Let's give credit where credit is due. The Dallas Morning News has done a perfectly OK job of covering Sandra Bland's questionable arrest and alleged suicide in a jail cell outside Houston. Even chronically wrong opinionaters (i.e., Tod Robberson) have managed to swallow their worst hot-take reflexes and compose thoughtful pieces on the topic and the proper balance of power between the police and the policed.
That was before Steve Blow published his Thursday column headlined "Obeying police instruction is easy first step to avoiding tragedy."
The advice Blow goes on to offer — "Very simply, obey police." — isn't necessarily bad. Generally speaking, as a matter of pure expedience and self-preservation, these encounters will go more smoothly when one does what the cop says. But Blow isn't offering this pabulum in a vacuum. He's offering it in the context of Bland's extremely questionable and politically charged death and detention. And though he insists his piece is "not about picking sides or ignoring other wrongdoing" and that "Of course we need to talk about overzealous police tactics, about excessive force and about law enforcement's long history of racial injustice," all of that rings a bit hollow when he writes sentences like these:
The vast majority of recent police confrontations would have never happened if the citizens involved had been calm, courteous and compliant with police instructions.
And that includes this latest sad case involving the arrest and death of Sandra Bland.
Among the many things Blow glosses over in his piece is the fact that it's not illegal to get mildly irritated over a bullshit traffic ticket — and the footage shows that her irritation was indeed mild, at least until the state trooper took the lead in escalating the situation. Here's a transcript of the initial part of their encounter via the Houston Press :
"What's wrong?" the trooper asked as he delivered Bland her ticket. "You seem very irritated."
"I really am, because I feel like it's crap for what I'm getting a ticket for," Bland said. "I was getting out of your way. You were speeding and tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated."
"Are you done?" the trooper said.
"You asked me what was wrong and I told you," Bland said.
"OK," the officer said. "You mind putting out your cigarette please?"
"I'm in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?"
"Well," the officer said, "you can step out now."
"I don't have to," Bland said.
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Perhaps, Blow acknowledges, the trooper was a bit quick to anger, but Blow has been there. He, too, knows the sting of police oppression. If only Bland had handled the situation the way Blow had done in what are presented as parallel situations, she would have been allowed to go merrily on her way:
It’s not like minorities are the only people who get stopped on flimsy pretexts. Just recently, a Dallas officer stopped me moments after picking up two of my granddaughters.
I couldn’t imagine why he was stopping me. But I did everything in my power to make his job easier. Remained calm. Remained in the car. Rolled my window down. Put both hands in plain sight on the steering wheel as he approached.
He wasn’t a bit friendly. Pretty cold and curt, in fact.
After he inspected my license and insurance, he said he had stopped me because it looked like the girls might not have been properly buckled into appropriate car seats.
They were, of course. And he sent us on our way.
Another time, a state trooper stopped me on a dark highway because one of the two license plate lights on my SUV was out. I think he just wanted to look for anything suspicious. Satisfied, he wrote out a warning ticket.
In both those cases, I’m sure my attitude could have created different outcomes.
Never mind the centuries of racial injustice in the United States or the toxic dynamic this has created between cops and minorities. Never mind that pretext traffic stops are used disproportionately on drivers of color. Just act like the folksy, white, 60-something newspaper columnist from Sunnyvale and you'll be just fine.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.