Category Archives: Justice

“Dear Fellow White People”: An Appeal For Sustained Discomfort

*First posted on UMCLead.com on Feb. 10, 2015. Revised and updated… still unapologetic.

#BlackLivesMatter makes a lot of white people uncomfortable. The impulse of many is to soothe us. Please don’t. We need sustained discomfort. There are a lot of people in this nation who have been very uncomfortable for a very long time. Those of us who have privilege and have been sitting in denial about that, need to feel this discomfort, need to feel this moment.

Sustained discomfort. Sit with that for a minute. Better yet, don’t sit with it: commit to it. Refuse to allow the media to redirect your attention. Refuse to allow the passage of time to diminish the ache in your soul when the world watched that video of Eric Garner’s life slipping out of him; that video of Sandra Bland’s freedom being taken from her. Refuse to be that person who looks back in twenty years with regret. Refuse to be the pastor who was silent.

Know your history. Remember that the protection of all peoples’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been hampered since the beginning of our nation by two things, among many. First, the fact that while we proclaimed the fundamental equality of all people, we simultaneously and ironically denied that equality to many – African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, etc. Second, since that time, change has been delayed by the inability of people of privilege who disagree with injustice to endure the lifestyle required to exchange that cultural lie for the truth, both in our cultural philosophy and in our systemic structures.

To put it more simply: we have had equality in word but not in deed, and we have not maintained the solidarity necessary to change that.

To put it even more simply: do not change the channel.

Now is the time. As the movement that has endured in our country for hundreds of years takes on new energy and strategies, we have the opportunity to see change.

However, we must acknowledge that we live in an era when that potential is threatened. We live in an era when news has become entertainment. We live in an era when justice issues have become an ever-changing cycle of temporary fads that we can exchange one for another as soon as something more trendy comes along. We check social media to see what the cool thing to care about is today.

This rapid exchange rate allows those of us who have privilege within this culture to endure sympathetic pangs of sorrow and discomfort in small, manageable doses. We change the channel before it gets to be too much; throwing our attention into a new direction that promises a rush of energy to replace the frustration of that “other” situation we could not change. Or rather, that situation we did not have the patience, stamina, and determination to change.

Our very ability to choose what “causes” to give our attention reveals our privilege. The very fact that we have the option to give up and walk away from a struggle, is the very reason why those who cannot walk away from the struggle struggle to trust us – and with good reason.

What if, instead, we did not approach phrases like “Black Lives Matter” as causes and fads, but as fundamental truths. Truths that are so important that life is simply intolerable for us if they are not universally recognized and implemented.

This is important because so many of these “causes”, both local and global, have at their root the same denial, subtle or outright, of one fundamental truth: black lives matter. To understand the pervasiveness of this, we must examine why our nation is more comfortable with crowds of white men walking the streets in displays of “open carry” then it is with an African American man shopping for a toy gun. To understand the subtlety of this, we must examine why our news media and world leaders paid so much more attention to terrorism in France, than to mass killings in Nigeria. To understand the danger of this, we need look no further than Tamir Rice.

Intersectionality exists in these justice issues, and we must name and acknowledge the connection between violence against Black bodies and violence against Queer bodies and violence against the bodies of 43 teachers below the border in Mexico. All of these lives matter, and all are connected because all pose a threat to power, to privilege and to the status quo. However, while we name intersectionality, we cannot allow that reality to become confused with our channel-changing, issue-switching culture, and cause us to remove our foot from the gas pedal that is driving this movement.

I understand that leaders throughout our nation, in many walks of life, seem to have a general consensus that change should take place – if it takes place – at a gradual rate that people can tolerate.

The reality, however, is that while some of us seek change that takes place at a rate we can tolerate, many have been forced to come to this nation and live in this nation under conditions that have been intolerable from the start. Intolerable is the status quo for many in this nation.

So the real question is whose comfort, whose pace, whose toleration are we talking about?

While we wait for that answer, people are actually dying.

Friends, we cannot endure this pace any longer. The time has come to commit to sustained discomfort. To refuse to shift our attention as the fads come and go. To understand that our very ability to choose to do so reveals our privilege, and our very willingness to do so reveals the fragility of our solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter.

True solidarity means we do not get to make the decisions and we do not get to walk away; we must follow the lead of those most impacted by the injustice in our system, and see it through to the end.

We must plant our feet, and refuse to be moved. Speak our truth, and refuse to be silenced.

We must commit to sustained discomfort not only for ourselves but for all around us, until we are no longer able to endure the denigration of our own humanity that takes place when any one of our brothers and sisters is put down, put in their place, or put away.

Change is coming, and you have a role to play. Do not walk away.

The Postmortem Prosecution of Sandra Bland

On February 2, 2016, the world finally got to hear some of the “investigation” interviews concerning the death of Sandra Bland. In audio obtained from the state of Texas and released by the Bland family and their attorneys, an investigator asks inmates who had been in cells close to Sandra nothing of substance beyond repeated questions about whether they thought she could have smoked marijuana in her cell. To which the answer was a clear and confident: no.

This confirmed something many of us have known since Day 1: Officials in Waller County have not been investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s death, they have been prosecuting Sandra Bland in the imaginations of Waller County residents.

They have been doing so in order to avoid their own actual prosecution, because they never believed it would go this far. They never believed that a family in Chicago saying they did not believe their daughter/sister had committed suicide, alumni of Prairie View tweeting #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, and a rag tag group of die hard supporters sitting in front of a jail for 80 days could turn into a national uproar.

But it did. They overplayed their hand. They did not know the power of Sandy’s voice.

In frantic, sloppy and ill-advised attempts to avoid offering real justice in the courts, they chose instead to prosecute the victim, Sandra Bland, in the court of public opinion. They chose poorly and they have been beaten most profoundly, soundly and deeply, by no other voice than her own.

In attempting to understand this choice, we must ask ourselves why a Sheriff and District Attorney, whose own relatives are said to have been arrested for drug use, would focus in upon marijuana as the most prominent and pertinent topic to publicize.

To understand that, you have to understand the trigger that the word marijuana is, as well as the generational divide around the topic.

Sandra Bland, myself, and nearly all Millennials have never lived a day outside of the New Jim Crow, a system of creating criminal records for people of color in order to maintain our nation’s historic pattern of creating different prospects and opportunities based on race.

The generations that preceded GenX and the Millennials had been able to rely upon Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, separation, and increased opportunities for white people to advance. When that legal system was dismantled, however, anxiety built, in much the same way that we now observe it doing so among Trump supporters that flock to his racist pronouncements like moths to a flame. Enter the revival in the early 80’s of the “War on Drugs.”

Less than three weeks before I was born in 1982, Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs, such as marijuana, to be a threat to national security. Being a threat to national security elevated them in the psyche of white America from being the naughty pastime of hippies in the 60’s, and rock gods in the 70’s to a sinister force. Without diminishing the real harm done to lives through addiction and drug-related violence, it is crucial to understand how these policies have been racialized both in their enforcement and in the imagination of Americans.

No one explains it better than Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow” a taste of which she gave us in her 2011 HuffPo piece: “From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.  The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.”

