Here is one reason why the unfortunate case of Sandra Bland is so terrifying: Citizens are asked to obey and constrain themselves in recognition of the law. Yet, the law is the very thing that certain police officers have transgressed in order to molest their neighbor in the name of the law.
This perverse paradigm is relevant to all Americans because the people, the ones who are not authorized to use lethal force, now find themselves at the mercy of law enforcement officers, who are equipped with lethal force and who decide how much violence to execute against those they are supposedly protecting. Essentially, the one holding the gun is the one who is given discretion over what constitutes a threat.
Such was the case for the unarmed Samuel Dubose, who was pulled over in June 2015 for missing a front license plate by a University of Cincinnati police officer and subsequently shot in the head.
Such was the case for Levar Jones, who was stopped getting out of his car in a gas station parking lot last year in South Carolina for not wearing his seatbelt. The officer then directed Mr. Jones to produce his driver’s license. As the Huffington Post reports,
“[Mr. Levar] simply complied. Holding keys or a cell phone in his left hand, he checked his empty back pocket with a light tap. With the fluid motion of instinctive deduction, he then turned into the car to retrieve his wallet. While Levar leaned in, Officer Groubert screamed, “GET OUT THE CAR” twice, with his gun drawn. Levar quickly complied (again) and pivoted in awkward shock while restraining his body from sudden movement. That’s when Officer Groubert fired four shots.”
Officer Groubert fired live ammunition in a gas station in broad daylight in the proximity of a convenience store with shoppers inside. Yet despite these facts, the officer was fearful for his life against an unarmed man. Thankfully, Mr. Jones survived.
Such was the case for Bobby Canipe, who was pulled over by a South Carolina police officer in 2014 for having expired license plates. When Mr. Canipe reached into his car to retrieve his walking stick, he was shot in the abdomen. When Mr. Canipe’s female companion saw him shot and bleeding, she said, “We were just innocent people going home. There wasn’t a thing wrong with us.” Thankfully, Mr. Canipe survived after surgery. There were no charges filed against the deputy who shot Mr. Canipe.
Such was the case of more than 100 black men who were tortured by Commander Jon Burge of the Chicago police and the villainous midnight crew from 1972 to 1991.
It is in the context of such cases that we look at the case of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over by a Texas state trooper due to failure to signal a lane change—an “offense” by the way, that is neither an offense to God nor an offense to one’s neighbor. It is not a violation of natural law but of human law only.
In the dash cam video that was released, we see that Ms. Bland was pulled over and was soon arrested after initially refusing to comply with a request (not a command) to extinguish her cigarette and exit her vehicle. This request happened after Ms. Bland was already given a ticket for her traffic violation. From this point, tensions mounted, and the police officer then threatened Ms. Bland with a Taser: “I will light you up!” Officer Encinia then pulled her out of the car, forced her to the ground, and arrested her. Sadly, within 72 hours, Ms. Bland was found dead while in jail.
Citizens do, in fact, have the right to videotape interactions with police. They do have the right to ask the police officer if they are free to go. They do have the right to resist an unlawful order—such as a request to put out a cigarette—by a policemen. As the former police officer and legal scholar Seth Stoughton writes for TPM,
“I can’t help but think of the distinction between lawful policing and rightful policing … If Encinia was exercising his authority because Bland had refused to comply with his request to put out her cigarette, he was doing so to demonstrate his control over both her and the encounter itself. That is pure ego, and ego has no place in modern policing.”
There are two narratives that tend to result from the case of Sandra Bland and others similar to hers: (1) that such cases result from blatant racism, and all blame is placed on the police and (2) that such cases result from disregard and lack of respect for law and order, and all blame is placed on the victim.
The tragic reality is that there is an underlying phenomenon that transcends Ms. Bland’s case and that cuts across race, time, countries, ethnicities, and gender. That tragic reality is dehumanization.
The scope of dehumanization, of course, is biased toward those with authority: those with authority use power plays to dominate those without. Hence, while the guardians of law and order certainly do perform valuable tasks, their admirable duties come with more responsibility and accountability because precious human life is at stake. Power without responsibility equates to tyranny, a fact that reflects our unfortunate reality as recently reported on FiveThirtyEight.com: “officers rarely face legal consequences for allegations of misconduct.” If those in power can wield authority without accountability, then they are no longer protectors of the people but authoritarian bullies who use violence and intimidation in pursuit of ideological and dehumanizing ends. I can think of a fitting example from Daniel chapter 1 of King Nebuchadnezzar, who just a few verses earlier desecrated the Temple of God and moved its sacred objects into the house of an idol. Daniel refused to eat the king’s rations and wine so as not to defile himself. This defilement was rooted in the source of the food, the king.
Police misconduct in cases such as Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, and Levar Jones reveals that many individual officers have relinquished moral legitimacy in their careless use of violence against their neighbors. If we then accept the ideology—symbolic food—that proclaims that secular law and order are irrevocably legitimate, then we have defiled ourselves with the same food that feeds those who rob God and rob God’s creations by executing brutality in the name of “justice” and “order.”
Dehumanization says that some people are less than people, therefore bad things can happen to them because they don’t matter.
The Jews did it to the Samaritans in the time of Jesus, slave traders did it to slaves, white America does it to black America, the black church does it to homosexuals, atheists do it to believers, believers do it to atheists, the Nazis did it to the Jews, neocons do it to Muslims, men consistently do it to women, and now the police are doing it to citizens. What else can explain how a man armed with a gun and a badge can reasonably perceive an unarmed woman as a legitimate threat or a target to be molested? Dehumanization says she’s less than me, therefore, what she does isn’t human. So, she can’t possibly be upset like a human; she has to be on the verge of beastly rage. Levar Jones couldn’t have obeyed like a human because he’s an animal. He had to have been reaching for a weapon. After all, he’s not human, and I am, therefore, the protection of my life is all that matters. It doesn’t matter that I pulled these people over, people who would have rather gone about their business peacefully. They just don’t matter and I do.
At the end of the day, the problem isn’t police brutality per se because dehumanization can manifest itself in innumerable ways. Police brutality and the blatant disregard for authority are two end results of a much larger human syndrome. The script that all citizens are sheep that must obey begs for violence whenever one of the sheep asks one of the alleged shepherds a legitimate question. The script says, “They don’t follow rules. Punish them. They can have no voice.” The script that all police are hell-bent on murder and abuse begs for violence whenever you see someone in uniform. The script says, “They’re one of them. They fashion malice in the name of the law. If they stop you, you must revolt. Be disrespectful … they deserve it.”
Both scripts perpetuate the same antagonistic behavior that got everyone into trouble in the first place. The solution? Love your neighbor, and act as if they really do matter. Act as if every person on the face of the planet has been formed in the image of God. Evil cannot be overcome with evil. It can only be overcome with good, and good, admittedly, may have to suffer many injustices in order to persevere until the end.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal