Featured Image -- 57I don’t even remember his name. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me much. He hardly spoke to me. This was the early 1970’s, and we were involved in numerous political actions on the Tri-c metro campus at the time. He was most focused on what was being called the Black Power movement. I think he was a veteran, but I’m not sure. One time, as I conversed with other members of his group, he walked away, saying loudly, “I don’t trust white people. Just stay away from me, Man.”

He wasn’t pleasant around me, but when I heard him speak in groups, I knew he cared as much about justice as I did. He expressed a passion for fairness, and didn’t seem intimidated by the authorities during the occasional confrontations.

He was a Black man in a country where white people had kidnapped and enslaved his people for centuries, and then, through many decades, had engaged in hundreds of lynchings and systematic discrimination in all areas of public life. I knew he had no good reason to trust a white guy. In spite of that, though he had told me to stay away from him, I was convinced that if he just got to know me, we could be friends or at least active allies.  I approached him again one day during a demonstration, and to my surprise, instead of walking away, this time he turned and got right in my face. “I told you; stay the f–k away from me!”

I took his advice.

A couple months later, there was a demonstration in the commons. I don’t remember what it was about. It could have been the school administration, police brutality, the war, Black rights, or whatever. There were always good issues. I was late, and when I got to a balcony overlooking the commons, I saw that the police were present, and there were a couple scuffles going on. It looked like one of them involved three or four officers and him, but I couldn’t see for sure because the police were blocking access to the commons. Not able to get any clear information about what had happened, I moved on after a while. I had to get to work anyway.

A few days later, as I perused the newspaper, I saw a small article that reported that a county jail inmate had committed suicide.  As I read further I realized the inmate was my would-be friend.  According to the report he had somehow hanged himself.

Now, maybe he really did kill himself, but nobody I knew believed that.  We knew he would have fought the police with all the rage inside him.  He would have made life miserable for those trying to arrest and book him.  And I knew from my time on the street that many officers made sure that anybody resisting at all, paid a price. We believed that a proud, rage-filled Black man like him would be in real danger.

All these years later, maybe Sandra Bland really did kill herself in that Texas jail cell, but when I heard her story, I immediately thought of that courageous, righteously angry man. A proud, “uppity” Black woman, outraged by police behavior and the charges brought against her, arrested for assaulting an officer, would not go quietly. Given what many us know through our experience of what some individuals with unfettered police authority are capable of doing, it has to be proven to us that she was not murdered in that cell, not proven that she was. Unfortunately, American jails have always been dangerous places for Black citizens.

I don’t know how many people have been murdered while in police custody–maybe not as many as I imagine–maybe a lot more.  And that’s the problem with authority.  How do we trust those in power? Anyone who knows the history of racism and classism in this country knows that those with unchecked power can do whatever they want to you, regardless of your supposed rights. Sometimes they suffer consequences; most times they don’t. There are thousands of union organizers, rights workers, civil disobedience activists, or just people with the “wrong” attitude that can attest to that.

As we discuss current police violence, these deaths and others like them are a reminder that all aspects of state control in a democratic society must be scrutinized and monitored by a vigilant public committed to justice and liberty. The current conversation must name racism and racist violence. It must also lead us to methods to ensure all citizens protection from arbitrary violence from those delegated to serve us. We all deserve that.

River Smith is a psychologist and social justice educator.