Now, place a campus full of Millennials, a generation with a 68% statistical preference for the legalization of marijuana, in the middle of a community with a significantly older and more traditional demographic, and you will quickly find the same situation that you find in communities all around the world: drug use and differing perspectives on it lead to significant inter-generational tensions and concern from the community.

Consequently, you create a local populace who is very sensitive to certain trigger words, and one especially: Marijuana.

Officials in Waller County thought that associating the word marijuana with Sandra Bland’s name would be sufficient to turn the populace against her, triggering generational tensions in some cases and racial prejudices in others, and silencing the topic of her mysterious death.

They were wrong.

They thought that they could continue to pass off white people’s involvement in drug trafficking as “adorable” mistakes and aberrations from the norm, while framing Sandra Bland as the impetus for her own demise.

They were wrong.

They thought that at the word “Marijuana” Sandra’s voice would be silenced, and her supporters would scurry away in shame.

They were wrong.

Seeing as they have not done a real investigation, I am going to tell you just two of the countless things I observed during those 80 days outside the jail:

No women were released during the first couple weeks to walk out the front door where supporters could see or interact with them, only men who would not have been in cells close to Sandra at the end. The woman who they did release was first spotted instead in front of a news camera on another local street telling a version of Sandra’s last hours that matched the false portrayal of Sandra by officials much better than it matched the character known to family, friends, and even the casual #SandySpeaks viewer.

The men who did come out spoke of Sandra Bland as the woman whose arm was hurt, not as the woman who was using drugs. Since the pain she was experiencing seemed to be pretty public knowledge in the jail, one must ask why that wasn’t what the investigators asked about?

The answer is simple: they were not investigating Sandra Bland’s death, they were prosecuting her life.

Sandra Bland Believed in You

*Cover photo by Lamarcus Feggins, @differentworldimages

On January 14, 2015, a bold, brilliant, 28 year old African American woman held a phone up in front of her face and began to speak. “Hey, y’all… so… I don’t know where to look…” she said with a smile that could charm the sting off a bee. Rarely has such an important act in history taken place with so much casual and unscripted authenticity.

We all have moments in our lives, where we feel a great sense of urgency that we are supposed to do something. Whether it is calling that friend who you have not heard from in a concerning amount of time; pulling out your cell phone at just the right minute to film an arrest; or raising your hand in class to say that thing that has to be said. The difference in our lives, and potentially the lives of many others, is made in the little moments, the little choices, the decisions to say ‘yes.’

When Sandra Bland’s moment came, she said yes. The calling to begin making her #SandySpeaks videos was weighing so heavy on her that night of January 14, that she began at the end of a long day with a dying phone battery and curlers in her hair. The gravity of the calling left no time for vanity.

Sandy set out to explain that she was not making her videos to hear herself talk: Sandy spoke so that others would be heard. Sandy spoke so that those who were silenced would be seen. And through her videos, Sandy still speaks.

She began, “I wanted to make this video message and plant my seed of #SandySpeaks… with police brutality and everything going on in the news, a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel, and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten about an important group which are the kids… I want to get some dialogue started with them, i want to see how they feel.”

While the ethos that children are “to be seen and not heard” still echoes in our society, Sandra was determined to lift up even the smallest voice, such as the voice of her two year old niece, whom she mentioned with such reverence.

Sandy believed that she could make a difference, as she said, “I’m here to change history”; but more importantly, she believed that that we could make a difference, saying, “If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.” 

Pronouns are important, if I have learned nothing else this year, it is that. Sandra Bland used them to perfection. She knew what she could do. She knew what we could do. She knew what you could do.

Sandra Bland believed in you. It may sound odd, but it is true. Not only is it true, it was at the very core of her mission. It is why she always began her videos after this one with, “Good morning my Kings and Queens.”

Sandra Bland knew what she could do: “Laugh all you want to, say what you want, but I’m here to change history. I am ready to do what I need to do for this next generation. It’s time. It’s time for me to do God’s work, at the end of the day.”

Sandra Bland knew what we could do: “God has truly opened my eyes and shown me that there is something out there that we can do. We can stop sitting around and saying, “well maybe next time” or “Oh, well, we knew that was going to happen.” It’s time to stop knowing that that was going to happen, and its time to start doing something.”

Sandra Bland knew what you could do: “We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen. We sit out here and talk about, ‘we need the next so and so and this and that’ no you don’t. No you don’t. Start in your own home. Start with you. You start being that one to want to make that change.”

Sandra Bland sat there, with her curlers in her hair, and her phone battery dying, and she started a revolution. Why? Because she believed in you just that much. She believed that we would do it, because she believed that you could do it. She believed that we would change history, because she believed that you could change history and she could change history.

Maybe when no one else believed in you, she believed in you; and she trusted you to do something. While the confidence of a woman who is loved by her family, devoted to God, and aware of her worth exuded from her smile, she also clearly understood that she would not be able to carry out her calling alone.

As she said, “I need you. I need y’all’s help. I can’t do this by myself. I need you.”

She knew that she had to take action, and she was ready to lead by example; but she also knew that she could not do it alone.

When Sandra Bland’s friends and family woke up on January 15, 2015, they discovered the video that Sandra had posted the night before at 12:04 am. Many of them recognized the passion in her voice and responded. Yet, none of them could have known how sacred this record of her calling would become to millions of people around the world until they woke up on yet another morning, only two days shy of six months later: July 13, 2015.

So, as you wake up today, and as we return full circle to January 15, I leave you with her words:

“It’s time y’all, it’s time. This thing that I’m holding in my hand – this telephone, this camera – is quite powerful. Social media is quite powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.”FamFull

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 3.03.00 AM

Congresswoman to DOJ: Investigate Death of Sandra Bland

On December 22, 2015, a politician told the truth.

You may not have heard about it. It did not make headlines. Truth, especially the kind that makes people uncomfortable, is not quite as appealing for the news to cover as a white man with a famously pompadour-style comb-over insulting people to the cheers of his fans. In the midst of a political season that is playing out more like a reality series, the truth, as with many good deeds, goes unnoticed. We must change that.

On December 22, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations told the truth when addressing herself to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the letter seen below. In telling the truth, she renewed her demands once again that the Department of Justice do a comprehensive and transparent investigation of the events and circumstances surrounding the arrest and death of Sandra Bland.

While Sandra Bland has endured six months of slander and accusations that she was not respectful of the law, what you will discover in reading Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s letter is that the real truth of what took place has been hidden beneath a deeply rooted misunderstanding of what the law is. While critics have demeaned Sandra Bland for what they saw as failure to respect an officer of the law, they missed the real truth that it was the officer that was failing to respect the law. The crucial truth that we must grasp as a nation if we are going to avoid the abuses of any more Brian Encinias or Daniel Holtzclaws is that the authority given to individuals to enforce our laws does not supersede the authority of the law itself. It is not the authority of the individual that we respect, it is the authority of the law. If it is a just law, meant to protect the people, and the individual is breaking the law, they have given up their authority in that moment and have become the criminal themselves. In the case of Brian Encinia, he gave up his authority to enforce the law the moment that he became a physically dangerous, and we now know perjurious, law-breaker himself.

