Sandra Bland & The Heart of An Aunt

“It’s okay, she understands,” my sister said on the end of the line. “It will really be okay if she doesn’t get to see you. She understands that you have priorities.

Pain cut a line down from the area right behind my chin to a spot in the middle of my chest, and my breath became tight; I believe this is what they would call a lump in my throat. It struck me as unacceptable that my life would ever get to a point where my niece would think of the word priorities and her name would not show up at the top.

I blinked hard to keep the tears back. It was the weekend of my niece’s twelfth birthday; I was in the city where she lived; and she was leaving in the morning for a trip out of town. I felt my heart collapsing in on itself. I had not seen her in several months; I won’t be specific because I am embarrassed at how long it had been, but long enough to leave me wracked with guilt and a longing to have her in my arms.

Those words – “She understands that you have priorities” – rang in my head. “Exactly,” I finally replied, “that is why I need to see her.”

Climbing into the backseat of a rental car with Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal, I sat quietly to keep the tears inside. Being in the city where my niece lived was a coincidence, as we were in town to #SayHerName #SandraBland at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March.

About halfway through the drive to the hotel, a tear snuck past my guards and slid quietly down my cheek, intent on leading others to freedom.

“I hate to see you cry,” Ms. Geneva said. ‘I feel the same about you,’ was my unspoken response. It was 88 days since she had received news of the death of her daughter, Sandra Bland. 86 days since we had begun to ask “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” at the Waller County Jail where she had died.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. I just get emotional when I think about my nieces and nephews,” was my spoken response. In truth, I could never think about any of them without tearing up. To say they are important to me would be an understatement. There is no better sound than their voices on the other side of the line. There is no better sight then seeing them liking my Instagram pictures at the Waller County Jail late at night when they can’t sleep. There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing than getting to babysit them; sitting with them on either side of me, with a bowl of ice cream on my lap, and an episode of Myth Buster’s on the television.

To be honest, that is one of the strongest emotional chords that Sandra Bland struck with me. I knew what it was is to be the 4th sister in the family. I knew what it was to be the fun, young, single aunt. I knew what it was to love your nieces and nephews with a fierceness and sense of responsibility that those with children of their own cannot understand.

Last year, I said to my niece when she was going through a particularly difficult period at school, “Can you tell me, who in the world is more important to me than you?” I watched the wheels in her head turn as she realized that they are the center of my world.

When I fight for justice, I don’t just fight for Sandra Bland, I fight for her. I fight for this to be the kind of world that does not value my golden locks over her gorgeous brown tresses, courtesy of her Cuban father. I fight for this to be a world where the choke hold in which white supremacy holds our young women has been broken once and for all.

Ms. Geneva was watching me. I could feel her eyes on me. She is always watching. She hears everything. She knows when the people she loves are hurting. I tried my best to hide my pain, but you cannot hide anything from her.

“What is wrong?” she says.

“She needs to see her niece,” Shante replies from the front seat, always reading my mind without even having to look at me.

“Well, that has to happen then,” Ms. Geneva replies.

I call my sister back, who is still understandably concerned about inconveniencing Ms. Geneva. What my sister did not understand, however, was that I was with two women who loved me and who were uncompromising in making things happen for the people they loved. Hence, the reason why I feel sorry for anyone who tries to get in their way with delays and dishonesty as they seek truth and justice for their daughter and sister, Sandra Bland.

“We are taking you there,” Shante said in that tone of voice that lets me know not to argue. Leaning forward, I lay my head on her shoulder and whisper, “thank you.”

Arriving at my sister’s house, I saw my nephew and then my niece’s heads peering out the windows. They have been doing that since they were three years old. Always watching for me when I am coming. For some reason, I am shocked. Perhaps I thought they had gotten too old for that after more than a decade. Yet, their heads are still there, watching eagerly, and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

They run out of the house and soon I have my niece and then my nephew in my arms. I cannot stop crying as I hug my nephew tight. The most important man in my life.

I realize once I pull myself together that I am in a moment of becoming whole again. There was a moment, about 60 days ago, when I put the most important parts of me in a box for safe-keeping. It was after the Sheriff of Waller County had taken a picture of my license plate and my face on his own personal cell phone; it was after he told me to go back to the church of Satan; and it was after he informed me that there would be consequences for me and anyone who tried to help me seek justice for Sandra Bland. Much like the Officer who took a picture of my face on his personal cell phone in front of the Texas Headquarters of the Department of Public Safety in Austin last week, I knew then as well as now, that the picture would be shared and the safety of myself and those close to me would be impacted.

So I stopped talking about my nieces and nephews. Put them in a box for safe-keeping. Hid them from the world, afraid that the danger people thought I was in could spread to them.

With my nephews tousled, wavy hair in my hand, and my niece in my lap, I felt a piece slide back into place.

Beware that you do not view Sandra Bland as a woman without children. Beware the mistake of underestimating the visceral power that nieces and nephews have upon their aunt’s heart. Beware the mistake of forgetting that we think about them every single day. I know the names and the faces of the young people that Sandra Bland was thinking of when she was in that cell in Waller County. They are the same people she refers to in her first #SandySpeaks videos when she is explaining that her motivation for starting the videos is to make the voices of the children heard.

Beware the power of a devoted aunt. The very fact that those children we love are not our 24/7 responsibility is the very thing that makes us dangerous: having the love for children without the responsibility for children frees us up to fight for them. There is no limit to the fire and the fight that lies in an aunt’s heart when her nieces and nephews are the center of her life, and whether they will live in a just world where their voices are heard and honored is on the line.

Sandy said she spoke so that the children might be heard. Well… are you listening?

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Sandra Bland was not perfect. Thank God.

