When Sympathy Matters

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Sandra Bland is on the national news these days. She was a 28 year old woman, who recently moved from Chicago to Houston, TX for a new job. On July 10th, she was driving and pulled over by a local policeman for a failure to signal a lane change. What started as a usual traffic stop turned into intense altercation, and Ms. Bland was thrown into jail for assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell. This morning, I saw a video that records the initial altercation between Ms. Bland and the local policeman.

I was terrified. Well, there were so many reasons why I was terrified, but what I want to focus today is people’s response to Ms. Bland’s alleged suicide. I say “alleged” because the possibility of murder is currently under investigation. She was found hanging herself with a plastic bag in her cell, and the initial investigation concluded that she killed herself. Yet, her family and friends believe that she had no reason to kill herself and requested an independent autopsy. I know that some people suggest that during the altercation, Ms. Bland sustained a brain injury (in the video, she is heard saying “you slammed my head into the ground”), she died of it, but the prison staged suicide to cover up the cop. Possible scenario, but as of now, there is no solid evidence to support it. Without it, let’s just go with the initial conclusion and assume that Ms. Bland killed herself.

So, what we have is a young woman who violated a minor traffic rule, was thrown into jail for three days, and committed suicide. How would you respond to this woman’s decision to take her own life? Many horrible responses out there, but one response that absolutely terrified me goes, “well, if she didn’t do anything wrong, she should have stayed strong, and she would have been released sooner or later.” This response immediately brought to my mind what one of my friends wrote on her Facebook page recently:

So, I got to thinking about friendships and that aspect of friendships which turns us into exhorters of ‘courage!’, ‘keep your head high’! ‘be strong!’, ‘walk away, don’t look back!’ etc when friends go through emotional lows or traumatic episodes. And it strikes me, as it has before, that it’s such an easy and lazy thing to do even if it might be necessary (which I wonder about). Why haven’t we learned the art of saying to friends ‘You know, what happened is utterly awful/annihilating/terrible’ and you go ahead and cry/scream/bawl your eyes out as much as you want for as long as you want, and I’ll just be around to make sure you eat a little, watch that you don’t actually harm yourself and see that you get some relaxation? And I’ll keep you company when you want company in misery’. The poet Ghalib does have a beautiful line where he asks precisely this question: what sort of friendship is it where friends become advisors and counsellors rather than simple companions-in-grief?

My friend wrote this without having Ms. Bland in her mind, but her thought gives us a good point of reference in thinking about Ms. Bland’s suicide, I think. Can you imagine her horror, her desperation, and her absolute sense of humiliation during the three days in the lone, cold prison? She was excited about her new job and new possibilities, and the first thing that happened when she moved to the new town was to be yelled at, to be “yanked out” from her car forcefully, and to have her head slammed into the ground by a policeman. All of these for failing to signal a lane change. She called her family and asked them to collect $5000 to get her out of the jail, but I guess collecting money took some time. Meanwhile, the young woman must have gone through…I don’t know. I cannot think of the right word. But can’t you imagine? How can you have no sympathy or sensitivity for the young woman’s suffering? How can you choose to be a stern judge and say “she should have stayed strong”? Who are you? If you were her, do you think you would be perfectly okay and stand strong, in the firm belief that you would get out eventually?

In political conversation, I usually try to stay away from using the concept of sympathy. Such issues as slavery, colonialism, or the low minimum wages are first and foremost the question of justice, fairness, and historical responsibility. Sympathy is often used to obscure these questions, I think. For example, colonialism is bad because it is a brutal system of oppression. To say “we have to be nice and sympathetic to the natives or the new immigrants” does not say anything about colonial violence or the long history that produces uprooted immigrants to begin with. But today, I feel that sympathy matters. Perhaps sympathy activates and sets to work political discussions that make the suffering of the oppressed people visible. Yes, I appreciate cool-headed analyses of justice, but it can be and perhaps needs to be paired with a warm-hearted engagement with people in need. As my friend says, we need to step down from the seat of a stern judge and lend a friend’s shoulders to cry on first.