Stating a truth that few have been willing to acknowledge, Congresswoman Jackson Lee wrote, “The violent verbal and physical assaults Ms. Bland endured have been met with little action and slow responses by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Waller County District Attorney’s Office.” In the midst of a two page letter detailing the failure of the nation and the state to adequately address accountability in policing, it would be easy to miss the importance of this statement. Yet, in making that statement, Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged some very important things:

  • Sandra Bland experienced violent verbal assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Sandra Bland experienced violent physical assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Public Officials in Texas have done little to nothing about the crimes of Brian Encinia.

In appealing at the beginning of her letter that “the Department of Justice conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate action in connection with the death of Sandra Bland”, Congresswoman Jackson Lee also brought to our attention that:

  • A transparent and thorough investigation has not yet taken place.
  • Action is needed for an appropriate response to the death of Sandra Bland.
  • Failing to take any action would be, therefore, inappropriate.

As she continued Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged that Waller County is “a community with deeply rooted racial divides and a history of racially discriminatory practices…” In making this statement, Rep. Jackson Lee made clear what many within Waller County have refused to acknowledge:

  • That Waller County has a history of racially discriminatory practices.
  • That Waller County currently continues to be characterized by deeply rooted racial divides.

She was not finished yet, however, for the recent records of jailing procedures seemed to raise alarms as well; she stated, “This is very troubling, considering the Waller County Jail previously has been cited for violating state rules for failing to properly and adequately train guards and personnel, particularly when interacting with inmates who are mentally disabled or potentially suicidal.” From this we know that:

  • The Waller County Jail has been cited for violated state rules.
  • The Waller County Jail has failed to properly and adequately train its staff.
  • Those who are vulnerable in society, such as the mentally disabled, are particularly vulnerable and in danger while in the care of the Waller County Jail.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee continued,“The practices and policies that have led to the deaths of multiple persons in custody at Waller County Jail call for immediate review and thorough corrective action by the Department of Justice.”  The truth these last words reveal is perhaps most disturbing of all:

  • The Waller County Jail is directly responsible for the deaths of multiple persons due to their faulty practices and policies.
  • The private review and recommendations given to the Sheriff by the committee led by Paul Looney was far from sufficient.
  • A thorough investigation by the Department of Justice is necessary, not when the Texas Rangers say they are finished, but immediately.
  • It will be necessary to take action to correct what has gone wrong in the Waller County Jail system for the safety of local citizens.

What is perhaps most important in this follow up to Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s appeal for a Department of Justice investigation last summer is the legal reasons she gives for an investigation. While Officials in Waller County have attempted to distract the general public for the past six months with accusations of marijuana use and self-harm, it is refreshing to hear the law actually come up in conversation.

First, Congresswoman Jackson Lee states that an investigation is necessary to examine whether the policing practices in Waller County (which would include the actions of police officers, prisons guards, judges, health providers, and public officials), violate the Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which states:

Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnaping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

Reading that law is like hearing a narration of the arrest of Sandra Bland caught on the dash cam of Brian Encinia’s car.

Second, Congresswoman Jackson Lee calls for an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a which guarantees the Attorney General of the United States the right to investigate jails when it is believed they have deprived those in their care of any rights, as well as taking corrective measures to rectify. In other words, neither the Sheriff of Waller County, nor the ad hoc “suggestions” committee he set up, nor the DA nor any official in Waller County has the final say if Constitutional rights are being violated.

Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that any State or political subdivision of a State, official, employee, or agent thereof, or other person acting on behalf of a State or political subdivision of a State is subjecting persons residing in or confined to an institution, as defined in section 1997 of this title, to egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive such persons of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States causing such persons to suffer grievous harm, and that such deprivation is pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, the Attorney General, for or in the name of the United States, may institute a civil action in any appropriate United States district court against such party for such equitable relief as may be appropriate to insure the minimum corrective measures necessary to insure the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, except that such equitable relief shall be available under this subchapter to persons residing in or confined to an institution as defined in section 1997(1)(B)(ii) of this title only insofar as such persons are subjected to conditions which deprive them of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution of the United States.

After that, there was nothing left to be said other than: “For these reasons, I am calling upon the Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, and to take appropriate action necessary to vindicate the federal interest to protect the civil rights of all Americans and to ensure that all persons receive equal justice under law.”

I think that is what we would call a *mic drop* from one of the great Stateswomen of American politics.

Add your voice along with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee:

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 4.11.53 AM

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 4.12.03 AM

 

The Eyes Behind Us: Final Day of Sandra Bland Grand Jury

*This is the blog you write when your writing pen and your phone are your only form of defense while walking amongst armed men and women, and you hope that somehow those tools can make the people you care about safer. 

In the third floor Courtroom of the Waller County Courthouse, the Grand Jury finished their discussion of Brian Encinia’s arrest of Sandra Bland, as I stood with supporters and reporters in the packed hallway outside. Crossing my thrift store cowboy boots, I leaned against the railing at the top of the stairs next to an elderly, African American man in overalls. I do not know why he was there, perhaps official business, perhaps curiosity.

Looking to my left, I noticed a man in blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a jacket trying to look casual as he snuck pictures on his cell phone of myself and the others in the hallway. He was trying to fit in with us, but his posture gave him away as an undercover officer attempting to infiltrate.

Walking across the top of the stairwell to his side, I held out my hand, “Hello, I’m Hannah Bonner.”

“Hello,” he replied.

Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.
Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.

“So, are you here with these Officers?” I said, making polite small talk.

“No, I came from New York. I’m here to support the movement. I support the movement.”

“Wow, so you came all the way down from New York today to support us? That is so far to have come,” I inquired, confused.

“No, I mean I’m from New York. I live around here now. I am into movement things. I have been to other things to support the movement. I am here for the movement. I want to get involved.”

While he did look familiar, it was not because he had “been to other movement things.” He looked familiar because I had sat in front of the Waller County Jail for 80 days and I am an alive,  observant person. His name was actually Alex Kassem and word on the street was that he worked with the SWAT team in Waller County as well as in Houston, along with being a body guard for hire with experience serving in the Egyptian Special Forces. In truth, of all the people I have come across in my life, he is the one most highly trained in the use of lethal force.

Newyork2

Looking to my right, I saw the elderly African American man taking a picture of “New York” on one of those simple phones that people buy for their parents for safety. As I spotted it, so did Officer S. Rutledge from the Waller County Sheriff’s Department. Not knowing I was looking, she dashed across the hallway and told the elderly gentleman, “You’ll have to come with me” as she pulled him quickly towards the elevator.

Something was not right. Granted, unlike the rest of the Courthouse, you could not take pictures on the third floor. Yet, I had watched dozens of people do so over the past hour with the only consequence being a simple verbal request from the officers not to do so.

I dashed across the hallway myself, forgetting “New York” for the moment. “Wait, where are you taking him, he has not done anything wrong.”

“He took a picture,” Officer Rutledge responded.

“I’ve been watching people take pictures all day, and all you’ve done is tell them to stop. Why are you taking him away?”
“Don’t interfere,” she said as the younger African American woman pulled the older African American gentleman into the elevator and a small line of officers blocked the entrance while the doors closed between us.

