Three days later, Sandra Bland was dead, hanging in her cell. Her crime was a minor traffic infraction. Yet, when she was asked how she was feeling by the arresting officer, she gave her honest opinion and then was forcibly removed from her vehicle after failing to put out the cigarette she was smoking.
The dashboard camera recording shows the harrowing story with full sound. The video can be viewed here. Just minutes before pulling Bland over, the same officer had stopped another citizen for a similar offence. After a minute of discussion with the previous driver, the officer issued a warning and the whole conversation was amicable throughout.
Maybe the defining part of Sandra Bland was that she was a black woman, in Texas. If so, that is mortifying. It is also a terrible litmus test for racial tensions across the US. From the death of Eric Garner in July 2014 to the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in August of the same year, deaths due to race have a high prevalence in the US. Garner was selling cigarettes illegally on a street corner and was tackled to the floor and suffocated by multiple NYPD officers, a clip of his terrible demise went viral across social media, leading to peaceful protests for racial equality and justice the world over.
Many high profile figures such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other civil rights and racial equality campaigners have voiced concern over the official line of events leading up to Bland’s alleged suicide at Waller County jail, just 3 days after being detained for a minor traffic infraction. Clinton, in a speech made on Thursday, stressed the need for America to come together and tackle the race problem that is so visible around the country, and to address the matter with the utmost haste.
Several months ago, First Lady Michelle Obama – an incredibly accomplished woman in her own right, long before Barack Obama became the first black US President – talked about persevering through racial inequality in an impassioned Commencement speech made at Tuskegee University.
After the niceties of thanking the University staff, praising the students and thanking the parents and families in attendance for their intangible inputs, Obama commended the tenacity and sheer perseverance of several key Tuskegee students to achieve excellence in their fields, from aeronautics to biochemistry.
Rise above the noise and carry on building the road down which our mothers, fathers and grandparents before them walked, Obama urges. She goes on to discuss the fact that both herself and the President had often been mistaken to be the help at society dinners in Chicago before the Presidency, but also that they were exposed to serious racial slurs even during the Obama’s two term presidency. The First Lady of the United States being subject to such racial bigotry in the world’s most prominent advanced superpower just because of the colour of her skin, in 2015? How this is possible is astounding.
Returning to Sandra Bland, where do we go from here? Carry on as if nothing happened and continue to sweep the US’s widespread racial problems under the carpet? Or, is the better route to tackle the racial problems head on? But how exactly this can be achieved is no easy question to answer.
Start young. Exposing children to race and ethnicities at an early age could be a good start. Tackling misunderstanding, bigotry and racial instability in a child’s formative years, when going through the compulsory schools system, could work wonders on soothing tensions. Another method would be to penalise those who appear to have been racially motivated to carry out a crime or act in a different way; such as in the case of the arresting officer in Bland’s case.
Working together, from a young age, is no doubt the best way forward; as soon as children are exposed to a variety of different ethnicities, religions and cultures, the common sense belief would be that they would grow up to be far less likely to show racism or religious hatred in later life.
Racial tensions do not dissipate overnight, but require months, years and decades of work, protests and debates.
Changes to societal norms take decades to slowly ebb and change – the only hope may be that in 10, 20, 30 years time we are telling a vastly different story.