Power is about angles. It’s a position, posture, and pose. It concerns the slant of realities meeting—or occasionally clashing—at a shared point. The image currently circulating of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia is one such image, telling in its visceral, ominous skew. Released this week by Dallas television station WFAA, it was captured from a 39-second videoclip recorded by Sandra Bland during a 2015 traffic stop. For many of us, the video portrays the fiction of the American Dream: It documents portions of the final, tragic moments of Bland’s life, who would, in 72 hours, be found hanging in a police cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but Bland’s family, and many supporters, remained skeptical and accused authorities of mishandling her case. Now, it seems their doubts were justified.
The image shouts. It’s in Encinia’s slight hunch forward, the obvious physical rage of his holler, in his aim directly on Bland—all evidence of tangible menace. It is, again, proof of the country’s spiral into illogical extremes: the inevitability and acceleration of black death. How the rush to survive—especially if you are a 28-year-old black woman from Chicago driving through the South alone—all but narrows to a murmur. Like so many other names that now read like scripture, our haunted gospel of black death, Bland was reduced to a muted cry in a gulping void. She never stood a chance.
Jason Parham is a senior writer for WIRED. Depth of Field is his weekly dispatch about culture’s most searing current images.
Still, I’m quickly drawn to the illumination that the image works toward. Sunlight flares in slits and corners, and the trees, what we can see of them, hint at growing life. Encinia imposes the frame with force, nearly occupying it completely. These effects work against each other. The image is one of conflicting, sorrowful tensions, made all the more potent because we know what is coming, and what has now passed. It is despairingly prophetic and deeply American in its paralyzed state.
But you can feel, perhaps, Bland laboring toward an illumination of her own. Her pose is also power. She angles the cell phone camera upward, as document and guard, a rejection of surrender, submission, silence. The history of racial surveillance and police terror against marginalized communities—black, Latinx, queer, poor—is well documented, and here Bland suggests a reversal. Of course, it would not save her. But for a moment we are with her, looking up as she does, the camera pointed at Encinia’s shadowy contour of intimidation, watching as she orients on the light behind him, even as he works to blot it out.