Sandra Bland, My Father, and Me

Terrance Heath

When I heard of Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail, after a traffic stop on a dusty road in Waller County, Texas, I thought of the time my father gave me The Talk that generations of African-American parents have had with their children. My father’s father had it with him, and I’ve already had it with my oldest son. It bears repeating, because it still means the difference between life and death for our children.

Teach Your Children

Since the first “20 and odd” Africans arrived as slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, African-American parents have lived with the knowledge that when our children go out into the world, structural and institutional racism can threaten their very lives. We know that the rules we teach and repeat over and over again may not save them.

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We teach them anyway, because we know that they are more likely to be stopped by the police than their white friends.

We teach them anyway, because we know that they are more likely to be searched if they are stopped.

We teach them anyway, because we know that police are more likely to use deadly force against them; our sons are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white classmates. We know that it can happen so quickly, as it did with Tamir Rice, that no rules can save them.

We teach them anyway, because we know that they are more likely to be arrested, and we know that being arrested is twice as deadly for African-Americans as for whites.

We teach them anyway, because we know that police will escalate encounters, and even try to provoke a response that justifies an arrest.

Mostly, we teach them because we want them to get home safely. We teach them because we want to see them again, and hear their voices again. We teach them in hopes that we can avoid the nightmare that our children will have a fatal collision with structural racism.

Its definition sounds clinical.

Structural racism is a term that describes the way government and other public and private institutions systematically afford White people an array of social, political and economic advantages, simply because they are White, while marginalizing and putting at a disadvantage African Americans and many other people of color.

In our lives and our homes it can manifest as a bed not slept in; an empty seat at the dinner table; the call that never comes; or the call that tells us they will never come home.

So, we teach them. I will teach my sons, as my father taught me.

Southern Counties and Southern Sheriffs

It was Sunday afternoon, on the first weekend in March, 1991. After a weekend visit home, I packed up my car, and prepared to head back to school. I said goodbye to my family. My dad was the last one I said goodbye to on my way out the door.

As I turned to leave he said, “Son,” with a familiar note of concern in his voice. “Is that what you’re wearing to drive back to school?” he asked, indicating my old t-shirt and ripped jeans.

“Yeah,” I said.

My dad sighed.

“Son,” he said, “You’re going to be driving through a lot of rural counties. I’m not saying that you’re going to do anything wrong, but if you get pulled over by some southern sheriff, he’s going to take one look at you and get the wrong idea. They might not treat you too well.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to argue that times had changed since he’d grown up under Jim Crow and segregation. Instead, I retrieved my suitcase, and changed into an oxford shirt and a pair of khakis that met with my dad’s approval.

The drive back to school was uneventful. Within a day of my return, video of the Rodney King beating was all over television news.

When my father warned me about rural counties, he could have been talking about Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was arrested, and died in jail. Waller has a long legacy of what some residents describe as “racism from cradle to grave.”

  • In the late 19th and early 20th century Waller County had a disproportionate number of lynchings. Between 1877 and 1950, Waller County had 15 lynchings of African-Americans — the third highest number in the state.
  • In 2004, Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman declared that students at Prairie View A & M — a 140-year-old historically black school, and both Bland’s alma mater and new employer — were not immediately eligible to vote at their college address. Thousands of students marched to protest his actions. It took years and a federal court order, but the students won.
  • The county’s “racism from cradle to grave” includes separate cemeteries for whites and blacks. In 2004, the county seat of Hempstead settled a lawsuit alleging that the city neglected black cemeteries while maintaining white ones.

When my father warned me about southern sheriffs, he could have been talking about Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who runs the jail where Sandra Bland died.

