In the dash-cam video of the arrest of Sandra Bland, Officer Brian Encinia can be heard telling Bland that he’s made the stop because she changed lanes without using her turn signal. Soon after, when asked why she’s so irritated, Bland points out that the stop seems unnecessary and unfair: She changed lanes in an effort to get out of the officer’s way because he’d been tailing her so closely.
We know that Bland was soon tackled by police on the side of the road and found dead in her jail cell three days later. Authorities deemed the cause of death self-inflicted asphyxiation. Bland’s family insists that she was not depressed or suicidal. After sustained public outcry, the FBI, Texas Rangers, and Waller County officials launched an investigation into her death.
On Friday, we learned that Bland had had “at least 10 encounters” with police in Illinois and Texas. The majority of these encounters were the same sort that would eventually precede Bland’s death: traffic stops. According to an NBC Chicago news report, Bland owed more than $7,000 in court fines resulting from five traffic stops and had been cited for failing to pay those fines. The NBC piece falls into the tradition of the “no angel” narrative we’ve seen elsewhere. The faults of other black Americans who have died at the hands of police or vigilantes or while in state custody are well known: Michael Brown smoked weed. Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school. Walter Scott hadn’t paid his child support. The implication is that the person who’s dead had it coming, and that the perpetrator is less culpable because of the victim’s past.
Racial disparities in police stops are well documented. The Washington Post reported last year that, based on Justice Department statistics, “A black driver is about 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than a white driver, or about 23 percent more likely than a Hispanic driver.” You have to be pulled over in the first place for an officer to find out that you’re driving without insurance, under the influence, or in possession of marijuana. (And about the charges for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Bland’s past and her alleged use while in custody, legalization in places such as Colorado and Oregon have made it clearer than ever that using marijuana is just fine as long as you’re not black or brown. Unfortunately, Bland’s use won’t be characterized as quirky and hip the way it increasingly is with other users.)
Last year, when the Justice Department took a close look at how the criminal justice system works in Ferguson, its findings were telling: “A black motorist who is pulled over is twice as likely to be searched as a white motorist, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband, the report found. Minor, largely discretionary offenses such as disturbing the peace and jaywalking were brought almost exclusively against blacks. When whites were charged with these crimes, they were 68 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed.” An earlier report out of Missouri found that Ferguson was cashing in on poverty crimes to keep the city running. Court fines and fees were the city’s second-biggest source of revenue.
Bland’s response upon being stopped, the irritation that the officer picked up on and that some have called arrogance, should be viewed through this lens. If the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was, as The New York Times put it, “simply the spark that ignited years of pent-up tension and animosity in the area,” then Bland’s response upon being stopped came from a similar place of pent-up tension. She didn’t bow and scrape and defer to the increasingly aggressive officer, as some are suggesting she should have. Sometimes a person or a people have just had enough.