“I have this lady’s records from Chicago, and from ’89 to 2014, she’s no good.” The older African American gentlemen turned around from the podium of the Prairie View City Council to glare at Sandra Bland’s supporters and sorority sisters and repeat, “She’s not. She’s not. She’s not.”

With his finger inches from my face, it felt for a moment as if Twitter had taken on human form in the middle of Prairie View City Hall to unleash all its vitriol.

That is what Sandra Bland’s friends have been enduring for months as they refuse to be silent and refuse to let Sandy be silenced.

Having gotten off a plane that morning from Sandra Bland’s Chicago, that he claimed to know so much about, I focused deeply in prayer to maintain my composure. I closed my eyes and saw the faces I had just left: the faces of Sandra Bland’s mother, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews; the faces of a family just as transparent about their strengths and questions and convictions and love for one another as Sandra Bland had shown herself to be. I knew that my name was coming up after one more person, slotted to speak after the two most vocal opponents of the recently renamed Sandra Bland Parkway.

Laying aside for the moment the fact that Sandra Bland was 2 years old in the year 1989 that he claimed to have researched, the richness of personality and passion that Sandra Bland brought to the world and the extravagantly loving manner in which her family journeyed through life together still had me reeling.

I have been accused on more than one occasion of portraying Sandra Bland in just as narrow and unrealistic a manner as this man: as a saint rather than a sinner.

To see her as one or the other, however, would be to completely miss the point both factually and theologically. Like every person in that room had the capacity to be, Sandra Bland was both. For “all fall short” but at the same time all who seize God’s love are “forever made perfect” through it.

What made her compelling for so many in my generation was not that she was a saint. My generation has grown up respecting sincerity and authenticity far above the value we place on the perfection we do not see as realistic and the self-righteousness we have experienced as hurtful. Instead, she grasped the hearts of many with the boldness, sincerity and vulnerability with which she shared herself; the urgency with which she expressed love and concern for others and their well-being and personal growth; and the commitment she had to taking action to make the world better even if she had to take action alone.

Through her #SandySpeaks videos there remained a constant refrain: she wanted people to know that they were loved and valuable. To be told you are loved and to be told you are valued, not only by a human being, but also, as Sandra Bland said, by God, is perhaps the deepest longing of the human soul.

It is understandable, as reporters in the room were quick to note, that there was a generational divide in the room. The older members of the Prairie View community had been assembled with City Councilwoman Paulette Barnett to oppose Sandra Bland Parkway in what would ultimately turn out to be an utter failure of a reversal when the City Council voted 4-1 to keep it Sandra Bland Parkway. Their ignorance of Sandra Bland’s impact was understandable because they did not know Sandra as many of her young adults friends did; neither were they likely to have gotten to know her by having explored her #SandySpeaks videos.

Yet, neither generational difference, nor lack of technological access, nor lack of personal connection could ever justify the lack of compassion with which they spoke about a person, a child of God – yes, a young woman whose impact has transcended borders and languages – but more importantly, a child of God whose freedom, rights and life would come up equal on God’s balances to both the Mayor of Prairie View and the current occupants of the Waller County Jail. We can never allow frustration to extinguish our ability to clasp onto one another’s humanity and hold it as if it was sacred – because it is.

As for me personally, do I think Sandra Bland was a saint? Of course not, no one has ever claimed that. It is not necessary for her to be a saint in order to honor her, respect her, and be impacted and changed by her witness.

What is true is that I like her. I really do. Enough to give her space in my life for as long as she needs it. In fact, she is so likable that she has become a litmus test of sorts for many. She easily reveals the misogyny on the one hand, and the racism on the other, of the people who seem incapable of speaking of her with a tone of respect befitting a beautiful life lost. It is highly likely that those who do not feel an easy affection for Sandra Bland would also find themselves struggling to appreciate the magnificence of Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumpin in my living room.

It is easy to celebrate her if you understand that all the things that people criticize about her in the last moments we see her speaking are exactly what the world needs in order to become a better place: an unapologetic black woman who loves herself, knows her rights, and is not willing to bend the knee to injustice.

The fact that that unbending knee was knocked out from under her is more painful than can be bourn for those who understand its importance. The fact that that unbowing head was slammed to the ground is enough fuel to fire the call for justice for years to come. The fact that that unapologetic voice seemed to be silenced, only causes the sound of her voice to travel further across the planet.

I thank God that Sandra Bland did not have to be perfect in order to impact the world. It gives me hope that maybe you and I can make a difference too.

Sandra Bland: Does The Law Protect The State Or Its Citizens?

For someone who grew up in a law office, I know surprisingly little about the law. Perhaps it is because I spent most of my days coloring or watching reruns of Hawaii 5-0 in the corner of the law office my father and grandfather shared, instead of listening to what was going on around me. Perhaps it is because legal conversations constituted the background noise of my life since birth in such a pervasive manner that I ceased to pay attention.

Well, I am paying attention now.

Sitting in Judge David Hittner’s Courtroom, on the 8th Floor of the Federal Court House in Houston, Texas, I rapidly took down notes, not knowing what all of the words I wrote meant, as the status hearing for the wrongful death civil trial of Sandra Bland began.

Sipping frequently from a coffee mug with the word “Dave” in block print up the side, Judge David Hittner made it clear from the outset that there would be no gag order during this trial to prevent communication with the press and that he intended to move through it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The courtroom listened calmly as first the Plaintiff’s (Geneva Reed-Veal) attorneys introduced themselves and then the Defense. The introductions gave Judge Hittner his first opportunity to reveal his no-nonsense demeanor when the attorney for Waller County tried to opine that he was alone in representing the County, and the Judge responded dryly something along the lines of, “Now come on, we all know you’ve got a lot of people working with you.” Then the attorney for DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) and Officer Encinia finished the introductions and they were off into the meat of the matter.

