Finally, I am able to put something significant down on paper about Sandra Bland. When the news of her death came to my attention, I was stunned, and I was speechless. Briefly, I was at a loss for words to describe my feelings about her death, which seemed so absolutely inexplicable. And, deep down, I knew that what happened to Sandra Bland could have happened to me. In addition, I knew that her death in police custody was not a new thing. Black women have been dying in police custody most apparently these days.
When one of my former students sent me the link of the dashcam video of Sandra’s arrest, I could barely bring myself to watch it. Eventually, I hit the button. And though it was through clenched teeth that I braced myself for what I would see, I was quite inspired by her engagement with the arresting officer. Of course, I could see a woman being traumatized by an officer who was clearly out-of-control and out-of-order, but I also saw a black woman who was, nevertheless, squarely, defending herself! So, when she said to the arresting officer, Officer Brian Encinia, “You must be feeling yourself right about now,” I couldn’t help but be empowered by her words.
What does it mean for black women to stand up and defend themselves these days? Whether a black woman stands up for herself to a law enforcement official, or whether it is to a lover or potential lover who is angry or out of control, it is quite probable that she will face down some unnecessary abuse or trauma. For example, several years ago, I had to call the police for property damage, but I did not like the way that the officer handled the situation, so I filed a complaint. Eventually, in response to my complaint, I was told by the local police chief that I could not see the standard operating procedures (SOPs) as a matter of fact or law. But, at the time, I was working for a state lawmaker, so I had everyday access to local and state lawmakers who handled these kinds of questions all the time; and, like any other city resident, I had the ability to go online to reference the city charter and the state and municipal laws as to what law enforcement officers could or could not do administratively. When I was informed that the SOPs were “off-limits” to city residents, I intuitively knew that the police chief was wrong, so, after doing a little research, I pressed the issue and wrote a letter asking for the chief to explain to me in person why I could not see the SOPs. Much to my surprise, when we met in person, the chief apologized to me and he handed me a photocopy of his department’s SOPs. On the one hand, I knew that the SOPs were public information, but I was quite surprised by the chief’s willingness to apologize for giving me inaccurate information. And, I knew that apologies like that don’t come very often.
Of course, what I went through was nothing in comparison to what Sandra Bland experienced July 10, 2015, and the days following. When I heard the news of her death I physically ached as I imagined what she must have endured by way of Officer Brian Encinia and in the custody of the Waller County Police Department. The outcome of my personal encounter with a police chief (who also happened to be an African-American male) had a surprisingly positive outcome, which was the exact opposite of what Sandra Bland incurred. We both spoke up for ourselves to a powerful male authority, but the consequences were devastatingly and diametrically different.
In the last few weeks, here is what I have learned as a result of contemplating Sandra Bland’s fatal encounter with the police: what one chooses to do in the presence of any patriarchal/traditional power is completely up to that person. If you choose to stand up for yourself to a law enforcement officer, especially one who happens to be male, you must be aware that the outcome could go any way. When we, women and men, talk about what to do in the presence of a powerful, male authority figure, people say all kinds of things to discourage us from speaking up like, “Yeah, but you must pick your battles,” which often means to submit to that authority…every damn time. But, when I watched the video of Sandra Bland, I didn’t see a woman trying to go to battle, I saw a woman who had legitimately and consciously decided to stand up for herself come what may. And, when I saw the defense that she asserted for herself I was very proud of her. I was proud that she was not willing to accept the officer’s twisted story of what was happening to her. It was good to see (because of use of smartphone and video technology) that she was not willing to go along with his outrageous version of what was actually going on. Did that defense cost her her life? Perhaps or perhaps not. We do not know the exact cause of Sandra Bland’s death, but we do know that she was exactly the kind of woman who would not let the irrational and belligerent presence of a male authority keep her unjustifiably silent and submissive.
This is what we as black people, and black women in particular, must continue to do: we must keep standing up and defending ourselves just as being “in defense of ourselves” and our truths is what over 1,600 black women did in 1991 in a New York Times piece behind the Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case. Indeed, we must never forget nor allow anyone else to define our realitie(s) or to say that we do not live in a sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist society, and we must honor those who show us how to stand up and speak for ourselves when necessary and in spite of the consequences. Learning how to defend ourselves, and thus how to develop a conscious attitude of self-defense in this society is one of the most powerful things that women, especially young black girls, must come to know. For, in learning how to defend ourselves in the face of patriarchal trauma or terror we will, hopefully, embody integrity and courage even when it may cost us something, including our lives or our livelihoods. Have we learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement, or from other revolutionary struggles for liberation from state-sponsored violence or oppression? Have we not heard the cries of the many women and children who have suffered and died from domestic and patriarchal violence? If we raise children to defend themselves against patriarchal trauma and terror (which can be carried out and reinforced by women, by the way), and if we do that more than we raise them to be submissive to deceitful and power-tripping patriarchal people and institutions, then the world might be a much better, and humane place to live.
When I finally took the time to watch how courageous Sandra Bland was in the face of Officer Encinia; when I saw what she did and said in spite of her pain, and in spite of her distress and increasing cries for justice, she helped me to see how to embrace my own freedom and liberate myself in a world that is filled with angry and hate-filled people who are feeling themselves more than they probably even know. And, most importantly, Sandra Bland helped me to know, without any question whatsoever, that some of us really are still brave!
© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.
P.S. Please note that the phrase “still brave” is a reference to the following text, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, which was published in 1982. I also recommend a newly revised and edited text, Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, published in 2009.