Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman, has joined the growing list of Blacks killed by police. Bland was a member of the Black Lives Matter movement and had posted videos in defence of the movement.
She had been living in a Chicago suburb until recently, when she decided to take a job at Prairie View A&M University, in Waller County, Texas. Some years earlier, she had graduated from Prairie View, a historically Black school.
Sandra drove to Texas on 9 July. On University Drive leading to the school and her new job on 10 July, Brian Encinia, a county trooper, initiated the confrontation that resulted in her death.
Encinia was driving in the opposite direction from Bland, when he made a U-turn and started to tail her. She was guilty of “driving while Black”.
Noticing the patrol car speeding up behind her, she pulled over to the side. The video camera in the patrol car captured what happened next. Encinia approached her car and began to write up a ticket for failing to use her turn signal as she pulled over.
Encinia said, “You seem very irritated”.
Bland replied, “I am. I really am, because I feel like it’s crap, what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket”.
Enraged that a Black woman didn’t kow-tow to him, Encinia escalated the exchange, demanding that she extinguish a cigarette she was smoking, and when she replied that she had the right to smoke in her own car, he ordered her out of the car. When she resisted, he pulled out his taser and shouted, “I’m going to light you up!” He yanked her out of the car and began to pummel her.
A bystander took a video, which shows the trooper on top of Bland, who is on the ground, saying, “You just slammed my head into the ground! Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear! You slammed me into the ground and everything!”
She was taken to the county jail, charged with assaulting an officer and held on $5,000 bail. She was able to get in touch with relatives in Chicago two days later, but the next day she was found dead in her cell, before the bail could be paid.
The officials rule that Bland committed suicide, a cover-up that none of her family or friends believe. Rev. Theresa Dear at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the memorial was held, pointed out that Sandra, whom she had known since she was a child, “had healthy self-esteem. Someone who has two job offers. Someone who had just talked to her family and knew that help was on the way …
“None of that adds up to taking one’s life or suicide.” Said reverend James Miller, who officiated, “The authorities in Waller County are going to discover something that I learned and each of us learned at our mother’s knee. You can disrespect a strong Black woman if you want, but you are going to pay for that!”
A New York Times reporter dug up some of the racist history of Waller County. “When Sandra Bland enrolled in 2005 at Prairie View A&M University … its students were still waging a civil rights war that had ended elsewhere decades before: a legal battle, against white Waller county officials, for the right to vote in the place they lived”, he wrote.
They won the legal battle, but county officials continued to harass with arrests and fines campaign workers urging Blacks to vote. The area was known for the lynching of Blacks during the long period of Jim Crow segregation. There are still segregated cemeteries in the county for whites, Blacks and Jews.
Sheriff R. Glenn Smith presides over the jail where Sandra Bland died. “A decade ago, Hempstead’s [a town in the county] only Black police officer sued, alleging that Sheriff Smith, then the town’s police chief, had dismissed him on a trumped up charge after he complained about his supervisor’s racial slurs. An African American couple also sued, alleging that Smith had turned them away when they reported that a white man had assaulted their seven-year-old son …
“[I]n 2007 city officials suspended Smith as police chief after he pushed a Black man … The next year, after complaints about officers who executed faulty warrants against Black residents and searched a young Black man’s underwear in public, he was fired.
“Just months later he was elected sheriff with two-thirds of the vote …”
The Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, will now decide charges, if any. The Times reporter noted:
“When Walter Pendleton, an activist African American preacher in the county, accused Mr. Mathis in a May 2014 text message of mollycoddling a white former official who got into trouble”, Mathis responded in a text message “laced with vulgarity” and calling the preacher a “dumb ass”.
The county judge presiding over the case recently released a public video, spluttering that poor Waller County was “under a cyber attack” in online media by anti-racists.
Massive support has poured into Sandra Bland’s family to investigate independently all the circumstances of her death. Her mother is leading this fight, another strong Black woman.