What did they do to Sandra Bland?

July 23, 2015

The death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell exposes the sickening racism at the heart of policing in America, write Crystal Stella Becerril and Todd St Hill.

SANDRA BLAND. Say her name.

The 28-year-old African American woman has become the latest person added to the ever-growing list of victims of racist police violence in the U.S. after her death in a Texas jail cell earlier this month.

On Friday, July 10, Bland was stopped for a minor traffic violation, as she drove home after a job interview. Three days later, she was found dead in a Hempstead, Texas, jail cell, where officials claim she committed suicide by hanging herself with a trashcan liner.

But Bland's family and friends refuse to quietly accept this story--and are demanding an independent autopsy and investigation into her death.

Whatever such an investigation concludes--and whether it can be believed, if it ever takes place--the circumstances of her arrest were outrageous, racist and totally unjust, and her blood is on the hands of police.

Bland had recently moved to Texas from the Chicago area to begin a job at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college where she graduated in 2009. On July 10, she was pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change.

The police dash cam view of the arrest of Sandra Bland
The police dash cam view of the arrest of Sandra Bland

Video from the squad car's dashboard camera--which officials released on July 21 after days of a growing outcry from Bland's family, friends and Black Lives Matter activists across the country--showed that within minutes of being pulled over, Bland had been forced out of her car after she refused to put out a cigarette and was threatened by Encinia. The video shows Encinia pulling a stun gun, pointing it in her face and warning Bland, "I will light you up."

In the audio from the recording--including the portions where Encinia pulls Bland out of range of the video camera--Bland asks Encinia at least 14 times why he was handcuffing and arresting her. But the trooper never provides an answer, though he is legally obliged to do so.

In his arrest report, Encinia detailed his version of events--but left out key facts, including that he had threatened Bland with his stun gun.

Encinia has claimed that Bland was arrested only after she allegedly assaulted him by kicking his leg. But not surprisingly, this supposed assault happened outside the view of his car's dash cam. Likewise, the dash cam didn't record further abuse that Bland was subjected to. However, video taken by a passerby shows Encinia slamming Bland to the ground, as she is heard yelling, "You just slammed my head into the ground! Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear!"

As she was being shoved into the squad car, Bland thanked the bystander for filming the incident, even after Encinia demanded that they stop recording and leave.

BLAND WAS arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer even though it is now clear from both the dash cam footage and the video shot by the bystander that Encinia unlawfully removed her from the car and went on to assault her.

The following day, Bland phoned her sister from the Waller County jail to say that she had been arrested, but was still not sure why. She also stated that she believed her arm had been broken or fractured as a result of the abuse she sustained. 

On the morning of July 13, after refusing to eat breakfast, Bland reportedly asked a prison staff member if she could make a phone call. Two hours later, she was found hanging from a plastic bag. An autopsy performed the following day labeled her death a suicide by self-inflicted asphyxiation.

Bland's friends and family refuse to believe that a young healthy woman who was about to begin a new chapter of her life would commit suicide just three days after accepting a dream job at her alma mater. Bland's sister Sharon Cooper told reporters at a press conference in Chicago, "Based on the Sandy I knew, this is unfathomable to me."

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis announced on July 21 that Bland's death while in police custody is now being investigated by the FBI as a possible murder. The Texas Rangers have also opened an investigation.

There are other matters that are suspicious in this case. After the dash cam footage was released, observers pointed out that it appeared to have been obviously--and badly--edited. For example, in one portion of the video, a tow truck driver is seen walking toward Encinia's cruiser before walking out of the frame. Fifteen seconds later, the same driver reappears and completes the same walk out of the frame, as audio of Encinia speaking continues uninterrupted.

Journalist Ben Norton noted several other discrepancies, including the fact that there is no time code on the video--usually a standard practice for police video, further suggesting that the footage may have been edited or otherwise doctored.

On July 22, Waller County officials responded to accusations of evidence tampering by saying that the apparently looped scene was just a "technical glitch" and not manipulation, but Bland's family and the community of activists calling for accountability aren't buying that explanation.

Encinia, meanwhile, has reportedly been reassigned to administrative duty since Bland's death, after he was found to have committed "violations of the department's procedures regarding traffic stops and the department's courtesy policy."

SANDRA BLAND'S death comes amid increased awareness and documentation of the criminalization of young African American girls and women by law enforcement. This, however, is not a new phenomenon-- the criminalization of Black people in Waller County specifically, and Texas in general, reflects the criminalization of Black Americans nationwide.