I did not know what to do. Turning to the reporters who sat on benches along the wall typing. I pleaded, “Did you see that? They are trying to intimidate him because he is local. You have seen people taking pictures all day and they did not take anyone else away.” Looking behind me, I saw some of the Sandra Bland supporters began to rush down the stairs and I realized that they were right, we had to make sure this gentleman did not disappear without any way of knowing who he was or how to check on him.

When I got to the first floor, there was already a bewildered group of supporters there being blocked from continuing down the hallway. This had never happened in the six months I have been observing.

At the end of the hallway, we could see out through the glass doors that Officer Rutledge was giving the gentleman a lecture. “Why can’t we go through?” the Sandra Bland supporters were asking. “You can’t come through, go out another door. You are just wasting time here.”

The group began to move up the stairs and out of the Courthouse through the back entrance ahead of me. As I came up the stimage3airs and around the side of the building, I realized I was alone with “New York” close on my heels. My demeanor seemed to have left him unaware that
I knew he had no intentions of “supporting the movement.”

I turned the corner to hear Jinaki crying out, “They have the elder.”

As we got to the entrance where we had seen Officer Rutledge with the gentleman, the officer and gentleman were gone.  the group told me that the officers had coordinated it for them to send us out the back entrance, while she brought him back in the side entrance to where we had been.

As I filmed my reaction, “New York” the “movement supporter” stood behind me pretending to support me and filming reactions that he would probably share later on with his colleague Officer Rutledge.

image5

Coming back in the entrance was a slow process as the group had to go through security one by one. On the other side, sat Officer Hood, a young African American officer who I had not seen before, chuckling to himself. Three African American Sandra Bland supporters went through security ahead of me and they wanded and patted down each one. As I came through I spread my arms and legs like you do at the airport and waited my turn. “No, we’re not going to do you,” the Officer said. “But you did all of them, why aren’t you going to do me?” They refused.

When we arrived back at the third floor, we discovered that Officer Rutledge had returned the older gentleman to the hallway and he was talking to a young man. Coming over we asked if he was okay.

“She took my license. She ran my license,” he said tearily.

“Why would she do that?” I asked.

“I have to go,” he replied.

“Well, we are walking you to your car,” we said to the gentleman to whom we had no connection apart from a new and profound sense of responsibility.

We walked down the stairs silently, and out the back door. When we reached the corner of the sidewalk, I finally said, “So what brought you out here to the Courthouse today?”

Turning towards me, I saw the pain of decades and perhaps generations well up in his eyes with unstoppable force and begin to overflow. It was too much heartbreak, for too long.

I put my arm around him slightly and then pulled it back and waved it wildly behind my back, beckoning to the three young African American men walking slightly behind us. I was beyond my depth. I did not have the resources he needed. Sensing what was needed, my friend Malik stepped forward and put his arm around the gentleman’s shoulder as we finished walking him to his car.

Once there, we got his phone number and the number of two of his relatives so that we could check on him from time to time. “She took my license,” he said as he dried his eyes, “She let me know if there was any tickets or problems, they could take me to that jail.”

[Now it may not be my place, but someone reading this blog is Officer Rutledge’s aunt or cousin or momma’s friend; perhaps it is your place to talk to her about this man’s tears and the history of generations that caused them. We are all in this together, after all.]

As he closed his car door and we began to walk away, I walked back and knocked on his door. He opened it and I said, “Can we pray before you go?”

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.06.51 AM“Yes, please,” he said.

I prayed that God would surround him with protection from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. I prayed comfort. I prayed justice. I prayed all the words I had left in my heart.

He closed his door, and we turned back to the Courthouse, surprised to hear “Left, left, left, right, left,” as a column of 21 Texas State Troopers marched directly toward me. They turned the corner, and so did the gentleman as he drove out of town.

A few minutes later the Grand Jury emerged from the side, and five special prosecutors emerged from the front to tell the press that they had indicted Brian Encinia with the smallest, paltry charge – my words not theirs – that they could come up with. They had indicted him for perjury in stating that he had a justifiable reason for pulling Sandra Bland from her car; rather than indicting him for the actual act of pulling her from her car and falsely Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.58.44 AMarresting her.

We did not see Alex “New York” Kassem again. Some of the other supporters said they had told him they knew he was an officer and he dipped out. We did call the gentleman to make sure he got home. He told me that he had gotten home safe but that a trooper had followed him all the way down the highway.

“I need to tell you why Officer Rutledge did that to me,” he said. “It was not because I was taking a picture, it was because of who I was taking a picture of. That man you were talking to at the top of the stairs, I recognized him. He has followed me before.”

It seems that while we thought we were looking out for him, it was the older gentleman who had been looking out for us all along.

We are all in this together, after all.

The Whistling Sheriff: Sandra Bland Grand Jury

“It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!,” Sheriff R. Glenn Smith joked, Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.15.25 AMpointing at Officer L. Watts, a female, African American Officer on his force. It was individuals like Officer Watts that Sheriff Smith had referred to repeatedly in the media when arguing that there could not have been any racial component in Sandra Bland’s arrest and death because not all his staff was white.

On hard benches outside of the District Courtroom on the third floor of the Waller County Courthouse sat several Sandra Bland supporters, Officers from the Waller County Sheriff’s staff, and several members of the media. Many familiar faces sought or avoided eye contact as the same officers who had walked past those holding vigil for Sandra Bland now had to sit across from them while members of the press, who had once sweltered in the July heat, typed away on their laptops only a feet away.

When Officer Penny Goodie, of the Prairie View Police Department, emerged from the Courtroom looking dazed, she was quickly ushered down the stairs by a fellow female, African American Officer, S. Rutledge of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, before a voice said that Sheriff R. Glenn Smith was up next.

Emerging from Judge Albert M. McCaig, Jr.’s office, the room next to the courtroom, Sheriff Smith sauntered slowly past the Sandra Bland supporters to the door of the courtroom and took a seat on the bench. After a few minutes a man poked his head out and said to the Sheriff, “You’re good to go!” At which point, overcome with good humor, Sheriff Smith turned to Officer L. Watts and Officer J. Henry and delivered his crowd-pleasing line, “It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!” before chuckling and sauntering back past the Sandra Bland supporters and into Judge McCaig’s office once again to rejoin his Captain of Patrol, Officer Brian Cantrell, and the others gathered there.

A few minutes later, Sheriff Smith re-emerged from the Judge’s office whistling, as he had been wont to do several times in the preceding hours, and strolled up and down the hall before returning to the Judge’s office once again. It was a ritual that he would repeat several more times before the Officers seemed to tire of our social media reporting from the scene and demanded that “the public” leave at 5:00 pm; forcing everyone down the stairs and out into the quickly gathering dusk of evening, over the protests of local Waller leaders and television reporters who had never experienced such a curfew before.

The intentionality and persistence with which the Sheriff sought to flaunt what he saw as his triumph was unlike anything I had seen outside of slightly comedic scenes in television or on the stage. The exaggerated slowness of the saunter and persistent whistle was akin to a scene out of the early days of silent film, when the characters had to exaggerate their movements to get their point across without the assistance of audio. I was torn, uncertain whether he intended to be menacing or humorous; I suppose it was a little of both, for there have always been those who find amusement in seeking to intimidate others.

