Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Now Samuel DuBose. It seems that we can’t even digest one of these horrific, senseless killings, before we’re confronted with the next one. At this point it wouldn’t be shocking if there’s another one to wipe Samuel DuBose off the front page before I’m finished writing this.
As people who die in police custody go, Sandra Bland is so last week, I know. But I am still thinking about her. Whether she committed suicide, as the official story has it, or she was murdered, as some people believe, or she was treated roughly enough by the cops that they accidentally killed her, as seems likeliest to me, it’s clear that there is a problem with law enforcement in this country.
At some point, it seems, the mandate for the police went from “protect and serve” to “intimidate and harass.” We went from knowing the cops by name and asking them for directions to getting really tense and scared when we see them, whether we’re criminals or not. We’ve gone from feeling like “that guy is on my side” to feeling like “that guy is watching my every move so he can give me a ticket, but I’d better smile and love that ticket because if I give any sign that I am going to do anything other than SUBMIT, he might kill me.”
Obviously, this distrust is more pronounced among the people who keep getting killed for no good reason. White boys like me can’t pretend to be as nervous that we are going to be murdered by the cops until a video of a white boy being murdered by the cops hits YouTube. But you certainly can’t blame black folks for feeling that way, and worse, for feeling like nobody cares. But how else are they to feel when social media erupts more over the killing of an African lion than an African American?
Sportswriter Bill Simmons once coined the term “The Tyson Zone” to mean the point in a story when the public would believe anything, no matter how insane. After a guy bites another guy’s ear off in the ring, and gets a face tattoo, pretty much all bets are off as far as believing what that guy would or would not do.
As these videos keep surfacing, and exposing more and more brazen abuses of power by the police, resulting in more and more black bodies, we have entered a kind of Tyson Zone with the cops. After you’ve seen video of a cop shooting a suspect “suspect” in the back and then trying to plant evidence to justify it, after you’ve seen a cop threaten to “light up” a woman for refusing to put out a cigarette, after you’ve seen a cop SHOOT SOMEONE IN THE HEAD because he tried to flee a front license plate ticket, well, you’ll believe pretty much anything.
So when the idea started circulating on Twitter that Sandra Bland was already dead when her mugshot was taken, a lot of people believed it, or at least didn’t disbelieve it. I didn’t disbelieve it. Though there is no evidence that the official story — that she hung herself in her cell the morning she was going to get out of jail — isn’t true, it also stretches credulity by more than a little: Bland was an activist who had spoken about police abuse of power, about the power of social media to expose those abuses, who was heard thanking the bystander who recorded her needlessly violent arrest for recording it, who planned to take the arresting officer to court, who had just started a new job. Does that sound like someone who would do herself in? I’m not so sure the cops killed her on purpose, that seems unlikely, but it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that they got a little too rough with her as they were taking her in (this part particularly is not hard to imagine, as it’s on video) and somehow accidentally killed her — maybe by triggering an epileptic seizure? I don’t know, I can only speculate. But the official story is fishy enough to suggest some kind of coverup. If they would pull her over for not signaling when she was getting out of their way, and if they would drag her out of her car for not putting out her cigarette, and if they would put a knee in her back for resisting being dragged out of the car, and if they would lie about how things got to that point (only to be contradicted by the video), sure, maybe they’d cover up her death, too. There’s no real logical inconsistency there.
Bland’s mugshot started making the rounds, and people started commenting that she looked like she was lying on the floor, rather than standing up. Her hair is hanging back, instead of down! The shadow is too close to the back of her head! You can see up her nose! Her cheeks look drawn! Why is she in prison scrubs, instead of the clothes they arrested her in? And look at her dead, lifeless eyes!
Reasonable people can disagree whether her eyes are “lifeless” or “angry” or just “over this bullshit,” but the story was crazy enough to that point that it didn’t seem completely crazy to imagine that once again, the cops were lying about what happened to her.
Then another version of that mugshot started going around, where Bland looked a lot more dead: her eyes rolled all the way back, the dark circles under her eyes a little more pronounced.
This was the moment my bullshit detector went off. I can believe that some powertripping cops forgot themselves, accidentally killed someone and then tried to cover it up. I’ll still listen if you suggest that they even tried to pass off a photo of a dead woman as a mugshot as part of the coverup. But now you want me to believe that the fellas at the Denton PD have the Photoshop skills to add convincing eyeballs where there were none? It’s a lot easier to take eyeballs out than it is to put them in, which suggests that someone spent some time doctoring that mugshot to “prove” that Bland was already dead when they took her mugshot.
WHY? How does that help? If you are outraged about what happened to Ms. Bland, I am with you. If you are hoping to draw more attention to the whole thing, I am here to help. But faking evidence to prove something, even if you’re 100% certain that it’s true, is bound to blow up in your face. Just ask Dan Rather.
When O.J. Simpson was on trial for murdering his ex-wife and her favorite waiter, his attorneys insisted that the wealth of incriminating evidence against him was the result of an elaborate frame-up by the LAPD. I followed the case pretty closely and while I never doubted that Simpson was guilty, there were a couple of weird details about some of the evidence that did kind of make it seem like maybe the detectives engaged in a little horseplay, just to seal the deal. Like they thought, well, there’s a blood trail here, and there’s blood on his car door, so let’s drop the bloody glove on the grounds and turn this layup into a slam dunk.
It didn’t work, because Simpson’s defense raised enough questions about some of the evidence — questions the LAPD didn’t have good answers for — that it put the whole case into question, and Simpson ended up being acquitted of a crime he could only have been more obviously guilty of if he had signed left a signed football at the scene.
Similarly, it’s pretty obvious that there’s more to what happened to Sandra Bland than the cops are saying. But when this dead-in-her-mugshot meme went viral, the Denton PD released a video of Bland’s intake, fingerprinting, and posing for her mugshot, and she does not appear to be deceased in any part of it.
So that answers one question: was she dead in her mugshot? No she was not. Does that mean that she did not suffer a grave injustice? Absolutely not. Even if the cops are telling the truth and she really hung herself in her cell with a garbage bag — and that’s a big, big if — her case is the clearest documented example of how far off course routine policing has gone from “protect and serve.” Or at least it was, until Samuel DuBose forgot his driver’s license.
But now that “our side” — the side that thinks the cops aren’t telling the whole truth about this — put fake evidence out there, the next piece of evidence is going to be viewed much more skeptically, if it’s viewed at all, so whoever faked this image has done a great disservice to their own cause — unless their cause was making the people who think there’s more to this story look like the crazy ones.
But if it wasn’t, and the person who circulated this image is reading this, do us all a favor and knock it off. You’re not part of the solution, which means you’re part of the problem.