The Plaintiff’s attorney’s described first the responsibility of the Waller County Jail for the psychological and physical safety of their inmates, as well as delineating the jail standards that guards lay eyes on the prisoners once an hour for regular inmates, and every 15 minutes for those on suicide watch.

It was fascinating to hear that after more than 60 days of listening to officials and investigators around the Waller County Jail and Courthouse imply or state that Sandra Bland was suicidal, the case of the County now seemed to rest on their argument that they did not believe her to be suicidal. The importance of this change of tune rests on the fact that they would be legally responsible for their negligence if she was indeed suicidal and they knew and they did not do the 15 minute checks. As the attorneys for the Plaintiff made clear, however, that fact may prove to be immaterial as they do not believe that the guards performed even the 1 hour checks, let alone the 15 minute visual checks.

The first of only two audible murmurings swept across the courtroom soon after when the attorney for DPS and Officer Encinia began his remarks in a rather odd manner by saying that Officer Encinia saw Sandra Bland run a stop sign but he did not know if it was a private or a public stop sign so he decided to follow her for a while. The validity of bringing up whether it was a private or public stop sign, and what that means, seemed less concerning than the validity of bringing up a new violation that not been in the officer’s report, and therefore legally irrelevant, but practically biasing.

The second audible murmuring would be caused soon after by the same attorney when, after describing Sandra Bland as handcuffed after a struggle and placed in the police car, he began saying that the officers were concerned because she seemed to ducking around and searching frantically in her purse for something.

“How was she searching through her purse with her hands handcuffed?” the judge was quick to ask, prompting a quick response from the attorney that he was jumping around in the story and that piece was from the beginning.

Most pertinent to the conversation that followed seemed to be three concepts that are crucial to the State’s attempt to have the trial dismissed: Qualified Immunity, the 11th Amendment and the Monell Ruling.

I wrote down the words, not really knowing what they implied and looked into them when I got home. Qualified Immunity, from what I read, was established to protect officers and federal employees from prosecution when they did not realize they were violating someone’s Constitutional Rights. It seems to be somewhat of an “Oops Clause.”

“Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan (07-751)

It is quite difficult to imagine a reasonable person applying this “oops clause” to the threat of “I will light you up!!” or the word “Good!” repeated when Sandra Bland informed the Officer she couldn’t hear and had epilepsy after her head was smashed on the ground.

The second point from the DPS was their pleading of coverage by the 11th Amendment:

“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or Equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

Having been a condition of part of uniting the United States of America, this Amendment sought to strike a balance between Federal powers and the ability of each State to govern locally, by limiting what charges a Federal Court could hear against a State. This is pertinent because while Sandra Bland was traveling through the state of Texas, she and her family were from another state and, thus, limited in their rights, the State would argue, to hold its officials accountable. If you feel like that precedent should concern you, you would be right.

On the Plaintiff’s side, the concept of the Monell ruling was mentioned several times. This ruling, Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, gave women who had been put on forced maternity leave the right to sue the City of New York. By finding that the local government can be held responsible for depriving someone of their civil rights, the case created a precedent for the ability of individuals to sue a city, county or municipality for damages incurred through the violation of rights.

As the opening statements in the hearing concluded there were three more important points made. First, the Plaintiff pointed out that they had been given no evidence to look over and the County and State attorneys argued that it was because the evidence was in the hands of the Texas Rangers doing the criminal investigation. Judge David Hittner committed that he would tolerate no unnecessary delays and encouraged the DPS and County attorneys to transfer evidence as soon as possible.

The second point, argued by the DPS attorney, was that he had a right to know at what point excessive force was used and at what point a wrongful arrest was made. He argued that he had a right to have the timeline married with the accusations. While the Plaintiff’s attorneys pointed out how that had all been done very clearly in their brief, I could not help but think to myself that the wrongful arrest was pretty clear: it began the moment Officer Encinia said “You are under arrest” without cause and continued as he said “I’ll light you up!” and led Sandra Bland off camera with his taser; only to later report that she had “assaulted an officer” once she was off camera and you heard her thrown to the ground and in pain.

The third point, at least that I caught, was the refutal by the Plaintiff’s attorneys that qualified immunity should be applied to Waller County as well as to Officer Encinia, stating that Qualified Immunity is intended for an individual and not for a county. If such Qualified Immunity were permitted, it would mean doing a separate investigation for the County than for the guards involved and create a redundancy of work by creating the necessity to do the same depositions and investigation twice.

Those are exactly the kind of unnecessary delays that Judge David Hittner is trying to avoid. Therefore, while sipping from his “Dave” mug, he concluded that the court date would be set three months out and that the Plaintiff’s response to the County and State’s attempts to dismiss the case would be due in half that time.

As I stood waiting for the family with other Sandra Bland supporters, my mind raced to understand the Law of our land. For the first time in my thirty odd years, I realized that any and every case has the potential to create ripples in our legal system that can reach through our car doors and house doors and work doors and impact our lives and our deaths.

I stood deeply planted in the reality of this moment in our nation’s history: if we cannot find a way to not only empower law enforcement, but also hold them accountable, we will never know “liberty and justice for all.”

If this matters to you, please click here and support the family of Sandra Bland in their struggle for justice. It impacts us all, and every little bit helps.

Sandra Bland: Love Is Not A Factor In The Bail Equation

On a Sunday afternoon at Waller County Jail, you see something you do not see much of during the rest of the week: children.

On weekends, the focus of activity shifts from trying to get people out of Jail, to visiting those who are stuck inside. Energy shifts from negotiations with bail bondsmen to consolations between loved ones. As visitation days, Saturday and Sunday experience a rhythm that does not happen all throughout the week. The labor at the Jail shifts on Sundays to focus on security because there are so many additional people present that are not usually there. The weekday rhythm of transporting prisoners, engaging with bail bondsmen, and holding meetings slows and the space is filled instead with faces that are not present on a typical work day.