IMG_9454I could not help but wonder what these Officers on the bench across from me were really thinking and feeling. Certainly, I knew they were not too fond of me. I recognized Officer J. Henry from that time he walked behind Ranger and I as we sat in front of the Waller County Jail and joked to Assistant Chief Jailer L. Thibodeaux, “Got any room left in there?” (“For what?”) “For these two.” Yet, even so, putting their feelings for me aside, I found it hard to believe that they could feel proud of the behavior that their supervisor was exhibiting.

I have struggled for months to find a word to really capture the Sheriff’s particular brand of unassailable privilege that seeks to flaunt itself. The only word I have been able to quite find to describe it is hubris, but even that word seems to fall short of capturing its essence.

Or perhaps, on second thought, hubris does work. For it was that pomposity in the Greek tragedies that led the men of myth and legend to make decisions out of pride so excessive that it defied even the gods. In the Christian tradition, it was akin to the pride of Saul with his height, Samson with his strength, and Absalom with the flowing locks that were his undoing.

I have spent a good amount of time around the men and women of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office & Jail over the past five months. Enough time to have a certain fondness for some of them that makes me wonder if they feel trapped in the roles they occupy, or if they carry out their duties willingly. Enough time to have a healthy caution around others of them, whom I have watched as they have watched me; doing so long enough to know that the uneasy feeling I have in their presence never goes away. Enough time to know that even if they felt their stories were true, the Sheriff’s Office has wrapped them in so much subterfuge that it would be impossible for them to ever ring true now.

And so it happened, that we found ourselves ejected from the doors of the Waller County Courthouse by some of those same Officers, Rutledge, Watts, and Henry, to stand on the sidewalk outside of the Waller County Courthouse with a cadre of stunned television reporters who could not believe that they had really just been rudely tossed out of the building.

I could not help wondering, as I always do, why was it that the Sheriff always had his African American Officers be the ones to engage when there were people in protest or vigil.

Actually, no, that is not what I wondered. I knew the answer to that, as the well-informed reader will as well. The actual question in my mind was: how did these Officers feel about being used that way? They had to be familiar with the Sheriff’s rhetoric that he could not be racist because they were on his staff. And they had to have noticed, as we all did, that they were always the ones chosen to be on the front lines; from the time when Rutledge and other African American staff were sent into the lobby first to ask protesters to leave, all the way up to tonight, when she was once again put in that position, along with Watts and Henry, while white Officers and staff watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office.

I know they seem to hate me, and they probably think I hate them; but in truth, I can’t help but love them and hurt for them and wish we could all be set free from the bondage of this patriarchal, white supremacist culture that prioritizes the comfort of white men over the lives of black women: whether it be Sandra Bland or Officer S. Rutledge.

After 4 hours of waiting in the dark, the five special prosecutors finally emerged from the darkened Courthouse and descended the stairs towards the presser. Darrell Jordan, the spokesperson for the special prosecutors approached the microphone and began, “After presenting all of the evidence, as it relates to the death of Sandra Bland, the Grand Jury did not return an indictment…”

Sheriff R. Glenn Smith watched through the glass doors from the hallway above (just as those gathered with him had watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office), as we now listened to the news that neither he, nor anyone on his staff would be indicted in the death of Sandra Bland.

His victory seemed to be complete.

Yet, it would only appear that way to someone who did not know the way that stories about hubris end.

(Hint: It’s not over.)

Pry It Loose: Sandra Bland Civil Trial

“Let me know if I need to pry it loose,” Judge David Hittner said at the December 17th status hearing for the Civil Trial brought by the family of Sandra Bland. “Pry it loose.” It must have been the third time at least that he had used that particular combination of words in his remarks that day.

One could only assume that that particular phrase kept coming to mind because the attorney for the defense kept grinning like a child who has something hidden inside the fist balled up behind their back, while pretending there is nothing there. Yet, you always know by the grin and the smear of chocolate across their chin that there is something there they do not want you to find.

That, ladies and gentlemen, appeared to be exactly the strategy of the attorney for Officer Brian Encinia and the Department of Public Safety today. And like a parent with a sneaky child, it appears the Federal Court is going to have to pry open the hand of the State of Texas before they can find out what is inside.

When grown men engage in this game of grin-grin, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, however, it is also an appeal for solidarity. People of privilege reminding one another that there is some kind of secret pact that makes them responsible to overlook the small indiscretions of certain men for the greater good of protecting mankind.

As his body-language appeals for solidarity seemed to be having no effect on the judge, it was soon evident that things did not seem to be going the way that the attorney for the defense expected. If the reddening of his face and the crossing of his arms was not clear enough, the fact that he stepped, perhaps unconsciously, up to just a couple feet from the judge’s bench made the point. It was fascinating to see that the body language that we use to express our desires does not change greatly from the cradle to the grave.

His disappointment was evident, for he had thought he had an ace up his sleeve, when he pulled out the Younger Doctrine within the first handful of sentences that he spoke. (Although, the very first statements made were by the attorney for the plaintiff, Cannon Lambert, who made clear that at this time the plaintiff, Geneva Reed-Veal disputes the cause of death as suicide until the Rangers’ report is available.) After those words, the attorney for Brian Encinia presented the Younger Doctrine (“instructs federal courts to refrain from hearing constitutional challenges to state action when federal action would be regarded as an improper intrusion on the state’s authority to enforce its laws in its own courts”); saying that if the Grand Jury in the State brought indictments the actions of the Federal Court would interfere with the Younger Doctrine.

Then the attorneys for the defense, attorneys for the plaintiff and the Judge went around in circles for quite a while.

The first circle was about the motion to dismiss. The defense wants the case dismissed. The plaintiff clearly does not. The judge demands answers from the plaintiff that they cannot answer without the evidence from the defense. The defense says they cannot hand over the evidence until the secret proceedings of the DA and Grand Jury in Waller County are finished. The judge asks when will that be? The lawyer for the defense says he has no idea (although it is pretty public knowledge that they are either finished already or about to be finished as they promised a conclusion before Christmas).

The second circle seemed to be about the defense’s argument for qualified immunity for Officer Brian Encinia. The defense sought to protect Officer Encinia from answering to discovery process with qualified immunity. The judge said, “Don’t I have the right to some discovery.” To which the defense replied, “I don’t believe so your honor.” Then there was some mention of Mitchell vs. Forsyth, a 1985 ruling that an official’s position alone does not automatically grant them immunity; but if the act did not clearly violate an established law, then they are granted qualified immunity. The question then becomes, did Officer Encinia violate an established law. Then the attorney for the plaintiff got involved explaining how Officer Encinia’s actions violated the 4th Amendment (Search and seizure) and that since no reasonable officer would take those steps, no qualified immunity applied. It was at that point that the tactics of the defense became truly interesting as he insisted on which specific action was out of line: “taking her from the car? pulling a taser? making her hit her head? Which one? In which way? Which action?”

As entertaining as his performance was, all it seemed to accomplish was to unite the majority of the courtroom in an unspoken understanding that we were watching a child hiding something behind his back while distracting his parents from getting it from him by saying, “Which hand? This hand? Which hand? This hand?” and switching the item back and forth between his hands so as to always present an empty one.

