By Julianne Malveaux
Had I ever met Sandra Bland, I am sure I would have liked her. She is described as an advocate for justice who had embraced her purpose to fight racism. She is described as a sister who knew her rights. She was well-educated, assertive, and a resource for her people. She was dragged out of her car for failing to signal a traffic lane change because Texas Highway Patrol Trooper Brian Encinia chose to abuse his power and violate her rights. Because he could.
Three days later, Sandra Bland was dead. The police call her death a suicide. Her family is disputing the autopsy. Brian Encinia is responsible for what happened, since there was no reason to arrest Sandra Bland and put her in jail.
Sandra Bland was an “uppity” Black woman from suburban Chicago who I not kowtow to Trooper Encinia. Perhaps he preferred a woman who said “yes, sir,” who humbly accepted her ticket. Certainly, while it was not against the law to take a smoke, he preferred that Sandra put her cigarette out. Why? Because he needed to order a woman around who asserted her rights. Because she knew what her rights were.
Sandra Bland, the Prairie View A&M University graduate, was stopped in Waller County, Texas for failing to signal at a lane change. She was ordered to put out her cigarette, and she refused. She was told to get out of her car, and she had the nerve to assert her rights and to ask why.
Trooper Encinia was clearly exceedingly and outrageously out of order. His voice escalated to unnecessary shouting when he yelled, “I will light you up. Get out. Now. Get out of the car.” He grabbed her, threw her on the ground, and shoved his knee in her back so sharply that evidence of bruising was visible in her autopsy three days later. He arrested her with the false charge of assault because she did not acquiesce to his brutality.
Sandra Bland’s You-Tube posts show her as a strong, assertive Black woman who is keenly aware of racial disparities, and committed to social and economic justice. Former police officer Harry Houck, commenting on this case on CNN, described her as “arrogant” because she would not extinguish her cigarette. Houck did not know Sandra Bland, so how did he surmise that she was arrogant? Isn’t that how some Whites describe Black people when we fail to grovel in the face of their power?
What did Trooper Encinia see when arresting Sandra Bland? Did he, like Houck, see a woman who was not intimidated, a woman who, though not rude, was not “humble”? Did she scowl when she was stopped? Probably. Was she unfriendly or ungracious? Possibly. Was she deferential? Not at all. But there is no law that says that someone who gets a ticket is supposed to be grateful. Most folks who get a ticket are annoyed, and have a bit of an attitude. She did not bow and scrape, or say, “Yes massa,” so now she is dead, and Encinia is, at minimum, partly responsible for her death.
African American women are often stereotyped as angry Sapphires with chips on their shoulders and a penchant for confrontation. A Black woman doesn’t have to raise her voice or swivel her neck to be considered angry. All she has to do is to express herself, or fail to smile. Perhaps the officer would have preferred a deferential and obedient Sandra Bland. It didn’t happen. So he retaliated.
I know Sandra Bland, because she is every woman. She does not conform to the majority culture’s stereotype of what a woman should be. We, Black women, rarely conform. As the late Dorothy Irene Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, once said, “Black women don’t do what we want to do, we do what we have to do.”
Forty-six percent of African American families are female-headed. We do the work. Black unemployment is higher than White unemployment, and Black wages are lower. We do the work. We work harder for less pay than other women. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, we are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Sandra Bland accepted her calling to fight for justice. Her posts show a woman who would not yield to racism. She is not dead because she failed to signal when she changed lanes. She is dead because she knew and asserted her rights.
Every woman who is an activist is Sandra Bland, the Christian, the organizer, the advocate for justice. She is dead because she dared talk back to a brutal officer. Sandra Bland is every assertive Black woman. I am Sandra Bland.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. She can be reached via www.juliannemalveaux.com.