The rhythm actually feels pretty similar to the summer I spent working in the Chaplain’s Office at a hospital. I remember that patients always knew that if they did not get discharged by Friday afternoon, they probably would not get discharged until Monday. In the tower of triage paperwork, as administrators prioritized patients based on severity of condition, if you could sit tight for a couple days, that is probably the situation in which you would find yourself.

This would be simply a quaint analogy with images of children running Matchbox cars over the tile floors of both hospitals and jails around the country if it were not for one important fact: Sandra Bland was arrested on a Friday afternoon.

From what I have observed over the past couple months, getting someone out of Jail on a regular business day is complicated enough. One day I sat beside a woman who was calling bail bondsmen all day long and not able to get one to answer. Another day, I watched as a bail bondsman spent the entire day sitting, trying to get someone out of Jail, only to be turned away at the end of the day and told that there were no staff available to process his paperwork.

I have to admit, watching all of this take place has made me highly aware of the privilege that has shielded me from ever having to understand how any of this works. That ignorance has made it take several weeks for me to understand how crucial these complications are to Sandra Bland’s situation.

Many people with similar levels of ignorance to my own of the bonding system have tweeted criticism that Sandra Bland’s family and friends could not just pull together the $500 and bail her out. Have you ever had someone you loved suffer and not been able to fix it? How would you feel if everyone and their brother then felt entitled to have an opinion about what you should have done? How would you feel if they tweeted those opinions in your moments of deepest grief?

It is true that Sandra Bland’s bail was set at $5,000, only $500 of which needed to be paid immediately, but where most people go wrong is that they think anyone could just walk down there, put $500 on the counter and say, “Hand over Sandra Bland.” It is not as simple as that. Especially not on a Friday.

Especially not on a Friday at 4:27 pm. Get admitted to the hospital ICU at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon, and you are in until at least Monday morning. Get booked at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon in a quiet Jail, on a side road, in a rural county, and you are going nowhere fast.

After spending seven Friday afternoons in the parking lot of the Waller County Jail, I can tell you that it has the feeling of a man loosening his belt after Thanksgiving dinner as the turkey does its trick and leaves you ready for a nap. After a week of meetings and administration, non-essential staff is headed out the door and everything is getting pretty quiet.

Even if you could get there during regular business hours, slam $500 down on the counter and say “Hand over Sandra Bland,” that is simply not how the bail system works. To start with, you are not even going to be giving the $500 to the Jail. You are going to be giving the $500 to the bail bondsman. He is then going to go to the Jail with his license as a bondsman, with which he can prove that he has the $5,000 collateral to commit in order to obtain Sandra Bland’s release. You see no one actually hands over $500. The bail bondsman has a license and a limited collateral that he can commit against the odds of someone jumping bail (not reporting for their court date). Once he has reached the limit of his collateral, he cannot bail anyone else out.

The only way I can understand the bond system is to think of needing to have my parents co-sign on my student loans in college. Those that gave me the loans did not know if I could pay them back, but they did know that my parents had collateral and if I failed to pay, they could come after my parents’ assets. That is what a bail bondsman does: he puts his collateral on the line. He gambles against the odds of someone jumping bail; and if they do, he can send someone after them.

So, even when you have the money (which Sandra’s family did), first, you have to find a bail bondsman. Yet, that is not always the easiest thing to do, even if you are close by, and especially if you are far away. Remember the woman sitting in the parking lot all day unable to get a bondsman? Even if you drive over from Waller, or Cypress, or Houston, or Chicago, that does not mean you will be able to get a bondsman to show up when you want them to come. They could choose not to answer because they have reached the limit on their collateral; or they could prefer to wait in order to do multiple bonds on one trip. Or they could simply be busy, uninterested, asleep, or at their daughter’s soccer game.

Because here is the thing, bondsmen are not civil servants, they are business men. They have no obligation to the people that call them. They do not have to answer the phone, they do not have to come, and they do not have to put up their collateral against the likelihood of whether a person’s loved one will jump bail.  Without getting one to answer, and agree to come, your loved one is not getting out of jail. They are doing the people who call them a favor, with the hope of a financial reward, betting their collateral against the loved one’s good behavior.

Beyond that, even if a bondsman comes, that does not mean your loved one is getting out of jail. Remember the bondsman who sat all day and still could not get the loved one released? When I went into the lobby to use the bathroom, I observed him submitting his paperwork through the slot. Hours later, he finally came out and said that he had been informed that there was no staff person available to process his paperwork. So a family member had actually contracted with him to come and put up the bail; and he had sat there all day; and he still could not get the person released because no one was available to process his request.

So, to those of you who have been asking why someone’s family would not be able to get them out of jail immediately, ask yourself whether your family could if you were arrested on the other side of the country, in a quiet, rural town, at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon as everyone was going home for the weekend. The measure of how much you love a person is simply not a factor in the equation.

Sandra Bland’s death in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail is serving to bring light to what many families around the country suffer when their loved ones are arrested unexpectedly, whether they be far away or close by.

Why Where Sandra Bland Died is as Important as How

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.

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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.

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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?

50 Days Later: Still Grieving, Called, Woke

On the 49th day of being in prayerful solidarity with Sandra Bland, I sat in the corner of a coffee shop at the close of one more day in front of the Waller County Jail. I fielded phone calls and messages about an angry video released by a white supremacist. Concern for our safety was not a new thing, nor was the constant responsibility to redirect attention and focus back to the point of our solidarity vigil: Sandra Bland.

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Sandra Bland

To my right I saw a friend enter, make her order, and sit down across from me. At the end of a long day, my eyes welled with tears, and as they did it triggered a memory of the last time I had sat with her as my eyes welled with tears. Suddenly it all came rushing back. “You were there,” I said to her, “You were there on the first day.” She nodded, “Yes, I was there.”

