Why can we unite behind Cecil the lion but not Sandra Bland?

Both deaths have caused a lot of stir on social media this week - but while Cecil is universally mourned, the same can't be said for Bland

Samia Shoaib
Wednesday 29 July 2015 15:33 BST
Walt Palmer (left), from Minnesota, who killed Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion
Walt Palmer (left), from Minnesota, who killed Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion

For many Americans, the past three weeks have felt like the final straw in a year that has seen unprecedented recognition of police brutality against people of colour. Each day since the death of Sandra Bland on July 10th has heralded a new theory or an additional piece of evidence; this morning was no different, with the release by Texas police of new CCTV footage in an attempt to quash the wilder conspiracy theories about her death. Questions – very important questions – still remain, however. The inconsistencies in the case seem myriad; the trajectory from failing to signal while changing lanes to suicide in a cell block seems odd.

From the moment Bland’s untimely death hit the news, social media activists on Twitter expressed heated outrage, creating and flooding hashtag after hashtag - #JusticeforSandraBland, #SandySpeaks and of course, one that’s gotten a depressing amount of mileage in recent months, #BlackLivesMatter. As the Waller County Sheriff’s Office defensively dodged the pertinent questions such as why had Sandra Bland been taken into police custody on a minor traffic citation and how six foot tall, 175 pound woman managed to hang herself with a bin liner, momentum gathered. And then, all of a sudden, the poaching of Cecil the lion hit the headlines and within three days the focus on justice for Sandra Bland came to an abrupt halt.

What riled me about this development was the discovery that when something happens which really matters to them, Americans can universally unite. I awoke this morning to impassioned howls of fury - from many who had refrained to comment on the Bland case. There were endless photographs circulated of the magnificent felled beast, Cecil, in his prime, and several impassioned appeals to punish the despicable Dr Walter Palmer of Minnesota (nothwithstanding his protestations that he thought he was acting within the law).‘ Destroy his dental practice!’ were the cries. People queued outside to leave teddy bears and notes of indignation. Links to Palmer’s Yelp page were shared across Facebook, urging people to leave negative reviews that would impact upon his business (‘Friends, I invite you to voice your opinion about this hunter in a forum that will be impactful,’ one of the sharers commented.) There was despair and indignation, but there was also abuse: ‘I REALLY hope, Dr. Palmer, That you die in poverty under the bridge that you call home after having every tooth in your head rot out,’ wrote one Lu M of Colorado Springs.

Following these developments, I began to feel ill at ease – and it wasn’t just because of people like Lu M who took their animal rights activism a little too far. Twitter had been animated enough when it came to the Bland story, but it’d yet to see this kind of unity in opinion. Liberals, feminists and people of all races – especially people who had been active in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign - came down hard, while closet racists (of which there are apparently many), particularly right-wing Republicans and white supremacists chimed in apathetically, chastising the rest for making such a fuss and heavily implying that Bland must have been in the wrong. People disagreed. Differences of opinion were common. Unlike Cecil, Sandra Bland wasn’t afforded the universal support of the American people. Jimmy Kimmel, Cara Delevigne, Debra Messing, Ricky Gervais and a slew of other high-powered celebrities weren’t leaping on the Sandra Bland bandwagon quite so easily and emotionally as they were doing when Cecil was concerned.

It’s easier to get behind a lion than a human being – especially, apparently, a black human being in America. Lions don’t have centuries of racist history to carry on their regal shoulders. Lions don’t have their own thoughts and opinions, and lions don’t question police officers or claim to know their own rights. But keyboard warriors would do well to question their own reactions to Sandra, versus Cecil. The online group Anonymous has called for a day of nationwide process in response to Bland’s alleged murder (thereby disputing the autopsy’s finding of suicide), and that call inspired me. But unless we can come together in this time of hardship, the way we did so naturally when faced with an innocent animal slaughtered needlessly in Zimbabwe, then we’ll never achieve justice for the victims of an institutionally racist police force. Divided, we are conquered.

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