  • In 2007, the Hempstead City Council suspended police chief Smith“for two weeks without pay after viewing videotapes and hearing allegations of racism from local residents against him,” stemming from the arrest of a black man named Cory Labba.
  • Hempstead’s only black police officer sued, complaining that Smith dismissed him on trumped-up charges after he complained about his supervisor’s racial slurs.
  • An African-American couple said that Smith turned them away when they complained that a white man had assaulted their 7-year-old son at a pee-wee football practice.
  • In 2008, the Hempstead city council ousted Smith as chief of police, amid complaints of racism, and “incidents involving police misconduct toward African-Americans,” following a drug raid in which he and four other white officers were accused of conducting a strip search that resulted in the “humiliation and mistreatment” of a group of “young, African-American males,” when their underwear was searched in public.

None of this stopped Smith from being elected sheriff, beating a candidate who would have been the county’s first African-American sheriff, the same year he was fired as chief of police.

Power and Struggle

My father might have feared that I would be stopped by an officer like state trooper Brian Encinia, who pulled Bland over after she changed lanes without signaling. By now, the video footage of what followed has been widely circulated.

From the start, Encinia escalates and pushes events to their tragic end, mainly because Bland was visibly annoyed at being stopped. She’d noticed Encinia trailing her, increasing speed and getting closer, assumed he wanted to pass her, and switched lanes to allow him to do so.

Bland’s annoyance seemed get under Encinia’s skin. Rebecca Ruiz, at Mashable, wrote that Encinia became “violently undone” by Bland’s refusal to bow to his power and authority. She was not deferential. She knew her rights, and was not afraid to challenge Encinia when he violated them. Encinia decided that he would show her who was “the boss.”

Many legal and civil rights experts agree that Encinia needlessly escalated the traffic stop, and overstepped his authority.

  • Asked if Encinia had a right to ask Bland to put out her cigarette, civil rights attorney and former NYPD officer Eric Sanders answered flatly, “No. What law was he enforcing?”
  • Eric Guster, a civil rights attorney in Birmingham, Alabama said that ordering Bland out of the vehicle was not a “reasonable command” that Bland was required to obey. “The officer had no reason to tell her anything else but give her the ticket and walk away,” Guster said.
  • The Houston Chronicle published a Texas-specific article outlining when an officer may ask passengers to leave a vehicle. None of the scenarios suggested Encinia had any reason to ask Bland to exit the vehicle.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in Rodriguez vs. United States that police officers cannot prolong a traffic stop beyond the intended reason. Once Encinia wrote the ticket, which Bland asked him to give to her so that she could be on her way, the stop was over. Everything he did beyond that was in violation of Bland’s civil rights.

It was about power. Encinia became incensed when Bland dared to resist his attempts to put her “in her place.” He resorted to force, because he decided that Bland should pay a price for her attitude. That price would end up being her life.

Anger Is Privileged

The rules that African-American parents teach our children for surviving an encounter with the police can be summarized in three words: Don’t get angry. Or at least don’t show anger, however justified.

Articles and videos instructing Americans on how to assert their rights as citizens in police encounters are not for our children, lest they think they can behave like their white peers and expect to be treated the same. They must learn that they have to wait before “insisting on their dignity and humanity.”

As I’ve written before, even in so-called “post-racial” America, anger is still privileged. For minorities, anger is dangerous. If you are a woman, or a person of color, gay, etc., your movements must be slow and deliberate, your voice modulated, and your anger must never show.

Anger implies entitlement, whether to material goods, power, privilege, or respect. Anger implies a right to expect something, or to be treated a certain way, and is a justifiable response to not receiving one’s due. Our children aren’t considered to be due anything that they’d have a right to be angry about having been denied.

White tea partiers can get angry, and turn town hall meetings into melees — as a strategy. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Neil Cavuto can get angry, and rile up their audiences. Cliven Bundy’s supporters can point weapons at federal officers and threaten to kill them, without facing military-style tanks, tear gas, or the paramilitary force that Ferguson, Mo. protestors were met with.

But for African Americans like Sandra Bland, simply asserting our citizenship, or expressing mild annoyance as our rights are violated, can be deadly. In almost 400 years, that much hasn’t changed.

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