Then all those details whose import I did not realize in the moment came flooding back. I remembered being awakened that Wednesday with messages from my friend Jeremyah who was concerned, along with all of his Prairie View alumni friends, about the news that a friend of theirs had died in jail. I remembered the first messages I got in the morning, and the texts in the afternoon. I remembered the first time the words #WhatHappenedToSandraBland were texted to me that afternoon. I remembered my friend Kathy sitting down across from me shortly after.

I remembered that Kathy and I were supposed to meet about something important that first day, but I do not know what it was. All I remember is that I asked her if we could sit outside, and then she sat across from me in silence as I read an article entitled, “Family of Sandra Bland Questioning Her Death in a Texas Jail.” Then more silence followed, of a duration that only a true friend could endure, as waves of grief rolled over me. We must have sat for an hour before we finally began to speak.

Now, on Day 49, I sit across from her and it feels for a minute as if no time has passed. “What do you remember from that day?” I ask her, “Was I angry? Was I sad?”

“You were so sad,” she replies, “it was the last straw.”

“It was,” I say, “it was the last straw.” It was the last straw. There were too many women in my life that could have been Sandra Bland. There were too many bold, unapologetic, brilliant, black women in my life who I knew did not live in the same America as me. There were too many women in my life who had more to fear than a ticket when they saw flashing lights.

Now, once again, on Day 49, Kathy sat across from me in our familiar semi-silence as we reflected on it all. Eventually, we parted ways with hugs and prayers.

Shortly after, as I contemplated the arrival of Day 50, I get a text message from her that took my breath away:

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She was right on all counts. When I left her side, I went to Wednesday evening Bible Study, grieving and seeking what to do. At the end of Bible Study, knowing I had been wrestling all day with what to do, Rhys suggested we go to the Jail and honor Sandra Bland in the place where she had died. We met up with our friend Nina and we did just that.

We were grief stricken. We were called. We knew what we were getting ourselves into; not perhaps the specifics, or the extent, but we knew it would be hard, and we knew it would be necessary.

There are two things I have always said since Day 1. First, my problem with the situation starts the moment she is pulled over. Second, I believe Sandra Bland would do this for us.

We were grieving. We were called. We were woke.

We are grieving. We are called. We are woke.

Wake up America.

My Instagram feed (from right to left) that first day.
My Instagram feed (from right to left) that first day.

How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

On August 25, I stood in front of the Prairie View City Council and I said that I was there because Sandra Bland had changed my life.

Despite the fact that I never met Sandra Bland, and sadly will never get to meet her, it was true. Assuredly, she had help: her friends and family helped to put her life in context, while my friends and family helped keep my life in context.

When I saw pictures of her goofing off with her four sisters, it pierced my heart, thinking of my own sisters who are everything to me. When I saw the joy in her eyes in pictures with her nieces and nephews, I recognized the pure delight of getting to be the fun, young aunt who is free to adore and be adored by children who you have a responsibility to without having the full responsibility for them. When I saw pictures of Sandra with her mother, I recognized the fulfillment of figuring out how to have an adult relationship with the woman who once wiped your nose and changed your diapers. When I saw her sign “All white people are not against us,” I knew that Sandra Bland was wise enough to recognize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not about hating white people, it is about loving black people; and the person who believes the former reveals their struggle to do the latter.

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Unlike many people who find themselves in the spotlight, Sandra Bland never had an opportunity to go back over her life and edit it for public consumption. By the time she found herself in the limelight, she was no longer with us. The story she had left behind of her life, both the pain and the beauty, would have to stand on its own.

Yet, stand it does. It stands as the testimony of a bold and loving woman, who was in a moment of emergence. A woman who stood for love. A woman discovering new levels of strength and courage within herself in moments of struggle. A woman who would take a vocal stand against excessive force by police, only to find herself on the receiving end of it. A woman doing the hard work to figure out how to use her voice in a culture that often silences women, and particularly African American women.

In the end, it was that voice that she used to change my life:

“I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help.”

My friend Jeremyah brought her words to my attention the day after her death when he told me that the news was saying a friend from school hung herself in jail. The next morning, I asked if there were any updates and he told me his friends believed it couldn’t be true and were asking “What happened to Sandra Bland?” He had asked me to do something about it, and I wrestled all day. By the time I left Bible Study that night, I was visibly distressed; so my friend Rhys, who had also gone to Prairie View, asked what I wanted to do it about it. I said I did not know, but we had to do something physical with our feet and not just our tweets. He suggested we go to the jail and take one of the nine candles we had lit the week before for the victims of the Charleston shooting and light one for Sandra. We grabbed our friend Nina, and headed out into the darkness. We arrived around 10:00 pm, just in time to see a Texas Ranger load his rifle back into their vehicle and drove away. We pulled in and lit the candle. When someone blew it out, I lit it again while Rhys anointed the step with oil.

The next day we still heard her words, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help,” and we went back again. Others joined us and the vigil still continues. Over the last 49 days of going to the Waller County Jail, we have turned consistently to the scriptures, prayer and Sandra Bland’s “Sandy Speaks” videos to keep our conviction strong.

In doing so there are three life changing lessons for which I would like to thank Sandra Bland.

First, Sandra Band taught me that you can’t truly fight for justice for others if you won’t fight for it for yourself. When Sandra Bland came back to Texas to work at her alma mater, she told her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas and end social injustice in the South.” She very quickly had the opportunity to test her resolve when she found herself pulled over by an officer who escalated the situation by making unnecessary demands. Many people have said she should have just stayed quiet and stayed alive. Yet, the fact that African Americans in this nation are expected to bow the head and keep quiet to stay alive, systemic injustices such as racial profiling, was exactly the situation she felt called to end. How could she be silent about her rights and remain consistent? Someday, someone has to say no. To stand with Sandra, there were things I would have to say no to as well. This was explained to me very early on in this journey by a friend, the Rev. Kea Westbrook, who told me that if I was not strong enough to stand up for myself, I would not be strong enough to stand up with Sandra.

