Tag Archives: blacklivesmatter

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.)

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.

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Why We Say Her Name: Sandra Bland

As she arrived at the security check and showed her I.D., the airport agent’s eyes welled with tears at the sight of Sandra Bland’s mother; proving that even TSA is not immune to the power of her story and presence.

This has become the new normal for the Bland family as Sandra’s voice strikes a chord in people’s hearts whose echo cannot seem to be silenced.

This is why we say: Sandy still speaks.

The young agent pulled herself together, striving to repress the overwhelming emotions that no one should have to repress. Revealing that all of us, in the end, are human.

There is something about Sandy that summons forth a response unlike any other. Something in her voice. Her passion. Her strength. Her courage. Her words hold the most vital components we can hope to see in someone fighting for justice: an unapologetic love of blackness, an unapologetic love of self, and an unapologetic love of others.

So if you fight for justice, if you long for justice: this hurts. It hurts to watch Sandra pushed to the ground and spoken to disrespectfully by Officer Penny Good while Officer Brian Encinia had his knee in her back. Sisterhood betrayed. It hurt a week ago today to watch the same officer, Officer Penny Good order another officer to shoot Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller in the back with a taser as he knelt in his own backyard. Three weeks after he had voted to reaffirm the naming of Sandra Bland Parkway; one week after he had voted to give the officers a raise. Solidarity betrayed.

This hurts. It is the kind of pain that makes you say: what’s the point? The kind of pain that makes you say: I cannot fight anymore.

Then you look up, and they walk into view. The family that formed Sandra Bland. The family that loved Sandra Bland. The family that will fight for Sandra Bland. It strikes a chord. I watched it happen time and time again as young women at the Million Man March and in the streets of Washington, D.C. lit up at the sight of them when recognition struck.

Perhaps it is because their love for Sandra is evident to anyone who takes the time to look. Perhaps it is because we all would want to be fought for like there is no other option but victory. Perhaps it is because we sense how much it must hurt to love like that and lose the one you love. Perhaps it is because we sense how hard it must be to strap on your armor and fight a battle whose terms are as unjust as the unjust and unnecessary arrest of Sandra Bland.

Perhaps it is because this whole struggle we are in as a nation is as unjust as the unjust and unnecessary arrest of Sandra Bland. Many have to drop off, many grow weary. Yet, there are warriors that remain, and in their honor, if for no other reason (although there are many), we have to #SayHerName

So when Sandra Bland’s sister, Mrs. Sharon Cooper, stepped onto the stage at the Million Man March, after 90 days straight of fighting for justice for her sister and said: “Say her name! Then you had better say say her name.

Sandra Bland.

Say it for her sisters Shante, Sharon, Shavon, and Sierra. Say it for her mother, Geneva. Say it for her brother, Willie, for her nieces and nephews.

Say it because her life mattered. Not because of any of her credentials or her education or her associations, but simply because it mattered. Like your life matters. No more, and not a single jot less.

Say it because every one of these instances of unjust law enforcing sends a message not only to the nation but to law enforcement themselves. We cannot send them the message that they can tase, arrest, strip search, beat, or kill a single one of us without repercussion.

Say it because every time you do, you lift the spirits of a family that is fighting a long and difficult battle for justice. That is important and never think it is not. Every tweet; every blog; every congregation, classroom or club that lifts her name, lifts their arms.

Say it because you understand that long and difficult is the only path available to justice when the system is rigged against you. Winning this battle cannot be based merely on keeping up with what the latest trending hashtag is so that we can seem relevant and woke. It has to include continuing to say those names until justice, and not merely awareness, is won. It has to include not being satisfied with winning the battle for public opinion, but also pursuing the battle for juries and consequences. Otherwise we become like the friends who bring casseroles to the funeral, but are not there when everyone leaves and the adrenaline subsides, and all that is left is the loneliness and the pain. As a parish pastor, I always knew that the real battle would not be the funeral; the real battle would be two months later when everyone but those closest to the pain had moved on. The real battle would be when no one called anymore, and no one visited anymore, because grief is a marathon, not a sprint, and most of us have not been in training for it. How many families has our hashtag battle left sitting alone in their kitchens heating up leftover casseroles from people who have moved on with their lives or started to #SayAnotherName ?

