Something unusual happened to Professor Dorothy Bland last week as she was taking her daily power walk around the sleepy, affluent golf-course community where she lives. The police stopped her—for walking, she insists.
“I am so amazed. I went for a walk!” a flummoxed Bland, who is black, says to two white police officers in a video of the incident posted to YouTube. She is dressed in running pants and a hooded sweatshirt—she doesn’t have an ID when they ask for one. The whole encounter lasts about three minutes, ending in handshakes and small talk about the weather. The cops leave.
In the last week, those uncomfortable three minutes have been replayed at least 800,000 times on YouTube. They’ve spawned national headlines, dueling op-eds in The Dallas Morning-News between Bland and her local police chief, and even a petition to get Bland fired from her teaching job.
What actually happened in that video? It depends on who you ask. Bland believes she was being racially profiled, and the police believe they were just doing their job. Thanks to cell phones and body cameras, tense interactions between black civilians and white police officers are permanently imprinted inside our heads. Though Bland was left alive, the incident is a clear example of how history weighs on the relationship between black Americans and law enforcement.
“I read all of this against history,” said Leola Johnson, a professor of media and cultural studies at Macalester College, of the video and its fallout. “When you are part of a community that has had a century of profiling or more, you read everything as profiling,” she continued. “You wonder whether or not [police] stop white people who are walking down the street.”
In her op-ed, Bland cited the names of black Americans associated with police brutality and racial profiling. “Although I am not related to Sandra Bland, I thought about her, Freddie Gray and the dozens of others who have died while in police custody,” she wrote. “For safety’s sake, I posted the photo of the officers on Facebook.”
“Knowing that the police officers are typically armed with guns and are a lot bigger than my 5 feet, 4 inches, I had no interest in my life’s story playing out like Trayvon Martin’s death,” she wrote.
Bland described her alleged crime as “walking while black,” invoking the long history of police racially profiling black Americans. It happened to businessman Charles Felk in Los Angeles last August when he was on his way to pre-Emmy awards activities; to an elderly veteran in Seattle who was using a golf club as a cane like he did everyday; and to Bobby Wingate in Florida who, unlike Bland, was arrested for walking on the wrong side of the road in 2013. Philosophy professor George Yancy wrote in the New York Times about being a young boy and feeling the “white gaze” of a police officer who thought the new telescope his mother bought him was a weapon.
Bland brings up another name too: Henry Louis Gates. Professor Gates was stopped by police in July of 2009 at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home, closeby to Harvard University where he teaches. The professor, who was suspected of breaking and entering into his own home, gave the officer identification with his home address but was arrested anyway. The incident received national attention after President Obama held a beer summit with Gates at the White House to discuss the matter.
But critics of Bland essentially call her a liar. The dash-cam footage clearly disproves her account of the experience, they say.
“If we didn’t have the video, these officers would have serious allegations against them,” said Corinth Police Chief Debra Walthall told Fox News. “It would be their word against hers. Every white officer that stops an African-American does not constitute racial profiling.”
Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, told the Dallas News that race “had nothing to do with” the incident and that the professor “took advantage of a very innocent and thoughtful police response.” A petition on Change.org which calls for Bland to be removed from her position as dean at the University of North Texas’s journalism school had over 3,500 signatures at the time of publication. Created by a student there, it alleges that Bland’s account of the incident violated the “core values and ideas” of the school, including truthfulness and objectivity. UNT distanced itself from Bland in a Facebook post, but encouraged its community to engage in “respectful” dialogue.
Police say the stop was made for Bland’s own safety. “You’re impeding traffic, and it’s a safety issue. We don’t want you to get hit,” one of the officers says in the dash-cam video. The officers tell Bland she had been blocking a truck. In a statement, Walthall called the officers courteous and professional.
In a column, Chief Walthall expanded. “The citizens of Corinth as a whole are a highly educated population,” wrote Walthall. “And it is disappointing that one of our residents would attempt to make this a racial issue when clearly it is not."
Bland herself raises the issue of class in her Morning-News op-ed. “I’m a perfectly law-abiding citizen,” wrote Bland. “And I pay lots of taxes too,” she added. “I guess I was simply a brown face in an affluent neighborhood."
Bland’s experience of the incident is clear: she was racially profiled, wronged. In her column she vows not to let the experience “ruin” her life. But there is an important distinction to be made between the professor and Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin: Bland survived, unscathed.
Bland had a different privilege than Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray. The professor was able to identify her class to the officers by telling them she was “a property owner” and giving them her nearby address. Bland insisted to the officers that she paid taxes and is a “law abiding citizen.”
The police didn’t put their hands on Bland, they didn’t give her a citation. They told her to move from one side of the street to the other. But Bland’s experience of the incident is very different than the author of the change.org petition. There is an element of surprise in Bland’s voice, like she never expected to be stopped by the police. It just be might damn near impossible for Black Americans and white officers to interact without the weight of centuries of distrust.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.