The final circular conversation that the room got to witness came from the defense attorney for Waller County. He claimed that the family was refusing to hand over access to Sandra Bland’s mental health records. The attorney for the plaintiff responded that they had no knowledge of mental health records and that they had handed over the medical health records. The attorney for the County insisted that there must be records because they saw some texts on Sandra’s phone that made it sound like she was seeing a counselor. The defense replied that they had seen the same text and had not made the conclusion. The attorney for the defense continued to imply that the attorney for the plaintiff was withholding the records; while the attorney for the plaintiff insisted they would be glad to give them clearance to obtain the records if the defense had any idea who the mystery counselor they had assumed existed from the texts was. Without a name and address, however, the plaintiff could not give clearance to records that they had no knowledge of their existence.

As the proceedings ended, it was clear that at least for today, whatever the defense for the State and County had behind their back, they were not going to show it any time soon.

Judge David Hittner made it clear, however, that he did plan to pry those fingers loose. So dates were set for the coming year for Summary Judgement, for the Ranger report, for expert witnesses, for the end of motions, for the end of discovery, and for the end of introducing new parties.

When all was said and done, it became clear that with all the games taking place and the grinning and chuckling, that fist was balled up pretty tight and it was going to take some serious effort to pry those fingers loose from the evidence of what happened to Sandra Bland.

In fact, it will take a full year, until January 23, 2017 when a jury will be assembled to examine the contents that have been pried loose.

*p.s. Lots of other things happened: promise to strictly apply new rulings Amendment to limit scope of discovery; discussion of verbal/in house conversation that bags were acceptable in cells, but still no written procedure; observation that the US Attorney had made a motion to quash but had chosen not to come to court; discussion of whether the FBI records subpoena complied with regulations for specificity of request; mention of Federal training liability; the words “fact dependent” were mentioned al lot, along with discovery, Monel, Jury selection, and summary judgement. 

Why You’ve Never Heard Me Say Sandra Bland Was Murdered

You’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered.

Words are precious to me. I handle them with care. I work with poets who shuffle them around like puzzle pieces on a table until they find just the right fit. I was raised by a man who took the half-page permission slips that my elementary school teachers sent home with me and made me late for the bus as he pored over each word before signing. I serve a religious tradition where great debates decades long were waged over whether the word transubstantiation or consubstantiation should be used to describe the Eucharist.

So, no, you’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. That is something I can neither know nor prove. And to say something I can neither know nor prove detracts from the validity of what I do know and can prove.

What you will hear me say is that Sandra Bland’s life was taken.

Day by day a system of white supremacy seeks to chip away at the vitality of young women of color in this nation. Day by day, their souls must expand in order to merely survive as some piece or peace is constantly being taken.

In this journey of five months, I have not been driven and motivated by Sandra’s death, I have been driven by her life. What she was. What she could have been. What has been taken from her family. What has been taken from all of us. What can be given back to her of her legacy by keeping her name, voice, image and story alive.

A death is not enough to drive the movement that this nation needs, because if we are driven by death, we will become dependent upon it occurring.

We cannot need the blood of others. We cannot come to rely upon it being spilt.

I was at a meeting earlier this year when a wise woman, I believe it was Rev. Candy Holmes, said that we could not be dependent on the sacrifice of our young, the blood of our slain to motivate the movement. We must struggle and fight for justice without needing someone to die to herald our attention, motivate our action, or mobilize our masses. It is true, I was out in the streets for Michael, for Eric, for Tamir; but I do not want it to cost anyone else’s life for us to stay motivated to end the injustice that exists.

In this journey, I have been counting not on Sandra Bland’s death but on her life. We have a gift in the record she left us, a gift not to be squandered. I have been counting on her leadership, her voice, her wisdom, her authenticity, her weakness, her struggle, her strength. I could not afford to see her as the image that our media tried to leave to us: a little bit shattered in an orange jumpsuit. That was not her. She was not an object of pity, a vessel broken, or a corpse. She was life. Life was what was taken from us. What she offered us was not her death, what she offered was her life. Her true identity and legacy lies not in the fact that she died but in the fact that she lived, loved, suffered, triumphed, struggled, succeeded.

On many occasions, and as recently as 30 minutes ago, I have had to turn to God, turn to Scriptures, and turn to Sandra’s own words to find my way. When I do so, I do not do so fueled by an image of her in an orange prison jumpsuit. I have never allowed my eyes to more than glance at such an image. When I do so, I am fueled by an image of a perfectly imperfect woman who was passionate enough about her calling to answer it with curlers in her hair and these words: “It’s time ya’ll. It’s time.”

And these words: “I can’t do this alone, I need ya’lls help.”

And these words: “It’s time to stop saying, I knew that was going to happen, and it’s time to start doing something.”

And these words: “It’s God that’s truly opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”

So no, you will not hear me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. The words you will hear me choose to use are that Sandra Bland’s life was taken. And if we do nothing, we are all complicit. And if we do nothing, it will happen again. Because there is a system in place in this nation that seeks to break down what is most threatening to it: a black woman who loves herself and her sisters enough to take action so that they will all live safe and free.

She lost her life in taking that action. Why? Because the action is necessary. If it was not necessary, she would still be alive today. If the racism and system of injustice that she spoke against and struggled against did not exist, she would still be alive today. It was that system that took her life, by whatever method it did so.

Nina Simone once sang:

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear

Later in an interview, when asked what freedom meant to her, Nina Simone answered: “No fear.”

What more was Sandra Bland trying to do but live free so that others might do so as well.

I still do not have an answer to the question we asked for 80 days in front of the Waller County Jail: “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” The reality is that even if the official story is the fact, it has been so steeped in falsehood that you could not blame anyone who could not recognize it as truth. From shifting stories to slander to preposterous tours of the jail cell where the “untouched” objects were constantly moving in the pictures reporters brought out – the water has become so muddy that we cannot see what is at the bottom of it all. The only thing that is clear is that there is more to the story than we have gotten.

In the midst of all that we do not know, this is what we do know:

Sandra Bland should not have been followed.

Sandra Bland should not have been pulled over.

Sandra Bland should not have been threatened with a taser.

Sandra Bland should not have been taken from her car.

Sandra Bland should not have been thrown to the ground.

Sandra Bland should not have been arrested.

Sandra Bland should never have been in the Waller County Jail.

Regardless of what it cost her, we cannot ignore the fact that in the last moments that we have sight of Sandra Bland, she lived free; by Nina Simone’s definition, she lived without fear.

Many critique her that if she had operated with the appropriate fear and deference she would still be with us today. Yet, we cannot build a just world where people can live free through fear. We have to build it by eliminating the necessity for fear, by eliminating a system that judges us differently. That will cost us all something, and white people like myself must pay our hefty portion of the bill that has come due.

There are many people in this nation who could drive through life without ever being aware that what happened to Sandra Bland was a possibility. In Sandra’s words, “It’s time.” We’ve got to let go of wherever it was that we were trying to get to in life, pull the car over and do something.

IMG_2249

 

 

The Creeping Fear of Waller County

There are few vehicles in the world that I am more familiar with than the Waller County Sheriff’s truck. In the 80 consecutive days that we sat in vigil for Sandra Bland outside the Waller County Jail, I lost count of how many times we saw it parked around the side of the building for the inmates in orange jumpsuits to wash by hand.