Say it because you intend to do something about it to honor a woman who did not believe in observing, commenting or tweeting about injustice, but rather was committed to doing something about injustice.

  • Give to the family legal fund so that they can continue the fight. Trust me, it’s important. It is like saying “I’ll help be the answer to your prayers” instead of just “I’m praying for you.” It is like saying “We are in this together” instead of just “What you are going through must be so hard.”
  • Demand the immediate termination of the officers who arrested Sandra Bland, who not only put her life into jeopardy but also all of our lives if law enforcement receives the message that this is acceptable and without concrete consequence.

Say it. Say her name. Say it because you understand that saying it will never be enough, but that silence is intolerable.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

When Bernie Promised to #SayHerName #SandraBland

To put your money where your mouth is and support Sandra’s family go to the Sandra Bland Legal Fund; keep track of the movement at SandySpeaksOn.com

“That’s Bernie Sanders,” my sister said, indicating an unpretentious man with a full head of white hair that had slipped past me and tucked himself into a table in the shadowy corner of East Street Cafe, a Thai restaurant in Washington DC’s Union Station.

“Really? Are you sure?” I asked her doubtfully, as I took another bite of my basil chicken across the table from Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal. For better or for worse, he was not a man who had quite the signature look that more polished politicians cultivate; which is probably part of his charm.

IMG_0746 (2)I honestly was not sure if it really was him, but my sister has been working around DC politicians for almost 20 years, so I took her word for it. “Someone should go talk to him. You know he has been saying Sandra Bland’s name for months. Someone should tell him you guys are here.”

I find it wise to do what my big sister tells me on the rare occasion that she tries to exert her seniority, so I pulled my chair back from the table and walked across the restaurant.

“Hello, I’m sorry, are you Mr. Sanders?” I asked.

“I am,” he replied.

“Well, I’m just over there having dinner with the mother of Sandra Bland and I thought maybe you’d like to meet her.”

“Yes, please,” he replied.

I got up to walk back towards our table only to see that Shante, Sandra’s oldest sister, was already headed towards me. She is a woman who knows how to get things accomplished, so I was not surprised to see her coming after me to see if I needed support.

Bringing Ms. Geneva back over to the table, I felt my body trembling. The trembling continued as Ms. Geneva sat down next to Senator Sanders and they began to talk. I was not trembling out of fear or out of being star-struck, it was more that I was completely blown away by the unexpectedness of it all, the sacredness of the moment, and the sincerity of all involved. You do not often get to witness moments like that. Moments when agendas are laid aside and people who might not otherwise ever have the chance to connect without cameras watching can simply honor one another’s pain and humanity.

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

“What happened to your daughter is inexcusable,” he said. “We are broken, and this has exposed us.” He then continued by promising that he would continue to #SayHerName #SandraBland and would not give up in the pursuit of justice.

The spontaneity of the moment lent sincerity to words unrehearsed, phrases unplanned, in an interaction that was never supposed to take place.

We asked Senator Sanders if we could take a picture with him and he consented. He did not impose upon Ms. Geneva to ask for a picture of his own. He did not use the moment as an opportunity to promote his campaign. He took no record, he made no statement. He did not try to turn it into a publicity stunt. He simply made space for a sacred moment, and then let it pass without trying to gain anything from it. Version 3

For that, I respect him. For that, I am grateful. That choice may not have made him a very good politician, but it made him a better man.

When we sat back down at the table, I put my head in my hands and simply continued to gentle shake. “Is she okay?” Shante asked. “Yes, she’s fine,” her mother replied, “she is just blown away.”

There have been so many moments along this journey, so very many moments, when God simply astonished me. When something happened that was so delicately balanced in the table of time that it gave me confidence that there was something truly important happening, something truly historic, something truly sacred, as the continuing story of Sandra Bland unfolds.