Second, Sandra Bland taught me that courage is contagious. Her belief in spreading love and courage was pervasive throughout her “Sandy Speaks” videos. She was constantly sharing what she was doing in her community to try to make a difference and encouraging others to do likewise. With every move she made she invited others into action. She promoted seeking justice as a community, but she was willing to take action even if she was all alone. When she was trying to get a petition signed while eating lunch in the food court, she was asked to leave by security. Her courage inspired another young man to speak up for her and then he was asked to leave as well. When he was sent home, Sandra Bland was worried he would lose his job so she committed to sit outside his work every day if he did: because Sandra Bland also had something to teach us about solidarity. Sandra was willing to do the bold and right thing, even if she was the only one doing it. Her courage commanded a response from others. Her courage commands our response now.

Third, Sandra Bland taught me that if your faith is central to who you are, you cannot be wholly present in the world if you do not talk about it. In her first video she pauses near the end to think about whether she wants to continue with what she has begun to say because it involves her faith. She finally continues, stating that she is going to talk about God in her videos because it is God that has opened her eyes and given her this calling to seek justice. I identify so strongly with that pause. It is a moment I have experienced many times in my life, while working to build solidarity between those who seek justice within the church and those who seek justice but will not go near a church. When those seeking to end injustice through a faith motivation come into contact with those seeking to end the same injustice, while also articulating that the church has had a hand in creating it, it can be tense. It is a difficult space in which to stand. I have rarely had the courage to make the choice Sandra Bland did, not to leave her faith in her pocket when putting her cards on the table. What I very quickly realized in keeping vigil for Sandra Bland was that if my faith is the source of my courage, conviction and motivation in this struggle, then I am weaker without it. I am weaker if I do not talk about it. I am only partly me, and I need every bit of me to keep going in this journey. Every last bit.

So, like Sandra Bland, I’m bringing all of me to the table. Strength. Courage. Faith.

Sandy Still Speaks

“Mommy why are the police mad? The police pushed me…” the small African American girl said to her mother as she and a handful of other young girls were shuffled into the arms of a waiting grandmother. Looking down I saw a sight that seared itself into my memory: five pairs of eyes, in five little faces, welling with tears that balanced on the very brink of overflow and the very depth of terror.

I have never seen anything so painful in my life. Except the eyes of Sandra Bland’s sisters overflowing with tears as I looked into them at Hope AME and committed to stay at the Waller County Jail as long as they needed. Or that pair of eyes, similar to theirs, that cause me even more pain: the eyes of Sandra Bland, brilliant and lively in her videos, a constant reminder that her eyes will never well with tears again, and because of that ours must.

Just minutes earlier, the crowd that had gathered for the recently ended rally of Remembrance & Response surged to the doors of the Waller County Jail and began to chant: “Sandy still speaks. Sandy still speaks.”

I came close to see what was happening and then stepped back as a news camera asked me to get out of the way so that they could dive into the midst of the crowd. I turned to answer someone’s question when suddenly my attention was snapped back to the doors of the jail as screams erupted and people started tumbling over one another out of the doors. They weren’t so much fleeing as falling, like grains of sand sliding down an incline when you try to force them up into a pile.

“Get behind me,” my friend Steven called out, directing me back from the conflict in the same direction that that mother took the little girls. I looked down to my right, into their eyes, overwhelmed with the sorrow of their fear.

The doors of the jail pulled shut and were chained, and I thought that it was over until people started to chant, “Let them out! Let them out!” and realized to my horror that people were trapped inside… I realized to my horror that the mothers of some of these little girls were probably trapped inside… I realized to my horror that these little girls were watching their mothers be trapped inside a building where another young African American woman had lost her life, the woman whose name we chanted: Sandra Bland.

Things I did not know at that moment: I did not know what was happening inside. I did not know that crowds of troopers in riot gear were waiting around the corner ready to charge at the slightest provocation. I did not know that officers were pulling assault rifles out of their cars. I did not know that one of my mentors PK was trapped inside. I did not know which of these set of terrified eyes knew that their mother was trapped inside.

Things my friends did not know at that moment: Where I was.

Having become one of the most recognizable people at the Waller County Jail after 26 days of sitting vigil, my friends experienced several minutes of terror as I seemed to have disappeared in the midst of the confusion. They did not know that I was standing further back with my body planted between those five sets of eyes and the County Jail.

Finding me, they could only repeat, “Never do that again. Never disappear again.”

The people trapped inside the jail were eventually led out through another door. Amazingly, they had captured every second on tape on the little devices that Sandra Bland said were powerful enough to change things in this country: cell phones. Multiple videos from multiple angles all showed the same thing: people chanting “Sandy still speaks” for a couple minutes until police officers come out of the jail and into the lobby and begin pushing, shoving and sometimes hitting them until they shove the majority of them out the doors and chain them behind them leaving a few trapped inside. At the beginning of the conflict, one woman stands in the center, determined to be peaceful, her hands raised high in the air, repeating “Sandy still speaks” until it appears she is struck and falls.

The unnecessary escalation led to great sadness and confusion. People milled around shocked. It was exactly the kind of police-initiated escalation that cost Sandra Bland her life. As we struggled to overcome our shock, we had no idea that around the corner troopers in riot gear stood ready to charge at the least provocation.

Why? It was a peaceful, organized protest. We had made all the information about the event and the speakers public.

