A historic conference of Black Lives Matter activists took place last weekend in the midst of daily police killings of unarmed people of color. Over 1,000 activists from groups including Ferguson Action, Black Youth Project 100, and Baltimore United for Change traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to raise national attention to police brutality, immigration rights, economic justice and LGBTQ rights. The conference ended, almost symbolically, in a videoed confrontation between activists and transit police who had arrested a black 14-year-old.
According to the Washington Post, “a transit police officer in the city turned a can of pepper spray on a mostly African American crowd that had gathered as authorities were placing an intoxicated teen into a patrol car.” Conference participant Destinee Hinton said: “They begin to form a barricade around the car urging the police to let the young man go but they wouldn’t and when they were linking arms and doing chants one of the police officers began pepper spraying the whole line.”
Ever since 9/11, police departments have been showered with military hardware and trained to use lethal force as a first resort, leading to more and more cases of unjustified killings of unarmed people, most visibly African Americans. The resistance to these killings has begun to undermine the legitimacy of state violence and has also exposed the extent to which state power is founded on racial terror: for example, The Intercept revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring gatherings of people in mainly black neighborhoods, confirming the fear of state forces that black militancy will subvert the foundation of their authority. The growth of a multiracial society and erosion of white privilege is a tectonic shift that has created tremors at the base of the US state, fracturing the racial hierarchy that underpinned social relations.
The conference followed a week of protests across the country, beginning with the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, followed by demonstrations calling for justice for Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after being arrested at a traffic stop, as well as other black women including Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old found dead in her jail cell in Alabama a day after Sandra Bland died, Joyce Curnell in Charleston and Ralkina Jones in Ohio, both found dead in their cells in the same week. Sam Dubose was shot down in Cincinnati during a routine traffic stop by a university police officer, who has been charged with his murder.
What happened to Sandra Bland is a microcosm of the social dynamic between police and African Americans. She was close to arriving at a new job at the historically black university Prairie View A&M in Texas, from where she graduated, and driving along University Drive. State trooper Brian Encinia was traveling in the opposite direction. When he saw her, he made a U-turn and sped up behind her vehicle.
She moved to the right lane to let him pass, but did so without signaling. Encinia turned on his lights – automatically triggering audio recording – and approached her car. At this point the interaction was strained, but civil. He checked out her license in his vehicle, and returning with a warning ticket written out, he saw something in her demeanor that told him she was not passively compliant. He asks why she seemed irritated. “I am, I really am,” she replied, “because I feel like it’s crap is what I’m getting a ticket for, I was getting out of your way, you were speeding up, tailing me so I moved over and you stopped me so yeah, I am a little irritated but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so.”
At this point, Encinia dismisses her statement with a curt “Are you done?” He deliberately escalates the confrontation by instructing her to put out her cigarette and she challenges his right to do this. He then ordered her out of her car, threatens to use his taser, shouting “I will light you up,” and arrested her after throwing her onto the ground.
The root cause of the confrontation was the clash between her consciousness of her constitutional rights and Encinia’s need to establish his authority by claiming physical dominance through intimidation.
Whatever happened in Sandra’s cell, she was transformed from an empowered young black woman and social activist to a victim of a Kafkaesque legal nightmare, needing $500 to make bail and possibly facing the loss of her job opportunity due to her arrest.
Her life should be respected in a way the authorities did not; Black Lives Matter activists were therefore justified in challenging Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Nation conference to address the crisis of police violence. Protesters took over Sanders’ Q&A session, shouting “black lives matter,” and “say her name,” until he grew visibly frustrated.
The Washington Post reported: “Sanders threatened to leave the stage as demonstrators demanded that he repeat the name of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in a Texas jail cell this month. Then he canceled a series of meetings he had scheduled with some of the activists following his appearance.” In a later appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders continued to cast the challenges minorities faced as primarily economic, again pointing to his lifelong support for the civil rights movement. According to CNN, “He pointed to soaring unemployment figures for young African-Americans, and blamed an ‘unsustainable level of income and wealth inequality’.”
Activist Patrisse Cullors told Democracy Now: “[The intervention] was about challenging the notion that there’s only the lens of the economic justice agenda … They were unable to really listen to the needs of the Black Lives Matter protesters.” Alicia Garza added: “There is nothing separate about wages from black life and the survival of black people than police violence and police terrorism … Police violence is the tip of the iceberg when it relates to the conditions overall of black people across the globe.”
While Sanders was slow to recognize the new dimension of the struggle against police brutality – although in his video-streamed house party on Wednesday he was upfront in attacking the institutional racism that led to Sandra Bland’s death and called for police reform – the intervention of the activists succeeded in changing the political dialog, to the fury of right-wing Fox TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly.
The protests in Ferguson showed all too well that the militarization of increasingly trigger-happy police forces across the country is a danger not only to African Americans, who are the most visibly targeted, but to Americans of all ethnicities. Police abuse of power affects everyone – and video of these abuses has affected all sections of society. As a Ferguson demonstrator said last year: “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a police thing. It’s America against the police.”
In the US, class and ethnicity are fused in a complex set of social markers. For example, well-heeled Cuban-Americans in Miami are much less likely to be stopped and shot than working-class Latinos in Anaheim, California, where unarmed Manuel Diaz was shot dead in 2012 while running away from police. The forces of law and order function to keep the rich safe from the poor – and brownness and blackness are perceived as markers of poverty and criminality. The huge transfer of wealth from the poor to super-wealthy billionaires has only exacerbated this tension.
Economic struggle, like the union-backed Fight for 15, doesn’t supersede the political struggle for racial equality and social justice. However, there is a connection between the fight for a living wage, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights: new coalitions of people and new forms of resistance are possible at their intersection. That’s why Sandra Bland’s life matters.