My mom has always tried her damnedest to raise me to err on the side of caution. When I started school, momma told me that if my teacher said something to me that was mean or if I was treated unfairly, never to talk back and to go to the main office when I got the chance and call her so she could handle it. When I started growing breasts, she used to make me wear sweaters over my tank tops (sweaters. In JULY!) so I wouldn’t catch any unwanted attention from “nasty” men. When I started driving, mom made sure I remembered that if I ever got pulled over for my reckless driving habits, to drive to a well-lit public space before stopping so there will be witnesses should things escalate.
Since seeing the Sandra Bland video, I’ve been asking myself what I would’ve done if I were in her shoes. In my mind, I hear my momma telling me, “That’s why I always tell you not to talk back to authority.” “Remember what I told you about police?” I hear my her warnings and I begin to think that if it were me, I wouldn’t have been dragged out of my car because I wouldn’t have said or done anything.
Sandra didn’t do anything, either. And she was STILL arrested!
There’s no law that says she can’t smoke a cigarette. There’s no law that says she can’t tell a cop why she’s mad (especially when she’s asked). There’s no law that says she can’t in return ask why she’s being yelled at, threatened and arrested. But she was still yelled at, threatened and arrested for NOTHING.
Police officers have a history and what seems like an unspoken policy of over-policing Black folks. Our Black mommas, daddies and grandparents knew this and probably warned all of us to be careful around police. Because of the prejudice predisposition of most cops, we’re conditioned to be afraid to even speak in front of police officers unless we’re spoken to first.
I’m not sure if white parents have these kinds of conversation with their youngsters. I feel like when a white kid gets pulled over, they’re scared, of course, but only about the traffic fine. When you’re Black and pulled over, you’re scared about the ticket and you’re scared about the fact that you might not walk away from the encounter. If you’re Black and a woman and alone when you’re pulled over, you just want to get away from the situation as soon as possible because the risks are through the roof! Give me the ticket and let me get the hell out of here!
I bet Sandra got that how-to-act-around-police talk. I bet Sandra gave that talk to others (especially considering the social justice movements she was so active in). It was clear she just wanted her ticket so she could finish her cigarette and get the hell out of there. And that’s what she told Officer Encinia when he asked. I guess he didn’t like her answer?
I battle constantly with the need to both protect myself and speak up for myself. I’m a confident, outspoken, intelligent young woman of color from a Southern state. It’s likely that during my daily adventures, I’ll cross the path of an egotistical police officer or a plain old civilian looking to exert their power over me and take me down a notch. And I can choose to engage these people in “educational” banter about how I’m a human being worthy of as much respect as they feel they deserve. But I also run the risk that that person is crazy and won’t take kindly to my backtalk. My speaking up for myself will be considered “arrogance” and disrespect and therefore reason to harm me and put me in my place.
When you’re a part of a marginalized community, this is your daily struggle: Do I speak up for my right to exist and risk invoking the wrath of the one in power, or do I stay silent and live to seethe about how unfair life is for another day?
Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and so many others prove that it doesn’t matter if you follow orders, talk back or even run away. We have no control over how we’re treated by law enforcement or anyone with authority.
I understand and love my momma and all of the wise, Black elders for trying to protect me from the prejudices of the world. But no matter how cautious we are, one ego-driven pissed off cop, one delusional pissed off white boy, one psycho pissed-off vigilante can end your life.
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody, I want my mom to know that I did everything she trained me to do: I will try to be in a public space (preferably with ample video phones). I won’t speak unless spoken to and I’ll call someone for help the first chance I get. I’ll probably even be wearing a sweater.
But none of that will stop a cop who was already trained to hate me.
I love you momma, but respectability politics won’t save me, you, and it certainly didn’t save Sandra.