Yet there persisted a fear. A fear of black bodies that are unapologetic about their rights. A fear that has been perpetuated by local law enforcement spreading rumors to the community that we are rioters and spreading rumors to us both today and yesterday that the KKK or other groups may try to interrupt our gatherings. All of the fear, all of the rumors, have been encouraged and spread by law enforcement; escalating rather than deescalating tensions in the community. Causing the pastors that speak up to lock their doors during church services out of fear, and the pastors that do not speak up to encourage their congregations to see us as outside agitators.

Yet, if we are to be criticized as outside agitators for journeying into places of pain with a message of justice and love, then we are keeping good company with Jesus Christ who spent his life doing just that, turning over tables when necessary; as well as Paul after him, who traveled even further abroad, disrupting the plans of the Romans and the business of the Greeks.

As the dust settled, an older woman, knocked to the ground by the domino effect of the police shoving, was loaded into an ambulance; garbage lay scattered; and five sets of eyes wiped away tears as those trapped inside were released and their mothers returned.

The entire staff came out the doors of the jail and stood in full gear as a sign of force. One white officer walked past me as I picked up trash and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”

“Yes,” I replied, “you have; and you’ll see me here again.”

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An Open Letter to My Unapologetic Black Sisters

“What did Sandra Bland do wrong?” the reporter from Memphis asked as we arrived at the Waller County jail on Day 11 of what is now 21 days.

“She was black,” my friend Andrea Sawyer-Gray, Curator of (Her)story, replied without skipping a beat.

In the undertone were the echoes of another truth: she was black and unapologetic.

For the past three weeks of sitting outside the Waller County Jail, I have heard Sandra Bland’s voice consistently. So has everyone around me. Every time I have come near a microphone – whether at a rally, poetry event or church pulpit – my phone has come out and her voice has been heard over the speakers.

She is brilliant. She is powerful. She makes me want to say “Amen” after nearly every line. She is humorous. She is courageous. She is inspiringly loving. She is unapologetic.

She is. To me she is; not she was. She is lively and vibrant; and every day I have to remind myself that she was. My mind has not been trained to associate her name with a mugshot; I have averted my eyes so that the image her name summons is a smiling face saying, “Good morning, my kings and queens.” I have to remind myself each day that though her voice can never be silenced, her life has been cut short.

Yet, I am not sitting outside the Waller County Jail because Sandra Bland died. I am sitting outside the Waller County Jail because Sandra Bland lived. She lived with courage and boldness and brilliance. Her life commands respect; her life demands honor; and her life requires that the truth be told: and woe to those who try to hide it.

You can understand then why I, as may be the case for you, take issue with District Attorney Elton Mathis when he said of Sandra Bland, “It was not a model person that was stopped.”

It sends a chill up my spine every time I hear a statement like this; because every time they use her mannerisms, her tone, or her boldness, to engage in character assassination they play into propaganda hundreds of years old. They play into the fears they have taught White America to have through a lifetime of presenting African American mugshots as “part of the trend” and Caucasian mugshots as “the exception to the rule,” “the lone gunman,” and “the troubled young man.”

When they use her boldness about her rights to assassinate her character, they assassinate those same characteristics in so many women in my life that I love, respect, revere. They are portraying as condemnable the very things that the world needs: this holy boldness, this truth telling, this assertiveness, this unwillingness to tolerate injustice, this belief that rights apply to all people regardless of the color of their skin.

I am not interested in what Sandra Bland should have done to stay alive, I am interested in what we need to do to demand and create change to make sure that our sisters do not find themselves on the wrong end of a stun gun, pulled from a car, pushed to the dirt in front of a church, while a white man forces his will physically on her in order to restore his hurt pride.

I am not interested in respectability politics that would portray as less than polished a sharply, keenly cut diamond.

So, because I know that what I am doing, sitting at the Waller County Jail, is not the safest option in the world; I need you to know, for the record, why I am there. In case I am ever not here to tell you myself.

I am there because God called me to be there.

I am there because of Sandra Bland. I never knew her, but she has insured that we will never forget her. I am there because Sandra Bland said that we do not have to wait for someone important to come along, we each need to begin taking action. We need to stop saying “I knew that was going to happen” and start doing something.

I am there because Sandra Bland was unapologetic about her faith, and the church bears the responsibility to honor her life, her testimony and her witness.

I am there because when Sandra Bland’s sisters arrived in town and I looked them in the eyes, the words came tumbling out of my mouth, “I’ll do this as long as you need me to.”

But the implicit truth behind this all is that I am also there because of you. I am there to honor all of you who say of Sandra Bland: “That could have been me.” You are life. You are power. You are truth. You push against the lies and injustices of the world and refuse to accept them anymore. By refusing to accept them, you uproot this culture of white supremacy, the prioritization of the comfort of white people over the lives of black people, this false system upon which our culture has been built, that has done harm to those that look like me as well as those that look like you. This system that has minimized me as the one to be protected by authority figures, and endangered you as the one who is the threat to authority figures.

In the midst of a culture that puts lives at risk by silencing the truth in order to tip-toe around white people’s feelings, you step in and with an unapologetic love for yourselves and others create the intellectual revolution, that I engage as a theological reformation, known as #BlackLivesMatter

In the midst of all the lies and propaganda and skewed media, you remain stalwart. You are brilliant. You are glorious. You are the revolution.

You do not need me to tell you that, for black worth can never be given by white lips. It simply is. Immutable.

Which is why you don’t need me to agree with you that you are magnificent, beautiful, bold, brilliant. Yet, therein lies the very point: you don’t need me to feel comfortable with your self-love. It is this very self-love that stands up to a culture of white supremacy, seeking to prioritize the comfort of white people, and lets that culture know in no uncertain terms that you do not need them to feel comfortable about the way you feel about yourself. In that is the revolution. Your love is the revolution.

So while I know that you do not need me to agree with you, I just needed to say, for the record, just in case I am ever not here to say it myself, that I do: I agree with you. You are glorious. Your love is the revolution.

