As you are probably aware, Sandra Bland is a young woman who was found dead in her cell in Waller County, Texas on July 13. I have been giving no small amount of thought to this senseless series of events. I have watched as people in both mainstream and social media take sides to assign culpability in this sad, sad death. I know I am coming late to the argument, but as details have arisen I have been reminded of the idea of arbitrary tyranny.
Whether or not the police officers who arrested and detained Sandra Bland actively participated in her death or merely stood by helplessly as she suicidally hung herself in her cell is really beside the point. She was in a cell to begin with because she was pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal while changing lanes. This woman is dead as a result of a minor traffic infraction.
Perhaps there have been several major tragedies happen as a result of improper lane changes by motorists in Waller County, Texas. I am willing to give the police officer the benefit of the doubt on that count. I will concede that he had a legal reason to pull Sandra Bland over; however minor this particular traffic violation may have been, it was still an illegal act. Therefore, trooper Encinia was well within his rights and obligations in pulling her over.
What concerns me most is that Sandra Bland went to jail for a minor traffic violation. Her behavior, however poorly it might be judged by the police officer involved, and secondary observers after the fact, did not provide the grounds for this woman to be denied her freedom and agency. People have a right not to be happy about being pulled over by the police. People have a right to record their treatment by the police. Whatever legal justification was given for her arrest, Sandra Bland’s real crime was contempt of cop.
Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate writes about the concept of contempt of cop here. On the matter of Sandra Bland he writes:
…it seems clear from the video that Encinia’s actions, not to mention his initial verbal escalation of the situation, happened in large part because he took offense at what he perceived as Bland’s disrespectful attitude—what is known in legal circles as “contempt of cop”—rather than any belief that she presented an imminent threat to anyone’s safety.
Contempt of cop is important because it complements the idea of arbitrary tyranny. Arbitrary tyranny is the idea that there are things most people do on a daily basis that are illegal. Most of the time these technically illegal but common activities are ignored. However, because these things are illegal they consequently provide authorities with a rationale to detain or arrest people at will. The point being that, under a system of arbitrary tyranny, the only thing the state, usually in the form of a police officer, needs to arrest you is the desire to do so.