Monday, August 10, 2015

Sandra Bland & the rights of the accused

Sandra Bland died alone in jail in Waller County, Texas, failed by the justice system that was supposed to care for her.
As the 52-minute dash cam video of her arrest shows, Trooper Brian Encinia was seriously deceptive in how he recounted the interaction on his radio. In his telling, Sandra Bland was cursing him out from the very beginning of their conversation – while the tape shows that she’s irked, but answers his questions respectfully. He says he “allowed time to de-escalate.” But here’s how much time ticks away between the moment he gets to her car to hand her the ticket and his angry demand that she get out of the car: 40 seconds. He says she pulled away from him, but the tape shows nothing of the sort – only that she’s upset and calls him a pussy after he wrestles her to the ground.

Beyond her spurious arrest for assault on a public servant, a class-three felony, after having been pulled over simply for failing to signal while changing lanes, there’s another issue that contributed to her death: in her three nights in jail, Sandra Bland never got to see or talk with someone who was on her side.

Take her arraignment (in Waller County, it’s called a Magistrate’s Admonishment). This is the moment when you appear before a judge and are formally advised of the charges against you. It’s a piece of judicial theater that’s well known to viewers of the long-running TV show Law & Order, with attorneys and prosecutors battling it out over bail.

If Sandra Bland had had a lawyer (a right that has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miranda case), that advocate would have suggested that Judge Delores Hargrave release her on her own recognizance – because she had roots in the community (Prairie View A&M University was her alma mater) and had moved to Waller County to take a job on campus. This was not someone who was going to cut and run.

Instead, Sandra Bland stood alone in an orange Gitmo-style jump suit before Judge Hargrave. The jail security camera has no audio, so we don’t know if she was given the chance to say anything. According to the Admonishment form signed by Judge Hargrave and Ms. Bland, she said she did not want a lawyer. The judge imposed bail of $5,000. Wanting to discuss these matters, I called Judge Hargrave a number of times at her office and home in the weeks after Sandra Bland died, but she did not return the calls.

Orange may be the new black on TV, but in real life a felony is a serious thing. Indeed, a felony conviction might have denied, or at least complicated, Sandra Bland’s ability to take up her new job. Prairie View A&M University is a state-funded institution and requires all staffers to go through a criminal background check. A conviction would not automatically have barred Sandra Bland from being hired, but even if the case were simply in process, she would have had to inform Prairie View, perhaps muddling things with her new employer. And she would probably have had to report this to all future employers for the rest of her life.

A conviction might also have, if she decided to register in Waller County, taken away her right to vote, at least temporarily (according to the Texas Secretary of State, a person cannot register to vote if he or she has been convicted of a felony and not completed the full sentence imposed by the court.)

Being in jail is shocking – particularly if you’ve never been there before. It helps to know just what the procedures are and how long they usually take. An advocate could have walked her through the process and served as a point person for her family and friends. Someone who understood the system could have tried to keep her spirits up and perhaps more quickly coordinated her release.

But America, it seems, is vengeful towards the accused, no matter how concocted the charges against them. The only thing America offered Sandra Bland was a county-issue bright orange jump suit.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Donald Trump for a day

I tried to be Donald Trump for a day.

Without the bank account or the properties or the advisors or the retinue or the ex-wives or the $3 billion name. But with the vocabulary.

So, when I left the dog park, at 7 in the morning, I turned to the women (and men) who were assembled there with their grazing pets, and said, amiably, “Later, fat cows.”

When I ran into a fellow writer at a local coffee bar, I greeted her in great solidarity: “Hello, disgusting animal.”

Walking back home, I saluted another woman I knew: “Good morning, dog.”

And I discovered that I couldn’t be Donald Trump for even ten minutes. It’s hard to talk this way. From the start, the phrases just wouldn’t come off my tongue the right way – the commonplace insulting way that Trump uses them. “Dog,” which I say to my dog all the time, came off like “dawg” or, more accurately, like the old-school “dou-awg” -- just the way my old Bronx-born buddy Connie Flynn used to say it (she also called me “Rou-awb”). “Disgusting animal,” when I voiced it at a person, felt like a serious epithet – much worse than ‘fucking asshole.’ And I uttered “fat cows” so tentatively I’m sure it sounded like I was clearing my throat.

Now, I curse just as much as anyone else. I believe in curse words. I value them. I think pronouncing them is healthy. I like cursing in English and every other language I have ever tried to learn (‘yarak,’ for instance, means ‘dick’ in Turkish -- and is a far more forbidden and vulgar and absolutely awful expression than it is in English, so don’t trying saying it to a Turk.) Curses are useful and expressive and, often, incredibly apt. Indeed, I swear, I can curse with such liberality that at times I wonder if I have Tourette’s.

Which is to say, I can be a very vulgar human being. But I couldn’t begin to say the things Donald Trump seems to say every day and not feel like a disgusting animal.

Try it. And then be prepared to acknowledge that there’s only one word that can describe someone who talks this way in public on a regular basis as a matter of principle and as an honest expression of who they are and then doubles down on it when called to account: “Yarak.”


update half a day later:

When I wrote the first part of this post perhaps 12 hours ago, I let something interesting sputter out in a feeble ending.

For sure, Trump is yarak. But that's not a particularly revelatory conclusion. And, of course, in saying he's yarak, I am doing to Trump what he is doing to others.

What stands out to me now is one line in the middle of my rant: that it’s hard to say the things Trump is saying.

This is true. It's very hard. When you call someone a disgusting animal, or a fat cow, or a pig, or a dog, there’s no way you don’t know exactly what you’re saying. 

Of course, @realDonaldTrump wrote some of these things on twitter – and it’s far easier to be nasty in 140 characters than in person. Flaming was a thing back when email started, and it remains a thing on social media today.

But try it and you’ll see. Try really saying these things to people. When you do that, the meaning gets heightened. There's no playing around. No wiggle room. No chance for interpretation. 

You have to mean what you say.