Asturias Days

The Bland Act

By Clellan Coe | September 6, 2019

Throbbing, steady, and sharp are important words for describing pain. They’re easy enough in Spanish: palpitante, constante, and agudo. But if the pain is blunt, dull? In Spanish you’d say leve, or ligero, but both mean light, and thus suggest mild pain, something bland, just a little bit of pain. It’s not the quantity you want to describe anyway, but the type, the way it attacks. Blunt pain is not light. Blunt is wide, thick, and heavy, a club instead of a knife; it’s a fist in the stomach, or a boot in the back. The mother that Alice Munro describes, after discovering the bodies of her murdered children, is bent over, clutching her stomach, and stumbling around the yard, reeling under the assault of both clubs and knives, blunt and sharp all at once. Blunt is very different from bland.

Bland, however, comes into play, if you recall the case of Sandra Bland, a woman arrested in Texas in July of 2015 after failing to signal a lane change. Three days later, she hanged herself in her jail cell, no doubt leaving family and friends reeling.

I remember watching the news on the large screens in the Dallas airport, where I was waiting for a connection to Albuquerque, on my way to visit my mother. It was the first broadcast news in English I’d seen in many months. What? I asked myself, incredulous. It was midnight where I’d come from but afternoon in Dallas, and I was disoriented. How do you get arrested for failing to signal, and how does that turn into jail time, and how do you end up dead? It made no sense.

Foul play was suggested in the following days, but Bland hadn’t been murdered in her cell after all, just left there alone and hopeless.

A Texas law enacted in her name requires authorities to make an effort to identify anyone arrested who is suffering from mental illness or addiction, and get them help. The effort is “good-faith,” which Steve Coll, reporting in The New Yorker, identifies as a soft standard. Softer still is the notion of making the effort “particularly” if the illness or addiction is behind what got the prisoner arrested.

Particularly, like its fellow especially, seems to strengthen an imperative, but in practice does the opposite. I’ve learned this with my students: Review for the test, particularly if you’ve had trouble with the exercises. And my kids: Do your chores first thing, especially if nothing else is going on. Is the material studied? No. Are the chores done in a timely manner? No. And in a case like Bland’s, in which the behavior that gets someone stopped and then arrested—switching lanes without signaling and being resentful of her treatment when stopped—doesn’t seem particularly related to depression or other mental illness, how often is an anguished prisoner aided?

An arresting officer would have an excuse for not searching for mental illness or addiction. “Failure to signal a lane change is not particularly crazy behavior, sir,” explains the officer to his superior. “Damn it, you should always consider the possibility, but consider it more in certain cases!” comes the answer. “More than always?” the officer asks, confused.

Prisoners sometimes receive aid, as Coll recounts, citing instances where prisoners got help despite the dearth of protections. In Texas, if they do get assistance in the future, it will be thanks to the humanity of the people dealing with them, guided by their own consciences first, and validated in their efforts by the Sandra Bland Act. The act should do more: it should protect prisoners who come in contact with those forgetting that they too are human. That last they is indeed a bit ambiguous, but that’s because both prisoners and law enforcement can forget the other’s humanity. Only one group, though, is likely to suffer in the exchange. Yes, they’re prisoners, yes they’re guilty or not, yes life is hard, and no, we can’t expect kid gloves. But we shouldn’t expect clubs and knives. Instead, remember Bland and be gentle, while there is time. Use a touch that’s ligero, light.

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