Monday, August 3, 2015

When a Cop Hurts One of Us

When I got back from my two weeks in the blue states, and as I slowly immersed myself back into bizarre red state politics, one of the strangest stories was that of Sandra Bland.  I saw the video of her stop, heard of her subsequent arrest, and then ... she was dead.  We appear to be debating whether her death was suicide or not.  I keep coming back to how on earth a police officer could treat a citizen the way Brian Encinia did to Sandra Bland.

I have lots of feelings about officers of the law, going back to being a teen in Warwick, Rhode Island, in the late 60's.  Back then they were shining lights into the car while we were "parking."  And I learned very early in my driving career to be more alert for cop cars than for speed limit and stop signs.  To this day when a cop is driving behind me I go into high alert, worried that even though I am going the speed limit I might get stopped if I venture one or two miles faster, or for something else entirely.

And I am a white-haired white woman.

I can't fathom being stopped for a minor traffic violation and having my attitude questioned.  Or being told to put out a cigarette, in my own car.  I can't begin to imagine having to worry about being taken to jail for minor violations.

I think when all the cop on black killings began to be aired after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson we all just assumed it had been black men than were being targeted.  Initially it appeared that it was police reacting to what might have been honestly perceived as a dangerous situation, but when a man was shot in South Carolina after reaching for his license during a stop for a seat belt violation, the racism inherent in the choices being made by police became obvious.

Then a group of black teens -- children -- were assaulted by police at a pool party.  We've seen the bits on the news, the "most hilarious" moment when the cop has his Bruce Willis moment.  But take seven minutes to watch the unedited youtube video to capture the horrific reality of what raising a black child in America is all about.  It brings me to tears imagining that there are children in this country that could be treated that way.  

Because I am a white-haired white woman, I tend to be treated with respect by police officers in Charleston, even when I have been speeding.  And when I stepped out of my car to get my pocketbook in the back seat.  I have even had an officer stop and change a flat tire for me.  But I do remember that there was a time back in the 60's when cops were the enemies.  I was a teen in a RI suburb, but as I got a few years older, and became interested in the Vietnam protests and saw the paranoia of the Nixon years, I became aware of the potential for violence in our police force.

So many years ago, and in all that time, violence has continued to be perpetrated against African Americans by cops.  It must be so ingrained in the structure of the police force that even video cameras can't prevent the violence.

There has been such a history of police violence in our country.  It runs so deep and has been so well-protected that I am cynical about the potential for change.  If videos don't stop the violence and grand juries side with the cops, if a woman can be ordered to put out her cigarette in her own car and be arrested, if black men continue to be shot for totally innocent and reasonable behavior, if there are cops who will segregate children by their skin color and treat them as dangerous criminals, if there are police that will unite to protect fellow officers regardless of their behavior, what is there to do?

I imagine that much of it rests with the media.  There hasn't been all that much attention to Sandra Bland.  I don't know if it would be more upsetting if this were true because she is a woman or because the media has gotten tired of spending weeks focused on extreme police misconduct.  Maybe she would be getting more attention if she had been shot on the scene.  We may never know whether there was foul play in prison or if she committed suicide.  I suspect that the arresting cop was attempting to find her emotionally unstable from the moment she questioned his motives.  Calling women hysterical when they question authority has been going on since the Victorian era.  And with the likelihood of publicity, I imagine each cop who oversteps begins to try to figure out justifications for his behaviors at the very scene of his crime.  You could see this playing out as the various police yelled at the black kids at the pool party.

We need to keep shining light on these incidents.  We need to hound the media to continue to focus on all these many crimes against civilians.  With enough pressure and publicity, some towns have begun to change their policies.  It will take changing hiring practices and training and supervisory techniques.  It will take towns whose police chiefs see their officers as part of the community rather than seeing the people in the community as enemies.  It will take a whole realignment of the perception of when violence is necessary, and that realignment is in learning to see and hear what is really going on and truly become peace officers, cops who calm a situation rather than create fear.

When a cop attacks a black child, or an innocent black man or woman, he is attacking the world we live in.  He is creating disharmony, fear and hatred.  He is making it harder for good cops to do their job.  We need to continue to turn the attention of the country to each incident, even as they pile up and because there are so many, until there are no acceptable excuses and the face of the police in America has changed.

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