Essay: On the Death of Sandra Bland


by Ellen Blanchette

In reflecting on the death of Sandra Bland, I find myself deeply troubled. Here was a woman who had good reason to be proud of her accomplishments and a great deal to look forward to as she prepared to move to a new city and a new job. It seems so unfair and truly tragic that in the midst of that process she ended up dead alone in a jail cell due to an arrest on a minor traffic violation for which no white person would ever be arrested. Not only is this not a unique occurrence, for members of the African American community, it is an ever day experience.

It occurs to me that the behavior of many police departments around the country where deaths of blacks in their community have drawn attention to a widespread discriminatory treatment and violence by their police is a throwback to earlier times that many whites think is long gone. We are a nation of laws and with the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960’s guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote, equal rights in education, as well as laws against discrimination in employment and housing, many people in this nation have assumed that things had changed. Only they haven’t, not entirely and not everywhere. Passing a law doesn’t make it happen. The community at large must embrace the meaning and the spirit of the law and the political leaders must do all they can to enforce the law. In the case of these civil rights laws in particular, it is clear that most cities and towns have made only passing efforts to see that the spirit of the anti-discrimination laws are enforced. And within their own police departments, the efforts to manage crime, the methods used and the concepts that drive their policies are steeped in bigotry and bias against African Americans.

Take the matter of Eric Gardner, strangled and suffocated during an effort by several police to arrest him for selling individual cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island, in New York City. First of all, just how serious a crime is it to sell cigarettes out of the pack to some poor folk who apparently can’t afford to buy a pack for themselves? The police will say he was resisting arrest. The way he was doing that was arguing, in a non-violent and non-hostile way, while pulling his hands away from them as they attempted to put him in handcuffs. By his not passively cooperating, the police felt entirely empowered to jump on him in an attempt to bring him down to the ground. It took four policemen to do this, and the choke hold was what finally caused him to fall to the ground because he couldn’t breath. It also killed him. If he was in the midst of a violent action this might have been appropriate (maybe) but everyone can see, on the widely shared video tape, that he was just trying to plead his case and never took any action against the police. So I ask you, in what world would any of this happen in a white community?

I used to think the problem was that certain kinds of crimes like drug dealing are outdoor activities in black communities where as in white neighborhoods drugs are sold indoors among friends but that is the old world. In the new world, drugs are sold everywhere, even in small towns in Massachusetts like where I live now. And in many communities, if you are white they call your parents and if you are black they throw you in jail. For a very long time.

Reference was made to the anti-discrimination housing laws this week, in the midst of the various discussions on race. Redlining they called it years ago, where no black person could rent or buy in certain neighborhoods deemed white only (by the people who lived there.) This was outlawed. And? Once it became clear to people who either offered apartments for rent or were selling their homes, that they would be subject to penalties if they failed to consider black applicants, real estate brokers became the ones who stood in the path of blacks trying to rent or buy in certain communities. While some efforts to enforce the laws were successful for a time, ultimately neighborhoods became what they always were, little islands of separate communities existing side by side but not together.

In education it’s only worse. Busing mandates in the 1970’s in New York City and other big cities in the North led to what was known as white flight. In New York, whites left the boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens) in droves and moved to suburban communities. Those who remained sent their kids to private schools and many of the public schools became even more segregated, with students reflecting the new ethnic and racial mix in their communities. The failure of the housing civil rights laws became the failure of the laws requiring schools to be integrated, and the schools themselves in many cases fell into disrepair and failure. Within the communities that remained predominately white, public schools accepted the mandates of busing but frequently black students were segregated within the school into separate classrooms. This was done in a way that on the surface looked professional and caring. Special education became a means of separating black students from whites by designating them in need of individual attention. Small classes of angry little kids being denied their rights to an equal education did nothing to help things improve as the entire concept of integration was ignored. All of the dreams of those early years after the civil rights laws were enacted have failed to materialize in so many ways that is to their credit that so many black and Hispanic children have, in spite of this, succeeded in surpassing expectations and have gone on to get college educations and good jobs.

To me the behavior of the police departments across this nation is the last vestige of the past, the times that should be long gone. For all the reality of the civil rights laws, these officers and their superiors cling to a world that is no longer here, except in their small minds and actions. We are one nation. The people of this nation all deserve equal treatment under the law. Closing your eyes, looking away, standing on principles that are those of white supremacy, bigotry and hateful assumptions of what it takes to have a crime free community are the past. Change is inevitable but it is too slow and must happen now. This too will not stand.

Photography by Ellen Blanchette

Ellen Blanchette’s Closer Look

I work as a journalist for a small independent weekly newspaper in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. I’ve worked as a reporter since I moved to Western Mass from Brooklyn, New York in 2002,  thinking I would just keep working as an administrative assistant as I had in New York for almost 20 years. I had degrees, education for more than the work I did but I didn’t really fit in anywhere so I just did what I had to do to earn a living.  It was reasonably good work but not enough to challenge me.  The hardest part of the work I did, I think, was dumbing myself down to the polite, well dressed, quite person I needed to be to work in corporate America.  The title is just another term for secretary, but with knowledge and skill working with computer software for word processing.  I followed on the heels of women who had spent their lives as secretaries and were really good at their jobs.  When the personal computer first arrived in their offices many of them were intimidated.  They had been thrilled when typewriters moved from manual to the glorious IBM Selectric.  Giving up the manual typewriter was easy.  Somehow having no actual type hitting a ribbon that struck a page was not so easy a transition.  For me, however, it was like being set free.  Maybe it was the ease of using the keyboard, the lack of pressure and the way the keys were so close together.  I have very small hands.  The computer keyboard fit me perfectly.

Whenever I started a new job I was always excited and always sure it would be wonderful.  Sometimes that was even true but I never had a job that challenged me to use even a reasonable portion of my brain.  Once I learned the names of my fellow workers and the requirements of the job, there was nothing more to learn.  Sooner or later I got bored and stopped paying attention.  This is why I never considered a factory job.  I would probably lose a finger really fast on an assembly line.  Repetitive tasks cause my mind to wander and I seem to have no ability to control that inclination.  This is why being a journalist turns out to be the perfect job for me.  While a person can get caught in covering the same kind of stories for way too long, there is always choice.  Something gets boring, you feel you’ve done it to death, you just find something else that is more interesting.  There seems no end of things to write about.  Life is infinitely interesting.  And so the work I found here, after leaving the big city for the country, is exactly the work I should have been doing all along.  Except for the fact that there is no money in it, being a reporter is perhaps the best job I’ve ever had.  It continues to amaze me how willing people in positions of power are to talk to me, and how open they are with me.  Not everyone of course, but enough that I get to see how things work in a way I never could have before.  Being a reporter is gift and an honor and  I take it very seriously.