The “Lesson”of Inter-Personal Violence

When I watched the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I saw in the actions of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia a familiar sequence of events in the history of American policing. Bland got “smart” and Encinia got “tough.” His intent from the start may have been to provoke Bland to establish cause to search her car. Setting that aside, I want to focus on the inter-personal nature of a retaliatory arrest, which, I’d argue, highlights how our heritage of white male dominance continues to stalk officers on the beat. I want to emphasize both “white” and “male.”

The situation escalated right after Encinia inquired after Bland and she told him that she was irritated for being pulled over for changing lanes to allow Encinia to pass her. He had sped up behind her.

In the video, at this precise second, there’s a slight pause. Then in a revealing non-sequitor Encinia asks her to put out her cigarette. Knowing how this would end, I understood that this was the pivotal moment. Encinia was about to punish Bland. He was going to teach her a lesson. All he needed was an official reason. “Sass” wasn’t going to cut it. No, he would have to provoke her. Luckily for him, he could lean on his official authority–his power–to push Bland to ignore her own self-interest. The more arbitrary he made his actions appear, the angrier and more resentful she became.

In the early 1960s, a team of sociologists visited San Francisco to study the interactions between African American youths and the police. They watched police engage in a number of questionable tactics, most notably aggressive stop-and-frisk on less than reasonable suspicion. Police, in full view of the researchers, used racial epithets and physical roughness against young black men.

In the paper* that resulted the sociologists hit upon a powerful insight with direct implications for today. In these interactions between black youth and the police, the point was only secondarily criminal investigation. The real purpose was order-maintenance, in both its strict and broad sense of keeping certain people, in this case black men, in the place assigned to them by society and nowhere else. Thus, police routinely told young black men to leave white neighborhoods and pulled up fast on street corners to order them to return to private unseen spaces.

What makes this study so great is the specificity of its claims. The authors write that in an ordinary stop-and-frisk encounter, police did not assert their authority so much as their “power to investigate.” The difference was profound. Authority is rooted in the law, an impersonal set of rules that, in theory, guide an officer’s decisions. By contrast, the power to investigate is purely coercive. Its logic is the threat of force, and its mode is personal. Instead of policing by consent–the liberal ideal–it is policing by way of the gun. An officer who asserts the power to investigate cloaks the personal in the official, which lends an arbitrary quality to his actions. It is the arbitrary, personal nature of this power that provokes anger, resentment, and, inevitably, its own retaliatory violence.

The power to investigate illustrates the two kinds of violence that I think most obvious and salient to this discussion: systemic and inter-personal. Systemic violence refers to the range of harmful outcomes determined by one’s place in society, from stigma to chronic poverty to physical injury. Inter-personal violence also can take the form of symbolic, emotional, and physical harm.

Often, as for police brutality, inter-personal violence works in tandem with systemic violence in that they disproportionately affect marginalized people. Systemic biases–such as dominant norms–at some level motivate the perpetrator of the violent act.

What makes inter-personal violence distinct, I’d argue, is that a person who harms another in this way is working out, in real time, his or her own anxieties. The victim momentarily comes to represent some deeper injury or worry. The relation between perpetrator and victim can be intimate, abstract, or both. The violent act is not only visceral, an open wound of raw emotion, but also ideological, or rooted in a vision of social hierarchy, with the violence a tool to challenge or reinforce that order. Through violence the perpetrator may seek to assert dominance vis-a-vis the other person. She also may want to protect her superior class position or maneuver to erase her relative deficit of power.

The two are conjoined in the kind of violence we saw in the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest. Trooper Encinia grew angry because Bland failed to show proper deference as a citizen lawfully stopped for a traffic violation and (if we accept that his actions were racist) as a black woman addressing a white man. In this last respect, the wider context of Black Lives Matter also must be considered. We read everyday that the police feel unappreciated by the public. We are told that police resent all the “anti-police” advocacy. It is entirely possible that Encinia felt threatened by Bland because her tone and skin color suggested she might one of these “anti-police” advocates and as such more likely to be a “problem” for him, meaning force would be required.

Sandra Bland got “smart” with Brian Encinia, and he decided he had to teach her a lesson. The clearest evidence of this in the video comes when she tells him she has “epilepsy.” Both are off camera, but he was in the process of handcuffing her and pinning her to the ground. He replies, “Good.”

Encinia’s response stands out to me. It is churlish, childish even. Here is an insecure man with hurt feelings. He felt small. So he lashed out. Which is why I think Bland’s arrest reflects not only an assertion of racial but masculine power. “Get-tough” usually flexes its muscle at moments of weakness, impotence. In those moments its advocates pound their chests and promise decisive action. The performance matters as much as the process. It is cathartic.

Training in professionalism, the typical proposed cure, undoubtedly will help officers suppress personal emotions in tense situations and remain courteous. But I fear that police will continue to get tough on those who get “smart” because they operate within a War on Crime that prizes those qualities in the first place. Get smart, get tough–these are the tools of interpersonal violence that refuse to go away, because our culture continues to nourish them.

We need fewer racist officers, to be sure. But for me Sandra Bland’s arrest illustrates why we also need more feminist officers who understand the social and personal stakes of their interactions with members of the public. An officer’s retaliatory anger provokes not only because it appears arbitrary. When it reproduces unequal social relations, it can become an assertion of social dominance in official guise. In other words, it looks an awful lot like the power to investigate.

*Carl Wertham and Irving Piliavin, “Gang Members and the Police,” in The Police: Six Sociological Essays, ed. David J. Bordua (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1967). They discuss the “power to investigate” on pp. 87-88.

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