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Traffic Stop: Oscar-nominated doc shines a critical light on one woman’s experience of Driving While Black

[This post was originally posted on Medium]

“It could have happened to me.”

This is a phrase I often hear when talking about Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, spoken by Black women from all walks of life.

They are referring to Sandra Bland’s fateful — and ultimately fatal — traffic stop in July of 2015. They describe the outrage they felt at the way Brian Encinia, the officer who pulled Bland over, rapidly escalated the situation in response to a simple question from Bland about why she had to put her cigarette out when she was sitting in her own car — yanking her out of the vehicle, threatening to “light her up” with a TASER, violently throwing her to the ground and injuring her, and ultimately arresting her for the minor traffic offense of failing to use a turn signal, something all of us have done at some point or another if we drive a car. They express profound frustration about the abject deference expected of Black women by police officers, and the swift punishment that ensues for failure to display it. But behind the anger and the grief at Bland’s fate is fear — rooted in the realization that but for the grace of circumstance, it could have happened to them.

“I never believed it would happen to me.”

Those are the words spoken in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Traffic Stop by Breaion King, a 26 year-old schoolteacher who was also pulled over by a police officer just a few hundred miles South and a few weeks before Sandra Bland. As was the case for Bland, the officer rapidly escalated a simple traffic stop into a violent, abusive encounter. In this instance, the officer abruptly ordered King out of her car — after ordering her into it seconds before — when King calmly asked the officer to “hurry up” so that she could get on her way. He then proceeded to violently remove her from the vehicle, flinging her repeatedly onto the pavement like a rag doll as she screamed in terror, cried out to her god, and begged him to stop. The officer, who was twice her size, and later described King as an “itty bitty thing,” has since been fired following an unrelated instance of misconduct.

“Violent tendencies.”

These were the words used by one of the officers who drove King to the police station to be processed after her arrest to describe Black people, and to explain why white people might be afraid of the Black community. Usually, people associate such statements with perceptions of Black men, not Black women who are college graduates and elementary school teachers. Yet one of the lessons of Traffic Stop — and of Invisible No More — is that these are perceptions that apply with equal force to Black women, driving officers’ interactions with women like Bland and King, who clearly posed no physical threat to them.

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A Rash of Police Sexual Violence – Why I’ll be Marching for Black Women on September 30th

According to a 2015 investigation by the Buffalo News, based on over 700 cases documented over a ten year period, on average a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every 5 days. And those are just the ones who are caught, representing, by all accounts, just the tip of the iceberg of this pervasive yet invisible form of police violence.

Last week, 3 cases came to light in a period of just 2 days – first, on September 12th, NBC Philadelphia reported on a New Jersey State Trooper who resigned after admitting that he would pull women over to ask them out on dates, go through their phones, sometimes copy pictures and video of them, and demand their phone numbers. He would turn off the microphone on his body camera and later claim it malfunctioned, and then lie about the gender of drivers he pulled over to cover up the numbers of women he targeted. A plea deal entered in a criminal case against him permanently bars him from working as a public employee – an unusual outcome. More often, officers caught in acts of sexual misconduct simply move on to another department in what researchers call the “officer shuffle.” 

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Lesson from Detroit

As Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color wends its way into the world after living in my computer, countless boxes in my apartment, and in my heart and mind in various forms for the past decade, I find myself in Detroit for the annual Soros Justice Fellows conference. It feels like I am in the best possible place for this moment.

We are here, in part, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 – which has me reflecting on the role police violence against Black women – often invisible in the retelling - played in sparking the uprising, and ongoing resistance to police violence in the Motor City. At the time of the rebellion, Detroit’s occupying force was known for physical and sexualized violence against Black women as well as men. In 1964, they smashed Barbara Jackson’s face into a doorframe during a prostitution-related arrest, breaking her teeth and permanently damaging her face. In 1965, they shot another Black woman sex worker to death during an arrest. The night of July 23rd, 1967 was no different – when officers raided the “blind pig” (after hours club), the degradation to which they subjected Black women patrons is cited by historians as one of the sparks of the uprising. Later, when police arrested Jackie Lee Murdock, officers ripped off her top and groped her breasts as she was being booked at the police precinct. The National Guard’s killing of 4 year-old Tonia Blanding as they shot blindly into a house prompted further outrage.

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