Herschel Smith, a former local community activist, remarked that to be Black in that part of the country means "you have to dot your i's and cross your t's"--suggesting that failure to do so means putting yourself at risk.

Waller County, which is located 60 miles north of Houston, has a population of 45,000, one-quarter of which is Black. Like the rest of the state, it has a long and bleak history of racial tension and segregation. Racism and police violence against Black people is commonplace in the last state to accept the Emancipation Proclamation. The bigotry runs so deep that, to this day, even the dead are segregated, with Blacks and whites being buried in separate cemeteries.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith used to be the police chief of Hempstead, the county seat, but he was suspended in 2007 over allegations of racist behavior by him and four other officers. In 2008, he was finally fired as police chief after charges of "humiliating strip searches" of young Black people. Yet he was elected as sheriff of Waller County that same year. Smith was re-elected in 2012, the same year that a 29-year-old man named James Howell was found hanged in his cell at the Waller County jail, in a case which activists say is strikingly similar to that of Sandra Bland's.

Waller County Judge DeWayne Charleston admitted to Britain's Guardian that Waller "is the most racist county in the state of Texas, which is probably one of the most racist states in the country...You've got racism from the cradle to the grave."

AS AWARENESS grows of the brutality that Black men and women experience at the hands of law enforcement, more and more people are beginning to realize that police cannot be trusted to tell the truth about their actions and motives. Police brutality, particularly directed against African Americans, is an epidemic in the United States--as the cases of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd and countless others whose names haven't made it into the headlines show.

Nor is police brutality reserved only for adults. Last month, in McKinney, Texas, Black children enjoying their first days of summer vacation at a local pool were confronted by bigots, and a 14-year-old Black girl was thrown to the ground and pinned by a white police officer, who also pulled his gun out and waved it at the crowd of children.

No Black life is safe from American racism. Today, it is only because of the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement that cases of police brutality are being exposed, forcing the public to confront the racist violence that African Americans are subjected to on a daily basis by the state.

These same organizers and activists who are also drawing the connections to the systemic and state-sanctioned violence being done to LGBTQ people, in particular those of color, beginning a conversation about what kind of country allows its most vulnerable citizens to be brutalized and murdered in such a way and at such a rate. The growing and multiracial Black Lives Matter movement continues to demand a deeper understanding of the state violence perpetrated against Black people in the U.S. Beyond raising awareness, the movement is making concrete demands--both legislative and social--and helping to give shape to a new civil rights movement.

The task at hand for this burgeoning movement is not only to raise awareness of the violence inflicted on people of color in the U.S.--especially the particularly brutal violence done onto women and girls of color, giving rise to the #SayHerName hashtag on social media.

It also must build a bold and diverse political movement that can confront all forms of state violence and promote an understanding that racism is not only a stain on our country's past, but that it is built into the current political and economic structure of the U.S. Racist violence against African Americans is woven into the fabric of U.S. society--and it facilitates the control of other oppressed people and the whole working class.

If the last 11 months since the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, over Mike Brown's murder have shown anything, it is that American policing has nothing to do with "serve and protect"-- at least not working-class and poor people of color.

Today, we are witnessing a new generation of young people of color who are becoming emboldened by a resurgent movement for the defense of the rights and dignity of Black people. Those once reluctant to document police brutality or get involved are now speaking out and beginning to organize for the long struggle for liberation.

The brutal murder of Black individuals sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, but a special role has been played by the courageous and determined families of those victims and activists in communities across the country who have had enough of these modern-day lynchings, who have been relentless in their pursuit for justice, and who, in the process, have laid bare the true colors of American policing and the nature of the criminal injustice system.

So what should happen next? As one chant from the Black Lives Matter movement calls out: "Indict! Convict! Send the killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!" As our movement continues to grow in political maturity, we need to press for accountability and justice for Sandra Bland and all the other victims like her.

As Sandra's mother Geneva Reed-Veal told mourners at her daughter's memorial, she won't stop fighting for justice for her daughter:

[S]omething occurred that is going to change the world... My purpose is to go back to Texas and stop all the injustices in the South...I have a baby to put in the ground. She wasn't my convict, she wasn't my suspect--she was my baby...Once I put this baby in the ground, I'm ready...This means war.

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