IMG_8065 (2)

So when I heard last week that an arsenal of guns, including a powerful machine gun, had been stolen from that same truck, I could not help but wonder how many times those inmates had been within inches of that arsenal without knowing it.

It was a sobering thought indeed to realize that even the Sheriff himself was not immune to the creeping fear of Waller County.

I had spent months sitting in Waller County before I could verbalize that feeling. The creeping fear. The understanding of your context that grows with time. Wears you down. Remarkable, then, that the Sheriff, who many credit with helping create it, actually felt it himself, for I do not doubt his words. When he said to reporters that he felt the need to carry all those guns partly because of death threats he had received after Sandra Bland, I take him partly at his word. As a woman who carries the Book, I’ve turned to the Book to deal with my own death threats; so I can accept that as a man who carries a gun, he would turn to guns to cope with his.

Since recognizing that almost tangible sensation of fear, I have tried to understand what creates or contributes to this atmosphere.

Learned Helplessness

Encyclopedia Brittanica defines learned helplessness as, “a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.”

The phenomenon was originally discovered when dogs ceased to try to escape after repeatedly being shocked. Even if you turned off the shock fence, they would not try to escape because they had learned they were helpless. This was confirmed in human behavior as well.

Learned helplessness is the kind of phenomenon that might develop if a town were to terminate their Chief of Police, only to have him elected Sheriff and positioned in an office less than a mile away from the one he was forced to vacate. That is what happened to Hempstead when R. Glenn Smith was terminated by vote of the City Council, only to be elected Sheriff by Waller County and positioned in an office 2 minutes driving, or 15 minutes walking, from his original post.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.28.47 AM

Learned helplessness might also develop if the media praised that same Sheriff for his transparency and search for accountability, when citizens knew it was anything but that. That is what happened when media praised Sheriff R. Glenn Smith for naming an independent citizen review board to “investigate” the jail after Sandra Bland’s death and to be headed up by what the press described as a Houston attorney who was “not personal friends” with the Sheriff. What the media failed to note was that the Austin St. address of Looney’s offices were actually across the street from the Waller County Court House and that he shared those offices with Judge Trey Duhon who was a personal friend of the Waller County Sheriff. Duhon and Looney were said to have cut ties to avoid any undue influence; yet, if you drive past the Waller County Court House, you will still see this sign hanging.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.45.32 AM
Hempstead offices of Looney & Conrad across from Waller Co.Court House
Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.50.33 AM
Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, DA Elton Mathis, Judge Trey Duhon

Thus, for those paying attention on the ground, it came as no surprise when Looney came forward later on to say that his review was really just casual and for the eyes of the Sheriff alone for him to do with what he wanted. Many at a distance had been fooled into thinking this was a sign of hope. Yet, it is what has proven to be a classic stalling technique to distract the press and the populace.

Another example would be when DA Elton Mathis said that Sandra Bland’s death would be investigated as a murder, then quickly followed it up with a statement a couple days later that it had been deemed a suicide. Yet, that initial statement distracted people repeatedly as it was shared again and again as the months wore on.

Perhaps the strongest illustration of how learned helplessness is maintained, however, was the arrest of the Honorable Jonathan Miller. Shortly after he had voted to confirm the naming of the road Sandra Bland was arrest on Sandra Bland Parkway, the Honorable Jonathan Miller, the youngest City Councilman on Prairie View’s City Council, was shot with a taser and arrested in his own front yard. His crime? Questioning why police were hassling his guests in his front yard. The police officers insisted they had very good reason to be questioning his friends; yet, once they had Jonathan Miller tased and on the ground, they told his friends they could disperse and that they had no problem with them. Since that time, the Honorable Jonathan Miller has not been able to be employed in his occupation as a teacher because DA Elton Mathis has neither moved forward with the case, nor dropped the charges against him. Leaving him in a cruel limbo until the timing is right in the press or, more likely, until the press goes away. The message is clear: if this can happen to a City Councilman, why could it not happen to you or your neighbor? Why even try?

Fear of Retaliation

Witnessing events like this over and over again leads to a fear of retaliation. On August 11, I arrived at the jail to discover a group of women waiting for me. Although their presence was alarming at first, they were not waiting for me for the reason you might have guessed. The first words were spoken with tears in their eyes, “Please, please be careful…” as I promised them that I would before they drove off. They were concerned because the day before the Sheriff had told me 1) to go back to the Church of Satan 2) that there would be consequences for myself, those with me, and anyone who tried to help me 3) that things would be different if I came back the next day. Therefore, their concern when I returned the next day

The fear that I had seen in their eyes was something that I would see and hear again on an almost a daily basis from many in the area of Hempstead who wanted to help or befriend me, but were terrified of the consequences for doing so. What would the consequences be? I do not know; but the terror was real and tangible. I do not have an explanation, that is their story to tell; what I have is an observation. People will say, as they have said, that this is all made up and I am just a really good writer; to which I say: a) Thank you for the compliment b) If people feel authentic fear I am not going to divulge personal details about them in order to prove a point.

Intimidation

This fear is kept relevant by small and persistent signs of intimidation. As our vigil for Sandra Bland wore away at people’s fear, the walls protecting the culture of fear were reinforced by small yet public acts of intimidation. Many people are aware of the cycle of intimidation that ran its course and sputtered out between the Sheriff’s department and the Sandra Bland supporters. By that I am referring to the “Church of Satan” – erection of barricades -cutting down of trees – reporting to the FBI – dismantling of toxic barricades – welding of permanent steel barricades – removal of prayer stones – paving of the parking lot – cycle of intimidation through which the Sheriff mysteriously carried out “maintenance” that had been delayed for years or decades in a matter of weeks in an attempt to dissuade our prayer vigil from continuing.

What most are not aware of are the men who sat in cars and watched us. The men who sat in cars and followed us. The man who sat watching me in a green car in the parking lot of Hope AME and ominously asked me, “Is this your church?” To which I could most easily reply, “It is not. It is God’s.” We can only imagine that our experience is not an isolated experience.

Insulated Social Media

Yet, while our experience of intimidation may not be different, our experience of social media does seem to be. People around the country noticed from the start that there was something peculiar about the social media world of Waller County and the way officials engaged on social media when Judge Trey Duhon tweeted about Sandra Bland from what seemed to be a professional account.Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 1.30.48 AM

Granted, many of us tweet very opinionated or strongly worded tweets on a regular basis; but what was unusual was that it was coming from an account titled @WallerInfo. For many, that was the first time they had experienced a sitting Judge tweeting information and opinions about a case and an individual.

The second way that people became aware of the insulated manner of engaging social media was through The Waller County News, a closed and private Facebook group that included the Sheriff, among over 5,000 other members. It’s been reported that the communication that went on within the group seemed to very strongly support locally elected officials and discourage critique. Many who expressed critique reported being removed from the group by the administrators.