 

With all my love to Shante, Sharon, Nadiera, Theresa, Ebony, Deborah, Secunda, Morgan, DeAndre, Mellany, Brandi, April, Efe, X’ene, Karisha, Carie, Rayla, Konji, Jessica, Andrea, Chris, Christian, Tori, Brandi, Thasia, Lois, Shawn, Mia, Tracy, Fran, Nikala, Kelene, Hameedah, JJ, Christie, Sheletta, Krystal, Danita, Britt, Felecia, Connie, Waltrina, Octavia, Jennifer, Jasmine, Tasha, Tiffany, Isata, Dana, Robin, Kelly, Keisha, Chanequa, Rozella, Auriel, Candace, Erin, Navida, Garlinda, Angela, Jalantae, Faith, Ryan, Kay, Jasminne, Vascola, Bird, Tasha, Lanecia, Tiandra, Zelma, Lethee, Cy, Sonia, Attaya, Chenda, Lenora, Mischelle, Genesis, Tahieta, Evon, Ryan, Juanita, Janae, Misty, Rediet, PK, Wanda, Carla, Tierra, Ada, Tam, Destiny, Pam, Shekita, Joan, Kim, Parisse, Dara, Adrienne, LaTrelle, Angelita… and you.

Sandra Bland: Fighting For Life, Both Hers & Yours

“Isn’t that what you are here for?!?” the white, female ABC reporter in front of us raged. She had watched from her SUV as those of us keeping vigil for Sandy Bland outside of Waller County Jail watched the video of Sandy’s arrest for the first time, huddled around one of our smart phones. It was a disturbing video; traumatic; infuriating; and we were visibly upset. The majority of those sitting in front of the County Jail were African American women close to Sandy’s age, similarly outspoken, and committed to the same ideals of justice that she was so vocal about in her #SandySpeaks videos. Over the course of the past seven days that we have sat in front of the scene of Sandy’s death, they have made it very clear: Sandy could have been any one of them.

Rushing out of her SUV and eager to capture the emotion, the reporter shoved a microphone in their faces saying, “You just watched the dash cam video didn’t you. What’s your reaction?” When they politely asked to be left alone and said they could not answer any questions right now, she badgered them aggressively. Finally, in my exhaustion, I said, “Fine, I’ll do an interview, please just understand that what we just watched is very painful and this is a traumatized space right now. Please will you speak to them in a more respectful manner.”

“What, don’t you want your message to get out? Isn’t that what you are here for?!?!” she raged.

My next words were clear: “I won’t be doing an interview with you,” I said as we all walked away and she continued to rage. I was shaking. I was shaking because it was not the first time that week she had treated us that way. I was shaking because in that moment she was giving embodiment to the very things we were fighting against: white indifference to the suffering of African Americans; the expectation and insistence of white people that our own comfort, feelings, and agendas will be prioritized over those of people of color even in moments that most impact people of color; and the inability to mourn the death of African Americans, compounded with the unwillingness to allow African Americans space to mourn without analysis.

White supremacy is not usually a man in a white hood; in fact, it hardly ever is. It is the way that we, as white people, daily occupy space in this country in a manner that demands and expects our needs, wants, comfort and feelings will be prioritized.

The dangerous implications of that reality are what we see playing out in the dashcam footage released on Tuesday: a man with authority becoming enraged that his feelings, comfort, and pride are not prioritized over the rights, safety and life of an African American woman.

The dynamic is all too similar to the arrangement upon which our nation was built: that black lives are less important than white comfort. That was what was taught by philosophers and theologians, and then spoon-fed to congregations by white pastors like myself who promoted a system of “Christian slave-holding” – a contradiction if there ever was one.

Now many white people are feeling the discomfort as we try to right the ship midstream. Our discomfort is necessary to right the scales on which their lives have been undervalued for so long.

This is what I would have said if I had given Jessica Willey of ABC an interview:

First, we are not sitting outside the Waller County Jail for the sake of the media. We are sitting out there for Sandra Bland. We are sitting out there because, as her mother said last night at the Memorial Service on the campus of Prairie View University, Sandy knew she had a purpose here in Texas. As her mother quoted her, “My purpose is to go back to Texas, my purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South.” That calling was so evident in her videos. Which is why, as we sat overwhelmed with the tragedy of her death a week ago, listening to the words of one of her #SandySpeaks videos, we could not ignore her call for assistance: “I need your help. I cannot do this alone.” We knew what we had to do. We had to go to the spot where her life had been taken and give her honor, sitting vigil for our sister in Christ so that the world will know that #SandySTILLSpeaks and cannot be silenced.

Second, what I see in this video is a woman fighting for her life from the minute she is pulled over. Fighting to live in a country in which she had rights, and in which her humanity was respected. Fighting to live in a place where you are able to assert your legal rights regardless of the color of your skin, and you do not have to genuflect to authority when that authority is misused and abused in order to save your own skin. In doing so, Sandra Bland was not just fighting for her own life, she was fighting for all of our lives. Fighting back against a system that says you have to treat police with respect even if they do not treat you with respect. Fighting against a system where the wounded male ego is cause for arrest. Fighting against a system where the voices of women are silenced, and the bodies of women are grasped without their permission.

On Monday, July 20, a week after Sandy’s death, District Attorney Elton Mathis said, “It was not a model person who was stopped.” To say I disagree could never be enough.

So I will continue to sit outside the Waller County Jail in vigil to let the community know that here was lost a life that deserves to be honored. I will continue to listen to #SandySpeaks and encourage you to do likewise.

I am confident that Sandra Bland did not kill herself. I have been confident from the second I heard her voice: the voice of a woman who unapologetically loved herself, others, and her God. That can be a difficult thing to be, however, when you live in a world that expects women like Sandy to apologize for their own greatness.

Rev. Hannah Bonner

St. John’s Downtown, Houston, Texas

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)