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The Mythical Virtues of Non-Violent Resistance

Advocating a policy of “obedience” isn’t just insulting to black people—it’s a way to silence discussion about inequality and police murders.
sandra bland texas

Sandra Bland (Photo: Sandra Bland)

Since last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, a parade of wealthy commentators has offered unsolicited advice to black people about managing confrontations with the police. Rudy Giuliani has urged patience and obeisance; George Pataki said everything would be OK if Eric Holder just stopped talking about race so much. Last August, seeking to exonerate Michael Brown’s killer, Sean Hannity cited his own rosy rapport with cops:

When a cop pulls me over, I put my hands outside of the car. If I’m carrying a weapon, which I’m licensed to carry in New York, the first thing I tell the police officer is, “Officer, I want you to know I have a legal firearm in the car.” First thing I say to the officer. He’ll ask, “Where is it?” I’ll say, “It’s in my holster....” And I often would even step out of the car, lift my shirt up so he can see where the gun is. “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” writes me a ticket. “Thank you, sir,” and that’s it. You battle the issue in court.

These soothing pieties—incanted daily on cable news and on right-wing Web portals—are cold comfort to black activists, one of whom, Sandra Bland, was found hanging last week under mysterious circumstances in a Texas jail after a traffic stop in which the arresting officer’s behavior was erratic and aggressive and wildly disproportionate to Bland’s alleged offense: failing to signal a lane-change. The transcript of Bland’s arrest is a chilling document. Here is a woman who knows and asserts her rights in clear and direct language, not bothering to hide her frustration but not letting it curdle into belligerence, either:

State Trooper Brian Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: You do not have the right. You do not have the right to do this.

Encinia: I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you.

Bland: I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself. [crosstalk] I am getting removed for a failure to signal?

Encinia: Step out or I will remove you. I’m giving you a lawful order. Get out of the car now or I’m going to remove you.

Bland: And I’m calling my lawyer.

Encinia: I’m going to yank you out of here. (Reaches inside the car.)

Bland: OK, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK, all right.

Encinia (calling in back-up): 2547.

Bland: Let’s do this.

Encinia: Yeah, we’re going to. (Grabs for Bland.)

Bland: Don’t touch me!

Encinia: Get out of the car!

Bland: Don’t touch me. Don't touch me! I’m not under arrest—you don't have the right to take me out of the car.

Encinia: You are under arrest!

Bland: I’m under arrest? For what? For what? For what?

Encinia (to dispatch): 2547 county fm 1098 (inaudible) send me another unit. (To Bland) Get out of the car! Get out of the car now!

Bland: Why am I being apprehended? You're trying to give me a ticket for failure....

Encinia: I said get out of the car!

Bland: Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my—

Encinia: I‘m giving you a lawful order. I’m going to drag you out of here.

Bland: So you’re threatening to drag me out of my own car?

Encinia: Get out of the car!

Bland: And then you’re going to [crosstalk] me?

Encinia: I will light you up! Get out! Now! (Draws stun gun and points it at Bland.)

Bland: Wow. Wow. (Bland exits car.)

Encinia: Get out. Now. Get out of the car!

Bland: For a failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?

Encinia: Get over there.

Bland: Right. Yeah, let’s take this to court, let's do this.

“Let’s take this to court”—the precise recourse that Hannity et al. recommend so warmly. Sandra Bland, though, never got to challenge her gross mistreatment in court. After being manhandled by Encinia and the other troopers who arrived at the scene, Bland was consigned to a cell where, three days later, after no indications of suicidal ideation, prison officials found her hanging by the neck.

Is there any way to construe Bland’s roadside behavior as violent? She did not resist arrest in any physical sense—remember, there’s full video of the incident. She merely objected verbally to Encinia’s behavior, on well-articulated legal grounds.

But neither Hannity’s nor Giuliani’s advice could save Bland. She did not fight. She did not run. And she ended up with her face digging into the asphalt while the male arresting officer held his hand on her head.

This incessant sanctimony about the “right” way to talk with cops is especially galling given the polarity between how police treat white demonstrators and how they treat black ones. One powerful example comes from a video uploaded by pro-gun activists in Abilene, Texas (the video is hosted on Open Carry Texas’ YouTube channel; be careful with the volume):

Here, three very loud white males actively taunt some very patient police officers by waving loaded AR-15s in a public park. The impromptu demonstration is at once smug and deranged—note how the principal agitator hectors the cops, insisting that he won’t remove his hand from the rifle grip until “your men stand down.” From the sense of unlimited entitlement in his tone, you’d think he was a federal agent pulling rank on the Abilene police. He wasn’t.

White men screaming at cops and waving loaded guns? Normal, respectful resistance; naturally, the police fired no shots and made no arrests—not even a citation or a warning. Meanwhile, Sandra Bland, like Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice, was apparently asking for it.

Let’s return briefly to Texas, where state representatives are now cowering under their desks because they’ve become terrified of their own open-carry legislation. Earlier this month, Willie Hudspeth, a 69-year-old black man, who has been picketing a Confederate statue in Denton, Texas, for the past 15 years, was accosted by a young white man holding an assault rifle. Observe the exchange:

These are two people with profoundly different ideas of what activism means, and the exchange is sadly representative of the disparate civic privileges this country affords its white and its minority populations. Observe the smiling complacency with which the white civilian waves his gun—the same impervious sense of entitlement that we saw in Abilene. He knows the unspoken contract he enjoys with the police, and he is taking full advantage.

Sometimes there is no right way for black people to respond to police. Reaching for licenses can get them shot. Telling a cop “I can’t breathe” can make that cop re-double his aggression. Advocating a policy of “obedience” isn’t just insulting to black people—it’s a way to forestall debate about racial profiling and police brutality. It’s a way to pretend that the same rules apply to everyone. It’s a way for white people of a certain political stripe to curl themselves a while longer in the warm blanket of a comforting fiction.