The result was a social media environment that was insulated from the outside world, and in which local officials utilized social media to  increase the fear of the outside world.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 1.47.54 AM

This reality, thus, becomes very pertinent when the topic at hand is the death of Sandra Bland. On the one side of the scales of justice is the death of a woman whom local, insular social media has portrayed as

10641147_10100457971638694_5754811096178295302_n
Just a reminder… this is the real Sandra Bland.

a disrespectful, drug-addicted, criminal who was estranged from her family and an out-of-towner to boot. On the other side, are the salaries, careers and futures of locals, along with the potential for a legal settlement that would cost the county financially. Without intervention from the Department of Justice, those who will decide whether any wrongdoing occurred to Ms. Bland will be those who have been immersed in this culture and will have to live with the repercussions or rewards of their decision.

Isolation

Being less densely populated, a rural location provides residents with more limited options socially, politically and economically intensifying all of the factors above. Relationships bear a different value, a different weight when options are fewer. Without the support of those around you, life can be very hard and very lonely; making the avoidance of rifts a high priority. In addition, if you do not like who you have elected into office, you have limited options for who can replace them. Lastly, if word spreads that you are not a friend of the community, it is easier to create financial repercussions. In light of all this, intimidation bears a different weight than it does in a more urban setting. Not perhaps a greater weight, but simply a different weight.

Implications

Bearing all of this in mind, it should be clear why the people of Hempstead, Prairie View and Waller County merit our fervent support and prayers: most particularly, perhaps, those selected to serve on the Grand Jury.

 

 

Open Letter To the Sheriff of Waller County

Dear sir,

Last night, for the first time, I looked at one of the articles that was written after you told me to “go back to the Church of Satan that you run.”  At the time, I’ll be honest, I was aware that there was a good deal of media taking place around your comments to me; yet, I did not look at any of it. The reason was that I had more important things to do, to be frank. I was focused on staying alive and hydrated in scorching heat, and trying to maintain a peaceful and prayerful attitude, despite your threats that there would be “consequences” for those in vigil and despite the death threats I was receiving from people as far away as Alaska and as close as the farm up the road. I could not afford to be distracted, because I needed all of my focus to be on God in order to have the strength to continue.

When I looked at that old article from the Houston Press today, it actually caught me off guard. I think that at the time we all assumed that you either intended a slight towards a) the radically inclusive and loving congregation where I serve b) The Shout community of artist activists or c) that you were simply from an old-school mentality that found it difficult to acknowledge women as clergy.

What I saw instead last night shocked me. You actually intended to accuse me of working for the devil on that day in August. Despite the fact that the local superintendent of my church had come by the jail to sit with me and talk a couple weeks before. Despite the fact that I had sat in front of your jail for three weeks before that and your officers had marked my plates repeatedly and I felt certain you knew exactly who I was, exactly where I worked, and exactly where I lived. Despite the fact that just the week before I had marched beside Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to honor Sandra Bland at Hope AME. Despite the fact that everyone else in Waller County seemed to know I was a Methodist pastor, leading to the organizing of the Concerned Methodists of Waller County to protest against my presence in vigil for Sandra Bland. Despite all of these factors, you still stated that you intended to accuse me of working for the devil?

From the Houston Press: “In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Sheriff Glenn Smith attempted to explain why he called a clergywoman a Satanist, set up barricades to deter protesters, and cut down a nearby tree where protesters liked to gather for shade. “My grandmother used to tell me, if you’re not doing godly things, then you must be working for the devil, because there is no in-between,” said Smith, who was suspended and fired from his post as chief of police in Hempstead [by the predominantly African American Hempstead City Council] in 2008 amid accusations of racism and police misconduct before being elected Waller County Sheriff later that year [by the predominantly white Waller County].”

You went on to say that you had seen Satanists wearing clergy collars like mine before… in Waller County? Despite the humorous letter the Church of Satan wrote, disavowing any connection with me yet offering their wholehearted support, it is clear that you intended your words to be a condemnation of myself, those who stand with Sandra, and those I love. It is clear that you were summoning the most vile condemnation you could muster, and there were no stronger words you could find than to say that I serve the devil. Beyond unprofessional and abusive, your words and actions were reckless and could have put myself and my colleagues in the path of harm.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 4.09.33 AM
Some of the words sent to me that week after you accused me of working for the Devil.

Which brings us to the ironic part of this whole situation. The irony in your statement is that the thing that both summons me to this work and gives me the strength to carry it out is the love and calling of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without the calling of Christ, I could not have endured 80 days at your front door. Without the peace of Christ, I could not have found the compassion to sit in front of your office and pray not only for the conviction and honesty, but also for the safety for those working inside. Without the perfect love that casts out fear, I could not have found the courage to stay there despite the fact that you very clearly intended to draw animosity and danger our way.

To be clear, I am 5’2”, 120 lbs, and the only form of defense I have ever carried is my Bible and my guitar. Yet, I frighten you.

This is why, sir, you make me sad, and I will pray for you. You make me sad because from your own words, you seem to have had a grandmother that loved you and talked to you about God and what it means to serve God; I am sad that you have not given the world the impression that those lessons sunk in. That is important to me, as a Christian minister, and as United Methodist clergy, because all who claim the name of Christ have a responsibility to one another and to the whole world that God created and loves. When we fail to live in a manner that inspires faith in others, we do a disservice to the cross of Jesus Christ. We mock him in his suffering, our crucified Lord, a legally innocent man taken into custody by members of his own faith community, just as Sandra Bland was.

My calling to stand with my sister in Christ, my fellow Methodist, Sandra Bland, is no work of the devil. My choice to continually say her name is no trick of the tongue. My persistence in demanding an answer to “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” is nothing more and nothing less than a conviction that whatever happened to her would not have happened to me; because as a white woman in a collar, I would never have had Officer Brian Encinia try to tear me from my car. That is a state of affairs that, as a Christian minister, I cannot be silent about, because it was my own Christian faith that helped to build a system where black bodies were not treated as sacred, cherished, and loved. I must be a part of dismantling what a distortion of my faith’s teachings put in place.

Know this, intimidation will not work. We will continue to ask: What Happened To Sandra Bland? We want the truth. There is no answer we are afraid of receiving; we stand with her whatever may come, for we already know the truth is that she should never have been in your jail to start. You can understand why, for me, the way you have spoken of and treated me makes it hard for me to believe that her treatment could possibly have been above reproach. You can also understand why it has been difficult to believe the official narrative when I heard you with my own ears say that Sandra had died by tying a noose and then sitting down on the toilet. Remember, you told that activist from Dallas that story and she recorded it? I think I heard three different versions from you that first week. It made it impossible for me to accept your official version once you all got together and got on the same page and decided what it would work to say happened.

You may not see me every day, but we have not gone anywhere; we have merely shifted our efforts to acknowledge the complexity of the justice system. Be assured that we will drop by from time to time to ensure you do not forget to #SayHerName #SandraBland

As for me, sir, I am still waiting on an apology from you. I heard a rumor that you apologized to a reporter for me. Yet, you have already made it abundantly clear that your grandmother was very involved in instructing you; so I am certain that your grandmother made it clear that apologies must be made to the person to whom offense has been given, and that they must be sincere. So I will continue to wait, and pray that God softens your heart. If that be not the will of God, hardened hearts have been known to work just as well to set God’s people free.

Your sister in Christ,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

p.s. I will be lifting up prayers for your friends as well

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 3.59.14 AM