Sandra Bland's "mistake" was to act like a first-class citizen of a free country. She was punished for that by the side of the road in Texas, and now she is dead.
When she was pulled over in Prairie View she didn't make nice, act surprised and apologetic, or flirt. She didn't pretend she was happy for the chance to visit with an officer who, to judge by his exchange with another young woman driver at the beginning of the arrest video, liked to get chatty. She looked straight ahead and, when asked, said she was irritated to have her day interrupted by a (disputable and very minor) traffic infraction. She asked the officer to get on with writing her ticket.
She spoke back to him, crisply and rationally. She acted as if she had rights. She acted as if there were limits to the cop's authority. He punished her by knocking away the limits, turning his role into a Kafka-esque game. "You're under arrest." "For what?" "For resisting arrest." Suddenly, it seemed, he could do whatever occurred to him and call it law enforcement.
He was going to issue her a warning. He enjoyed warnings, to judge by the one he had given during his last stop. (He told that driver, twice, "There's no fine, no penalty," while asking about her classes and reminding her to email her dad for her insurance information, which she apparently didn't have.) It's a little trick of petty power, winning affection by withholding punishment. If wielding power is how you get people to like you, it's best to remind them what you can do to them, then draw it back just in time. But when he asked her to put out her cigarette, and she declined, he ordered her out of the car. For the next, tumultuous half-minute or so, he is going crazy: grabbing at her in the driver's seat as she seems to go limp, then, notoriously, threatening to "light her up."
When she does step out of the car, in response to this threat, she is swearing, insulting him, but still making her points: you need to do your job; there are limits to your power; you have no basis to order me out of my car; you have no basis to arrest me; what are you doing? What is happening? WHAT IS HAPPENING?
A few minutes later, the officer is on the phone, presumably with a superior, trying to decide what it was he arrested her for. Resisting arrest? He seems aware of the irony, uncomfortable with the circularity. Assault, maybe? There's always something.
One of the oldest and most central American principles is supposed to be this: in a free society, an officer of the state has no arbitrary, discretionary, or personal power over you. That is what the phrase "rule of law, not rule by men" means if it means anything.
That is the theory. A citizen doesn't owe a police officer any more social deference or personal warmth than she owes the mail carrier. Sometimes it's nice to be nice, of course; but there is a perfect right to be indifferent, irritated, even rude, while you each go about your business. Of course, most of us don't act on the theory. We suspect it wouldn't hold up in practice, and we're scared to find out.
Sandra Bland, who seems to have been plenty cynical about law enforcement even before she was pulled over, took this principle for real when it counted most. In being willing to take the country's theory of itself at face value, she was more of a patriot than all of us who compose a smile when we see blue lights flashing behind us.
The officer who pulled her over punished her for embodying the principles that he is supposed to represent -- punished her by provoking a nightmarish series of escalations that ended, as everyone knows, in her death.
Black people need these rights more than anyone when they confront law enforcement. Of course, for the same reasons, those limits are most likely to be ignored when black people assert them. Bland recited her rights like a prayer, until the breath was knocked out of her.
In a country that respected its own claims to be free, Sandra Bland would never have gone near the jail cell where she died. It is heartbreaking that it has taken another black death to concentrate our attention on the racialized abuse of power that took her there: an abuse that is totally unacceptable and also utterly ordinary.