United States

Guilty as hell

Print edition : August 21, 2015

A memorial for Sandra Bland near Prairie View A&M University, in Prairie View, Texas, her alma mater where she had a just been given a job. Photo: Pat Sullivan/AP

Outside the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas, on July 17, a protest against the death of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in the jail four days earlier. Photo: Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP

Deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police continue unabated. On July 13, Sandra Bland, 28, who had been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, died in police custody after she was pulled over for a trivial traffic violation.

The Black Lives Matter movement has a powerful slogan: “Indict! Convict! Send the killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” This movement emerged out of the protests after the August 9, 2014, murder of Michael Brown (age 18) by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. On November 24, 2014, a local grand jury refused to indict Wilson. This meant, of course, that there would be no justice for Brown. Anger in the Black Lives Matter movement had a specific intent: it came from the frustration with the cavalier attitude towards the death of black people on American streets and the impossibility of any redress in the courts. It is this aggravation that leads to the final part of the slogan, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

Deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police continue at a murderous pace. The Guardian’s database suggests that the number of those killed by the police in the United States this year is over 650. Its reporter Jamiles Lartey notes that the U.S. police kill more people in a day than the police in most countries kill in a year. As an example, Lartey notes that the U.S. police killed 59 people in the first 24 days of 2015, while the police in England and Wales killed 55 people in the past 24 years. In Iceland, the police have only killed one person in the past 71 years. These numbers rattle. They are hard to fathom. Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to be killed by the police than any other American. No wonder the Black Lives Matter movement has spread across the country like wildfire.

On July 10, Sandra Bland (age 28) was driving her car from Illinois to her new job at the Prairie View A&M University near Houston, Texas. Officer Brian Encina decided to stop her car because she changed lanes without putting on her turn signal. This is such a minor infraction that it is remarkable that Encina bothered to pull her over. Drivers are often ignored for more than that. It is a serious question whether Encina would have pulled her over for this infraction if she had not been black. This is what is known as Driving While Black. Sandra Bland, understandably, was not pleased to be pulled over. The conversation between her and Encina was caught on the dashboard camera of the police vehicle. It goes like this:

Officer Brian Encina: You seem very irritated.

Sandra Bland: I am, I really am…. [unintelligible]

Encina: Are you done?

Sandra Bland: You asked me what was wrong and I told you….

Encina: Mind putting out your cigarette please?

Sandra Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?

Encina: You can step on out now.

Sandra Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car.

Encina: Step out of the car….

Sandra Bland: You do not have the right….

Encina: Now step out or I will remove you…. I’m giving you a lawful order, get out of the car now or I’m gonna remove you…

Sandra Bland: I’m calling my lawyer.

Encina: I’m gonna yank you out of here….

Sandra Bland: Don’t touch me. I’m not under arrest.

Encina: You are under arrest.

Sandra Bland: I’m under arrest for what? For what?…

Encina: Get out of the car now!

Encina hastily accelerated a ridiculous traffic stop into a demand for obedience. Sandra Bland kept her dignity and maintained her right, under the law, to hold her own opinions. This bothered Encina. The record is so clear that the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Steve McGraw, noted: “Regardless of the situation, the DPS State trooper has an obligation to exhibit professionalism and be courteous. That did not happen in this situation.”

Matters get worse. Encina pulls out his stun gun, points it at Sandra Bland and says: “I will light you up.” Encina later said that he arrested Sandra Bland for resisting arrest and for attacking him. Video from the camera of a passer-by shows an alternative scenario. Sandra Bland is on the ground, crying: “You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear.” Once at the Waller County Jail, Sandra Bland makes it clear in her intake form that she tried to commit suicide in 2014 because her grandmother died and she lost her child. She phoned her sister and told her a police officer had either broken or fractured her arm. She seemed in reasonable spirits on the phone.

Three days later, on July 13, police officers found Sandra Bland dead in her cell. She had a plastic bag over her face. Waller County, where she died, has a police department headed by Sheriff Glenn Smith, a man with a long history of allegations of racist behaviour. In 2007, Smith was suspended as police chief of Hempstead for racist actions; a year later, the department fired him when it became clear that he had encouraged “humiliating strip searches” of young blacks. That year, Smith was elected Sheriff of Waller County. He was re-elected in 2012, when James Harper Howell IV (age 29) was found hanging in a cell in Waller County Jail. Howell had been in custody for a week. His arrest photograph shows bruises on his face. The pattern of racist behaviour and violence in this police station should be clear. This is perhaps why the Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened a file on the Sandra Bland death.

Sandra Bland had been active in the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago. She had been deeply troubled by the rash of murders of black people across the country but particularly in the U.S. South. Sandra Bland graduated from Prairie View A&M University—where she had been recently hired—in 2009 and had a front-row seat on the activities of people such as Sheriff Smith. On April 9, 2015, Sandra Bland posted a video of herself on Facebook with the title, “Until Amerikkka can show me otherwise #BlackLivesMatter.” The three ks in the word America indicate Sandra Bland’s sense of the Klu Klux Klan’s racist agenda having been absorbed into mainstream institutions such as the police. Her video is poignant. It is a response to the slogan “All Lives Matter”, a way to condescend to the slogan that Black Lives Matter. To say All Lives Matter suggests that there is no special violence being visited upon black people and that the death of black people is met with as much outrage as anyone’s. This slogan also suggests that whites care about everyone, but blacks only care about blacks. This is a vicious misreading of the idea of Black Lives Matter. “If we can get enough white people to show that all lives matter,” Sandra Bland said, “maybe they’ll stop killing our black brothers.” “Show me in American history,” she asks passionately, “where all lives mattered.”

Prairie View A&M University held a memorial service for Sandra Bland in its All Faiths Chapel. Her mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, remembered one of her last conversations with her daughter. “Mama,” said Sandra Bland to her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas. My purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South.” This was the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sandra Bland’s voice was silenced in police custody. Whether there will be justice for her is an open-ended question. But the Black Lives Matter movement will continue. Sandra Bland’s mother is a new convert. “Once I put this baby in the ground,” she said, “I’m ready. This means war.”

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