On July 13th, 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was found hanging in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. This was a few days after Bland was arrested for merely failing to use a car turn signal. Brian Encinia, who arrested Bland, was captured on two videos aggressively slamming Bland down on the ground. He expressed pleasure when Bland said she had epilepsy and could suffer seizures.
Sandra Bland’s tragic death—which police authorities claim is a suicide—is just another of several recent brutal and deadly attacks by police officers on Black youth and other people of color. In the past few years, this violence has been exposed more rapidly, mostly due to videos on the internet and social media.
Bland was active in the Black Lives Matter movement and was returning to Texas to work with students at Prairie View A&M University, the historically Black institution. As a Black woman who refused to be silenced and mistreated, she posed a severe threat to a cop who had been trained to preserve the privileged status quo.
Capitalism breeds multi-faceted injustice
The brutality that Bland faced reflects a long and dark history of extreme racism in which people of color become targets of the police. Black women in the U.S. are particularly targeted due to their centuries-old role in the family, community, workplace and society as independent, indomitable and outspoken. The treatment of Black women and their bodies as property is rooted in and was central to the very founding of the capitalist United States of America. This is reflected in the triple, often quadruple, jeopardy of Black women based on race, gender, class, and sexuality for Black queers, creating the ultimate exploited laborer.
Capitalism uses racism to create hostilities among the working class and oppressed and to create distrust and cynicism that divides us. Instead of recognizing how we are all being mistreated by the same oppressor, we fight each other for crumbs while the ruling class takes the majority of resources. This system was developed to turn profits endlessly, and racism creates a justification for exploited workers’ low wages as well as bad working conditions.
The profit system perpetuates the images that are used to justify violence against Black men: They need to be controlled because they are “aggressive” and “violent.” The same justification — with the additional layer of gender — is used to portray Black women as “untamed” and “savage” who must be dominated because the powers-that-be know that in silencing Black women they are crushing the heart of the movement.
The Black feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s gave voice and recognition to Black women as a force to be reckoned with, the reach of which crossed race, gender and sexuality lines. Recognition of Black women’s leadership has also been a key aspect of the socialist feminist organizing of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party. Black women were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement although, like today, their role as leaders was under-recognized or erased. Today, their dynamic leadership has been central in organizing in Ferguson and in the fight against police brutality. In fact, “#BlackLivesMatter” was created by Black queer women, which is often forgotten or unknown.
Sandra Bland knew her rights through her work with Black Lives Matter and knew she was being abused, sadly, through her life experience as a young African American woman. Who has the right to judge Bland if she did suffer from depression at some point? Many women of color struggle with addictions, mental health issues, and physically and medically deteriorating conditions due to the constant barrage of racism, sexism and violence they face at the hands of a brutal system which consistently reminds them they don’t matter. Even in the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of the deaths and physical violence that women of color face has been erased, once again telling them that their lives matter less.
Why is it that only Black men are highlighted in these movements? Police brutality is a systemic issue predicated on the ruling class protecting its interests over human lives. If the cops aren’t arresting Black people — of all genders — then they are murdering them, and this isn’t new. Fighting for Black women’s lives does not exclude men and in fact that struggle can uplift the whole community from the bottom up. Because of their experience with multiple oppressions based on race, gender, sexuality and class, Black women can see that there is a bigger political agenda at play which they don’t benefit from. They have the potential to become the strongest leaders in opposing the whole exploitative system.
When old wounds aren’t healed, society is doomed to repeat the past
Sandra Bland’s death and the other atrocities that have been perpetuated against the bodies of Blacks and people of color are another reminder that the U.S. hasn’t come far from the days of slavery. Black bodies during slavery were seen only as machines to use to maintain capital and turn out products. While slavery was supposed to have “ended,” the mentality hasn’t changed and now Black people are either exterminated or put away in prison.
Sandra Bland faced both these realities, and many other young people of color face these realities every day of their lives. It is only due to the recent exposure of the absolute monstrosity of severe police brutality that people are realizing the truth about people of color’s lives in this supposed land of freedom and democracy.
The fact is there have been countless instances of physical violence or deaths faced by people in police custody. In July of this year, five Black women died in custody. Reports in the last week include news about Raynette Turner, 42, who died while awaiting arraignment, and Rexdale Henry, 53, a Native American activist who died the day after Sandra Bland.
It seems certain that Sandra Bland was abused and probably murdered. Even if it was a “suicide,” she was supposed to be under the watch of the police who claimed they knew she had had mental health issues. Therefore, regardless of who actually tied the plastic bag noose that ultimately killed Bland, the brutality and disregard by the police led to the death of this courageous woman.
We can make change
It is important that we hold the police accountable for their actions, and to that end we demand the following:
- Elected civilian review boards over the police that can hold them accountable, investigate complaints, subpoena witnesses, discipline and fire those found guilty of abuse that is now systematically hidden. Those on the board would represent the very communities the police are supposed to protect, creating a much-needed transparency.
We further demand:
- That the stories and lives of Black women facing police brutality receive the same amount of recognition and concern as for Black men at Black Lives Matter protests and in the media.
- That people dealing with mental health issues be treated respectfully in all aspects of society, both by authorities and those within movements for social justice, and also that the stigma around those issues be removed.
Under capitalism, reforms cannot fully eradicate police brutality and the conditions of absolute power and leniency given to those serving the state. But reforms can help provide some recourse for the covered-up and overlooked brutality by police who feel they can get away with anything.
Sandra Bland was part of a multitude of Black women who are a powerful force against the mistreatment, abuse and murder of young people of color, and that was why she was so feared. It is the very rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that has the powers-that-be shaking in their boots and hoping that fear will cool down the fire for justice. Sandra Bland isn’t the only leader of color, particularly a woman of color, who has them scared, and they will keep using fear tactics to keep others from standing up. Regardless of the tactics and tools they have on hand, we cannot back down and must stand up even stronger.
It is time for a change and progression in the movement against police violence to fight not only against racism—but against the entire system that perpetuates the idea that Black lives don’t matter, Black women’s lives don’t matter, Black trans and queer lives don’t matter, and the poor and other oppressed don’t matter. We can continue where Bland tragically left off in reminding each other and other strong leaders that in fact we matter more than our common oppressor thinks and have the potential to be a united force against them, and that’s exactly what they are afraid of.
Duciana Thomas is a Black feminist organizer and writes on behalf of the National Comrades of Color Caucus of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.