag?
If you believe the police, the agility and creativity of black people when it comes to killing themselves in police custody is remarkable. Just last year, I reported on Victor White’s death in Louisiana. He was handcuffed behind his back, in the back of a cop’s car, when he somehow pulled out a handgun that police never found when patting him down for the arrest and shot himself in the chest from the front. The year before, it was Jesus Huerta in North Carolina, killing himself in much the same way. The year before that, it was Chavis Carter in Arkansas, shooting himself in the head with an undiscovered gun while handcuffed. Six years prior, it was Oliver Neal III in Philadelphia.
I guess this fear is so palpable for black people that they feel they must fight cops for their guns. That’s what cops say Michael Brown did and what Walter Scott did. Cops are so afraid of losing their weapons to black people they resort to choking them until they suffocate like Eric Garner or slam them around in the police van until their spine breaks like Freddie Gray.
The other pattern I’ve noticed is that when black people die in police custody, marijuana always seems to be involved. Oliver Neal III was arrested when cops “found drugs in his pocket,” but somehow missed the gun he was carrying. Chavis Carter’s urine test “returned a positive result for marijuana.” Jesus Huerta had a juvenile record for “misdemeanor possession of cannabis.” Victor White had “marijuana in his pocket,” but again, cops never found his gun. Michael Brown was so allegedly high on pot he was “a demon.” Eric Garner was out on bail for marijuana possession. Freddie Gray was a seller of marijuana. (Apparently police were unable to find any connection between Walter Scott and marijuana.)
Discovering someone with marijuana on their person or in their system is not a reliable indicator of their criminal nature or suicidal state. According to the latest Gallup poll, 1 in 9 Americans over the age of 18 are current marijuana smokers. In Sandra Bland’s age group, the number is close to 1 in 5.
Bringing up the deceased’s positive toxicology test for or previous conviction for marijuana is a classic media move by the police to discredit the victims of their abuse, and it’s happening now with Sandra Bland. “Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail,” according to Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis. Somehow, she was booked, frisked and searched, but cops never found this large quantity of marijuana on her person? Maybe she had formed it in the shape of a gun.
Some will blame the victim. Why didn’t she just put her cigarette out when the cop asked her to? Why didn’t she just get out of the car when told? Why wasn’t she just meek and subservient, let the officer violate her rights and work it out in court later? Sometimes these victim-blamers are the same sort of people who vigorously defend their Second Amendment rights in case they need weapons to fight back against a tyrannical government but cannot recognize that tyranny when it’s exercised against black citizens.
Maybe Sandra Bland didn’t want to exit her car because she was aware of the two separate incidents in Texas in 2013 where troopers finger-searched the anuses and vaginas of women for marijuana and drugs, finding none, and not changing latex gloves between the searches. But Texas made that illegal without a warrant (Fourth Amendment notwithstanding) in 2015 and, of course, no Texas cops would violate the law. (At least she wasn’t in neighboring New Mexico, where you get digital penetration, enemas, x-rays and colonoscopies if cops suspect you’re hiding drugs in your person.)
I call it like I see it, and lately I’ve seen black person after black person abused and killed by police over traffic stops and marijuana possession. I saw Dylann Roof murder nine black folks in a church, then had cops get him some Burger King food; Jared Loughner gunned down six, shot a member of Congress in the head and got arrested, unharmed; James Holmes killed 12 in a theater and got arrested, unharmed; One L. Goh shot seven students in Oakland and got arrested, unharmed, at the supermarket; Scott Dekraai murdered eight people in cold blood and got arrested, unharmed.
Hell, if you’re a white woman like Amy Bishop, you can shoot your brother with a shotgun in 1986, be investigated for a mail bomb plot in 1994, punch a woman at an IHOP in 2002 and shoot three colleagues dead in 2010, and you’ll be arrested, unharmed.
#BlackLivesMatter is the hashtag social media campaign that has become necessary because the war on drugs has decimated the black community, concentrated crime in their neighborhoods and set police up in an “us against them” gangster mentality. Ending the War on Drugs won’t immediately heal America’s original sin, but it is the first necessary step in halting the infection.