Watching the Sandra Bland dashcam video as a person who grew up confined in a violent home, my instincts give me a feeling of shock when I hear Sandy say, ‘let’s take this to court’, and ‘oh wow you’re going to do this over a lane change?!’, ‘you have no right’ etc. My instinct in that situation (which I know I wouldn’t be, because I am white and usually project high status) but if I somehow were in that situation, what I would do instinctively, without even thinking about it, would be to say ‘yes sir, yes sir’. I would conceal the fact that I knew he had violated my rights, because he had already shown me that he is a violent person, and I know what violent people do when you stand up for yourself: they get more violent. You assert your rights, they violate them more. Violent people have it in their heads that they have to ‘break’ you into submission, what they call ‘respecting’ them. They will do it to your death if necessary (not that they are conscious that they’re doing it to your death, but it doesn’t enter their head to watch out for a level of damage that will kill you, they often aren’t even educated in what kinds and levels of force can be lethal). So the moment that police officer told me to put out a cigarette, I would be scared for my life, and I would defer, and add in some groveling for good measure (yes sir, thank you sir, have a beautiful day sir) and then when I got out of there I might call a lawyer to discuss my rights.
It goes without saying that a person with that kind of violent psychology should not be a police officer, and it’s also clear that we have quite a few police officers with that psychology in this country. Some people are saying he should have been trained to restrain himself, but come on, most people don’t have to be trained to not violate another person’s rights and beat them up. Most people just wouldn’t do it. If someone disrespected you, would you threaten them? Would you escalate violence until you got submission? If so, you shouldn’t be a police officer. It goes beyond we shouldn’t be hiring people with this personality, we should be screening people for this personality and not letting people like it on the force, but beyond that, once there is a single incident like this, that person should be off the force for life. This is not a ‘mistake’ you make as an officer. This is showing his true colors. He is a violent person who will escalate violence until he gets the response he wants. I’ve known enough people like that to know that people like that don’t just change overnight. He didn’t just wake up on the wrong side of the bed, it can’t be trained out of him or reprimanded out of him. It is his personality. He should never see another day of police work.
And here’s the thing. When I tell you how I would have deferred to the police officer, ‘yes sir’, you’re probably thinking that would have been the right thing to do. I don’t feel that way. I’d do it, but I’d hate myself for it. I just let an officer dehumanize me. Show me that his ‘position’ was more important than my humanity and my rights. I’d wish I’d stood up for myself whatever the costs. Sandra Bland was violated, but that violence was inflicted solely from the outside, from the officer. I would have violated my own human dignity, to protect my body and my life. I feel ashamed to confess it here to you. I’ve done it a thousand times. It might be why I’m still here, able to tell you this. But it wasn’t worth it. It’s a weird thing to say since I’m glad to be alive. But the psychology of deference in face of extreme humiliation and dehumanization – it does something to you. The violation goes beyond your body into your soul. I think this is what they mean by ‘breaking’, as in ‘breaking the will’, which is homeschool dogma for good parenting. I respect Sandra Bland. I honor her. Her strength, her courage, to stand up for herself, to maintain her self-respect and humanity, I aspire to that. I aspire to that level of courage.
This difference between Sandra Bland and me makes me think of Hana Williams, the adopted girl killed by homeschooling parents trying to ‘break her will’. I was called ‘strong willed child’ (another homeschooling phrase) so I guess I held out longer than many – I still remember the sad mommy conferences where homeschool mommies sat around in hushed, sad voices brainstorming escalating violence and dehumanization to ‘break’ my ‘strong will’ – but, I ‘broke’. And I became a ‘good girl’, who said ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘obey immediately and cheerfully’ ‘without asking questions’. And the amount of physical violence alone that went into that, literally may have injured my health. But Hana never broke. So the violence escalated – clearly more would be needed to ‘break’ her. And eventually she died for her strength of spirit, for her complete confidence in her humanity, for her refusal to break. Her parents didn’t think ‘we’re going to kill her’, but they felt they ‘had to’ keep escalating violence until she ‘broke’, but instead of breaking her spirit, they broke her body, and she died. She is a hero of mine. I wish I had had her strength, her courage. She kept her humanity, her self respect intact. I wish I had never ‘broken’. It is a sort of violation of the soul, not worth the goal of preserving the body. If I could go back, pick a broken body or a broken soul, I’d choose the former.
So we need to have a conversation about authority and violence in this country. No, submission to authority is not a good in and of itself. It’s a violence. ‘Authority’ is not more human than me, more human than you. I think this is what Patrick Henry was getting at when he said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’. An unbroken spirit is worth fighting for, worth dying for. You might not realize that until your own spirit is broken, or threatened to be. But most Americans have had our spirits threatened or broken, so we know. The founding fathers may not have been thinking of people of color, women, children when they spoke of freedom, but we can. We all deserve liberty. We all deserve to be treated with respect.
Deference isn’t worth it. The fact that that is still my instinct, is because I’m still afraid, somewhere inside something is still broken. Somewhere inside I’m willing to trade my humanity for my life. I wish I wasn’t, and I aspire to heal that part of myself. My humanity, dignity is worth fighting for. And as a community – an intersectional, unified community – our dignity is worth fighting for. Please don’t go around saying that a woman, or person of color, or whatever kind of person, could escape violence if only they groveled more. Do you really want to live in that kind of world? Join the fight to change that world instead.
Here’s a link to a good interview with a lawyer about Sandra Bland’s constitutional and legal rights.