Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman, has joined the growing list of Black people killed by police whose case has become a national issue.
Bland was active in the Black Lives Matter movement, posting a series of videos in defence of the movement.
She had been living in a Chicago suburb until recently, when she decided to return to Prairie View A&M University, in Waller County, Texas. Years earlier, she had graduated from Prairie View, a historically Black school.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said her daughter had “found her calling and planned to pursue it by returning to Texas. Her purpose was to stop all injustice against Blacks in the South.”
To that end, Bland applied for and received a job at Prairie View.
Bland drove down to Texas on July 9. While she was driving to the school and her new job on July 10, Brian Encinia, a county trooper, started the confrontation that resulted in her death three days later in the Waller County jail.
Encinia was driving in the opposite direction from Bland’s car, when he made a U-turn and started tailing her. Bland, it seems, was guilty of “driving while Black”.
Cannon Lambert, the lawyer hired by the family after the activist’s death, said: “She was targeted.”
Noticing the patrol car speeding up behind her, she pulled over to the side, only 500 yards from the university. The video camera in the patrol car captures what happens next.
Encinia approaches her car and begins to write a ticket, allegedly 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 did not kow-tow to him, Encinia escalated the verbal exchange. He demanded that she extinguish her cigarette. When she replied that she had the right to smoke in her own car, he ordered her out of the car.
When Bland resisted, he pulled out his taser gun and shouted: “I’m going to light you up!” He yanked her out of the car, and began pummelling her.
A bystander filmed the arrest. The footage 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 and charged with assaulting an officer, held on US$5000 bail. Apparently she assaulted the trooper’s fist with her head.
Bland was able to get in touch with relatives in Chicago two days later, who arranged to obtain the bail. But the next day, she was found dead in her cell, before the bail could be paid.
The officials ruled that Bland committed suicide, an obvious cover-up that no one in her family or among her friends believes. At Bland’s memorial meeting, relatives and friends recounted memories of her social activism and repudiated the “suicide” claim.
Reverend Theresa Dear, at the African Methodist Episcopal Church where the memorial was held, pointed out that Bland, 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.”
Reverend James Miller, who officiated, said: “We are not funeralising a martyr or a victim. We’re celebrating a hero.
“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!”
On July 26, the New York Times dug up some of the racist history of Waller County, noting: “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.”
They won the legal battle, but county officials continued to harass campaign workers urging Blacks to vote with arrests and fines.
After the defeat of the Radical Reconstruction, which sought to overturn racist structures in the US South following the Civil War, Waller County became known for the lynching of Blacks during the long period of Jim Crow segregation.
There still are segregated cemeteries in the county for whites, Blacks and Jews.
The NYT noted: “In the last decade or so, disputes have erupted over student voting rights, the neglect of Black cemeteries, a white mayor refusing to attend a parade marking the liberation of slaves at the end of the civil war and the firing of a police chief, later twice elected sheriff, after complaints of misconduct against black residents.”
The sheriff, Glenn Smith, presides over the jail where Bland died while in his custody.
“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…
“Those suits were dismissed, but in 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, making him one of the county’s most powerful officials.”
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis will decide what, if any, charges will be brought over Bland's death.
The NYT said: “when the Rev. 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, Mr. Mathis’ response seemed almost reminiscent of an earlier era.
“Texting back in a message laced with vulgarity, he said the 66-year-old preacher was ‘too stupid to know’ the meaning of the term selective prosecution.”
The county judge presiding over the case recently released a public video, spluttering and charging that poor Waller County was “under a cyber-attack” in online media by anti-racists across the country.
It is clear that we cannot expect justice to come from the Waller County officials. An online petition has collected tens of thousands of signatures demanding that the federal Justice Department take over the case.
Huge support, including many donations, has been generated for Bland’s family to independently investigate all the circumstances of Bland’s death. Her mother is leading this fight — another strong Black woman.