For over 50 days, I have been receiving messages on social media telling me what a fool I am for standing in solidarity with the bold and vivacious activist, Sandra Bland. While the messages vary in their intensity, most of them have two things in common: 1) they know nothing about Sandra Bland and are woefully misinformed 2) they express their own belief that Sandra Bland chose to end her life and, thus, her life is not worth honoring, her grieving family is not worth respecting, and the circumstances surrounding her death are not worth questioning.
Sadly, they have completely missed the point.
While understanding may not be their goal, I know that it is the goal of many of you out there whose concern is piqued not only by our persistence, but even more so by the bold, vulnerable, powerful and loving voice that you have heard in the #SandySpeaks videos. It is to you that I write. It is to you who seek to know justice and mercy that I write. It is to you who know that an uncomfortable truth is better than a comfortable falsehood, it is to you that I write.
First, let me say that my stance is one of solidarity with the family of Sandra Bland as they continue to ask #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, as they continue to demand #JusticeForSandraBland, and as they continue to seek answers. Based on the character, personality and state of mind described by Sandra’s friends and family, I stand with them in their stance that Sandra Bland would not choose to end her life. While at no point have I made any accusations or speculations; at each point I have continued to raise the questions put forward by her family and friends.
While those who are convinced Sandra took her own life have used their belief to dismiss all negligence on the part of the state, local Waller County activists have been consistently pointing out why that is not even the point. They have done so with three words: Care, custody and control. Trained as a theologian, rather than a lawyer, even I have not understood the importance of those words over the course of these last seven weeks.
All that changed five days ago. My father, who is an attorney, challenged me to read up on the case law surrounding Sandra Bland’s death. As I did, a wave of recognition washed over me as I was taken back to a moment in 2009.
In February of 2009, I received a phone call as I pulled into my driveway in Durham, North Carolina. What I heard on the other end of the line left me pounding on my steering wheel as if the rhythmic beating could somehow bring back to life what had been lost.
I was informed that the night before a snow storm had descended upon the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. When the sun rose in the morning and the morning shift arrived for work at my grandmother’s nursing home, they found my beautiful, 89 year-old grandmother lying in the parking lot, frozen to death, wearing nothing but her nightgown.
I pulled back out of the driveway and started driving north. From different directions other family began to do the same. All of us hoping that there was some life left in her cold body. Each of us beginning to descend on the small, mountain town as if the heat of our grief could restore the warmth to her body.
It could not.
In the middle of the night, my grandmother had left her room and gone outside. I will never know what happened to her or why. I do not know if she was experiencing a moment of senility; if she was confused and could not find her way back in; if she knew what she was doing; if she was lured outside; or if she simply wanted some fresh air and got overwhelmed.
Legally, none of that mattered. My grandmother was in the care, custody and control of that nursing home. They were legally responsible for her well-being. The nurse responsible to check on her did so at 1:30 am. She discovered her missing. She said nothing. She did nothing. She went back to her desk, while my grandmother lay in the snow outside.
My grandmother was a local woman, loved and respected. Without delay, the District Attorney swiftly brought criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter because my grandmother was in the care, custody and control of that nursing home and its employees.
I will never know why my grandmother froze to death in the parking lot of that nursing home. That is not the point, however. She never should have been alone in the snow in that parking lot in the middle of the night to begin with.
In Chicago, Sandra Bland was a local woman, loved and respected. Yet, Sandra Bland did not die in Chicago. She died far from home. She died far from her mother, her sisters, her nieces, her nephews, and her church. She died in a place where she was alone and suffering and in physical pain caused by a violent arrest that never should have happened, and for which she had not received adequate medical attention. She was placed in a cell alone, in what discharged prisoners have called “solitary.” She suffered and she wept. In her case, it was not that the guards said nothing or did nothing, it was that they did not even take the step to do that visual check that they were required to do. Even in the best case scenario for them, her guards sat at their desk ignorant of what was happening while her life left her body.
In whatever manner her departure took place, she was in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail and its employees. Yet, rather than treating her with respect, the District Attorney in her case called her “not a model person.” Rather than treating her with honor, a Judge involved took to Twitter to describe her as self-medicating with marijuana; and defended his tweets when criticized by saying that the information he shared was pertinent to her mental state; as if he was the prosecutor to the deceased rather than judge. Rather than treating her with caution and care, the Waller County Jail oversaw the departure from life of a bold, brilliant, fun-loving, vivacious woman.
While I profoundly disagree with their characterization of Sandra Bland, legally, who she was does not matter. Her life mattered, and her life was their responsibility. Texas lawmakers have acknowledged that. She was in their care, custody and control.
She was black, while my grandmother was white. She was young, while my grandmother was old. She was an “outsider,” while my grandmother was local. She was in the care, custody and control of a jail, while my grandmother was in the care, custody and control of a nursing home. Tell me, which of these differences makes her worthy of less respect from those charged with her care and supervision during life, and those charged with her justice and investigation after death.
I pray Sandra Bland’s family will have the answers that my family never will. I pray they will know: What happened to Sandra Bland? Yet at a very basic level, in order to be infuriated, we do not even need to know how Sandra Bland died. All we need to know is that Sandra Bland never should have been under arrest. Sandra Bland never should have been alone and out of sight in the back of that jail in the middle of the night, any more than my grandmother should have been alone and out of sight in the back of that snowy parking lot in the middle of the night.
On that night in 2009, the nurse responsible for supervision of my grandmother was legally accountable for her death, and by extension so was the nursing home for which she worked. On July 13, 2015, the guards responsible for the supervision of Sandra Bland were legally accountable for her death, and by extension so is the jail for which they work.
What happened to Sandra Bland?