Monday, July 27, 2015

Imagine You Are Sandra Bland. Do We Have That Moral Courage?

“Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”        
 --The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Why We Can't Wait”

Here’s what I challenge you to do.

Watch the nine minute and twenty nine second video documenting the arrest of Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas on July 10th, a close up unfiltered view of what begins as a routine traffic stop, but then quickly escalates into an angry confrontation, and then handcuffs, and then arrest. Three days later Bland was dead, and according to the preliminary autopsy report, she committed suicide in her jail cell.

The video is easy to find. It’s all over the Internet.  Google “Sandra Bland video” and there it is. Then just watch it. Watch as what might have been, should have been, a simple encounter, a “by the book” stop, frighteningly and swiftly devolves into a holy and hellacious and now all too familiar and tragic mess. Be warned: the language is at times graphic and the action shocking.

As Washington Post columnist Lonnae O’Neil wrote in a July 26th opinion piece, in response to seeing the video, which was captured from the dashboard car camera of Officer Encinia, “I am struggling with whether the nation that watches the video can see itself....[that] Encinia and Bland were already reading from two different books [as the encounter unfolds]. “

One white “book”. One black “book”.

One from a position of power, the other from a position of frustration and anger and, right beneath those emotions, I imagine, fear.  A young woman returning in joy to her college town to begin a new job and a new life. A young man brand new to his profession (a little more than a year on the job), somehow allowing a situation get completely out of his control.

It’s a very painful video to watch but is just the next chapter in a story unfolding in this our all too hot and long year of race relations, anger and despair, in the United States.  Prairie View. Ferguson. Charleston. Cleveland. New York City.  How we view all of these events, how we frame them, understand them…well it finally depends on where we stand in the world. In our society.  Our nation. Our neighborhood. The “book” of our life experience which provides a narrative as to how we imagine our lives as citizens.

So my “book” is one of privilege and power and I need to name that, remember that, own that, confess to that. All men and women may be created equal by our God, but equal treatment: that’s a whole other story.

For me a traffic stop is just that, a traffic stop, nothing more. It might increase my heart rate a bit.  Might annoy me.  But in the handful of times I’ve been pulled over in my car, not once, never, ever, did I have an idea in my head, a concern, a fear, that this event would result in anything more than a warning or a ticket and then a nervous drive away.

So do this. Watch the video and then put yourself in Bland’s place, in Bland’s front seat.  Try to imagine all the history and all the family stories and all the experiences you’ve had as a woman and a person of color in your one life, in this country in 2015, then think about what might be going through your heart on that hot July afternoon.  How might you feel? The fact you are a stranger, thousands of miles away from your home and friends and family, and alone. What scenarios might be playing out in your mind in the moments before you produce your license and registration?

Imagine that.  

If only…if only we humans could do that more, have this quality of moral imagination when it comes to our shared lives in this diverse nation and world.  If only whites could imagine what life is too often like for folks of color in the United States. If only Christians could imagine what life is like for Muslims and people of other minority faiths in America. If only the rich could somehow imagine what it is like to be poor in our land. And yes, if only civilians could better imagine how hard and risky it is at times to be a police officer. For if we are to have the courage of this moral imagination, it must extend to all, to everyone, everyone in our world.

So if you dare, watch the video. Let go of the need to blame or judge or conclude.  Then just for a moment, imagine that you are Sandra Bland.


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