The facts in the death of Sandra Bland are not in dispute.
She was a lone driver on her way to her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, to interview for a job. She was stopped for a minor traffic violation by a Texas Highway Patrol officer.
She was threatened with a Taser. She was pinned on the ground by the arresting officer and arrested on an assault charge. She was taken to Waller County jail and placed in a holding cell.
Two days later guards found her hanging by a plastic trash bag in the bathroom partition area of her cell. Jail officials, based on their autopsy, called her death a suicide.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis will investigate her death as a murder. The FBI is also investigating the death.
Murder or suicide? In either case, these facts are also not in dispute. The jail has been repeatedly cited and sanctioned for violating minimal jail standards. That includes continual failure to watch and monitor inmates, shoddy staff training on jail and inmate management, and a failure to provide training and handling and sequestering of inmates with possible emotional challenges.
That would certainly include an inmate such as Bland who authorities have professedly said was “combative” with the arresting officer. That points the finger of blame squarely at jail officials no matter what actually happened in Bland’s cell.
If even minimal safety procedures and precautions had been taken by jailers, Bland would almost certainly be alive.
But Bland is just the latest in a growing train of black women that have been directly shoved into harm’s way by law enforcement. In fact the day after Bland’s body was found, Kindra Darnell Chapman, who was arrested on first-degree robbery charges in Alabama, was found dead in her jail cell. Her death was also ruled a suicide.
In recent times, videos have caught an Arizona State University police officer body-slamming a tenured and respected African-American female professor at the university to the ground as she crossed a street. Another video caught a Clayton County, Georgia off-duty officer spitting on and then verbal abusing an African-American female motorist.
A California Highway Patrol officer pummeled a middle-aged African-American woman on a Los Angeles freeway. They, if you can call it that, are the lucky ones. They are still alive.
In the past few years, the number of black women who have been slain by police in several cities has at times drawn headlines and protests. That is separate from the endless tales of black women who have been beaten, tasered and threatened during routine stops or street searches by police officers often with no charges filed against them, or whatever charges were filed were soon dismissed.
The black women, though, who have been killed by police had one thing in common. They were unarmed, and in nearly all the cases were not committing a crime. They also had one other thing in common: In each case, there were endless and predictable efforts to dig up any and every bit of damaging information about their history or lifestyle to in effect virtually blame them for their own unjustified killing.
That prompts the even larger question and that is what role, if any, did race and gender play in these repeated tragic and increasingly deadly encounters under the color of law. The horrid history of racial stereotyping, profiling that indelibly link crime and violence with African Americans can’t be ignored in trying to answer the question about why now African-American women are fair game for physical abuse by police officers.
The feminization of racial stereotyping has had a gripping effect. While black men are frequently typed as violent, drug dealing “gangstas,” black women are typed as abrasive, emotionally high strung and now even violence prone. Texas investigators leaped all over Bland’s video quip that she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and Mathis latched onto this hardly professional diagnosis to say it would be considered as a motive for the suicide.
The characterizations of female victims of police encounters reinforce the belief of many that black women offenders are menaces to society, too. Much of the public and many in law enforcement are deeply wrapped in the damaging cycle of myths, misconceptions, crime, fear and hysteria about crime-on-the-loose women.
That is a crass, cynical and classic “blame-the-victim-for-their-own-demise” ploy. The sad thing is that it has worked. The public’s initial horror at the killing or beating, or if Bland did die as authorities claim, from suicide, it quickly hardens into heaping negative aspersions on the victim.
That ensures that apart from whatever conclusion authorities come to in their investigation, there will be minimal or no effort made to totally review and revamp training, policies and procedures by departments to reduce the use of excessive force by officers. Or, to correct the glaring inadequacies in the holding cells that Bland was held in and met her death in.
That is what put Bland in mortal danger.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio 1460 AM, Fridays at 9 a.m. and KPFK Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays at 9 a.m.