Sandra Bland Was Murdered
Some cities have tried to put a fig leaf of legal justification on such practices by creating “drug-free” or “anti-loitering” zones, which give police automatic justification for arrest even if a person is guilty of nothing more than standing on the street. Failing to produce ID – even in the halls of your own building, in some cases – or being seen in or around a “known drug location” can similarly be grounds for search or detention.
A related phenomenon is the policy governing “consent searches.” Police stop people on the highways, in airports, on buses, really anywhere at all, and ask for their consent to search their property or their persons. Sometimes they do the asking with a drug-sniffing dog standing beside them.
Studies have consistently shown that black and Hispanic people are pulled over at a far higher rate than white people, usually more than double, even though white people are statistically more likely to have illegal drugs on them.
Add to this the whole galaxy of stop-and-frisk type behaviors, also known as “Terry stops,” in which any police officer with an “articulable suspicion” that a crime of violence might be committed can pat down and question any person.
The end of New York’s infamous program notwithstanding, there are millions of such stops every year. In Chicago, for instance, recent data showed a rate of about a million stops per year, with roughly 72 percent involving black people – and this in a city that’s only 32 percent black.
You add all this up, and we’re talking about millions upon millions of stops, searches and misdemeanor arrests and summonses that clearly target black people at a far higher rate than the rest of the population.
And if you’re continually handcuffing people, sitting on them, putting knees in their backs and dragging them to jail in cases when you could have just handed over a summons, a certain percentage of these encounters are going to end in fights, struggles, medical accidents and other disasters. Like the Bland case.
We’d call it murder if a kidnapping victim died of fright during the job. Of course it’s not legally the same thing, but a woman dying of depression during an illegal detention should be the same kind of crime. It’s especially true given our long and sordid history of overpolicing misdemeanors.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander described how white America re-seized control after slavery by instituting a series of repressive “vagrancy laws,” under which nonwhite Americans could be arrested for such absurdities as “mischief” and “insulting gestures.”
In an eerie precursor to the modern loitering laws, many states even had stringent rules against “idleness.” There were even states where any black male over 18 could be thrown in jail for not carrying around written proof that he had a job.
What exactly is the difference between being arrested for “idleness” and being arrested for “loitering in a designated drug-free zone”? What’s the difference between an arrest for “mischief” and an arrest for “disorderly conduct” or “refusing to obey a lawful order”? If it’s anything more than a semantic distinction, it’s not much more of one.
Law-and-order types like to lecture black America about how it can avoid getting killed by “respecting authority” and treating arresting cops like dangerous dogs or bees.
But while playing things cool might prevent killings in some instances, it won’t stop police from stopping people without reason, putting their hands on suspects or jailing people like Bland for infractions that at most would earn a white guy in a suit a desk ticket. That’s not just happening in a few well-publicized cases a year, but routinely, in hundreds of thousands or even millions of incidents we never hear of.
That’s why the issue isn’t how Sandra Bland died, but why she was stopped and detained in the first place. It’s profiling, sure, but it’s even worse than that. It’s a systematic campaign to harass people, using misdemeanors and violations as battering ram – a campaign that’s been going on forever, and against which there’s little defense. When the law can be stretched to mean almost anything, obeying it is no magic bullet.