When each sacred moment appears and passes, it gives me renewed hope and confidence that the legacy of Sandra Bland’s struggle for justice is making it’s eternal mark in this world.

Senator Sanders was right. Her death was inexcusable; yet her legacy moves forward without yielding.

*Five days later, in the first Democratic Presidential Debate, Senator Bernie Sanders kept his promise to #SayHerName #SandraBland 

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

 

Sandra Bland In A Sea of Red: Remembering The Names We Forget

“Hey, I am from Houston,” I said recognizing the gentle face of the woman walking next to me among the families of those lost to police brutality walking together to the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March. Behind us in a sea of red shirts was Trayvon Martin’s mother, ahead of us Michael Brown’s father. To my right, was the family of Sandra Bland who had become like family to me. To my left was the beautiful woman with the long hair from the city where I lived.

“Hello, Hannah,” she said, recognizing me from advocacy meetings in the city of Houston that we both called home.

A moment of painful awareness washed over me as I realized that she remembered my name, and I did not remember hers.

It is Janet Baker, by the way. Janet Baker. Janet Baker. Janet Baker. Remember it. It is important.

She is the mother of Jordan Baker. Jordan Baker. Jordan Baker. Remember it. It is important.

“I’m so grateful to find myself beside you. God has an amazing way of bringing us to the right place,” was what I said out loud. But through my mind raced a million thoughts. Why could I not remember her name, when she could remember mine? Why was it that it had been at least a month since I had checked in on what was happening with her? What had we done lately in the city of Houston for her son, Jordan Baker?

Walking in the midst of a sea of red shirts, the parents and brothers and sisters of those still seeking justice, I felt overwhelmed both by the sorrow and the beauty of it. Mothers from different cities who had to fight for their children when no one except each other could really understand, walking arm in arm with one another at last. They have been talking. They have been building a new kind of family. They have been seeking to hear and support one another. They have been pushing back against the “hashtag survival of the fittest” struggle for the public’s attention that social media layers onto their mourning process, and they have been building community and solidarity.

Many of them carried signs with pictures, putting a face with a name for the lives that had been lost. Many names were as recognizable as the main street in your hometown; while Sandra Bland Parkway actually was a street name itself. Others, I will be honest to admit, I had not heard before. I was grateful to those who had a face to go with those names; it helps them stay in the memory.

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You cannot always explain why some hashtags take root and grow, and others have a shorter lifespan. You can say it’s because Tamir was young. You can say it’s because Sandra was educated. You can say it’s because Trayvon was innocent and hunted. All of those things are true and important, but they can be said of others as well.

Someday someone will write a doctoral thesis to explain why, in fact they have probably already started to write it, but for now we bear the responsibility of remembering that no life is more valuable than the next regardless of how long we are able to keep their name moving. The homecoming queen is not more valuable than the trap queen. The minister is not more valuable than the drug dealer. If we lose sight of that then we lose the whole battle to say that #BlackLivesMatter. Every. Single. One. Matters.

For me, that is part of what it means to honor the legacy of Sandra Bland. Because Sandra Bland understood the importance of continually taking action and continually seeking to remind people of the humanity of those names that teeter on the edge of becoming symbolic. “What if that was your uncle?” she says when alluding to Walter Scott in her #SandySpeaks video.  “I’m trying to turn this into a PRAYrade” she wrote when Ram Emmanuel led a parade for the the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory the day after a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Instead of shifting focus to the sports victory, she became creative in finding a way to use it to remind people of our responsibility to one another. She did make a poster for the parade, but it said: “Real Hawks Pray for the Emmanuel 9.”

The one thing that got her really fired up more than any other was the loss of life, and people’s indifference to it. That extended even beyond police brutality to her concern about violence in the city among young people when the weather got warm, and the homicide rate rose. Life was important to Sandra Bland. Stopping those who took the lives of another was often the focus of her videos.

Then her life was lost to us, and we still do not know exactly how.

As the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March began, Sandra Bland’s mother did get to see her daughter’s face on the screen. She did get to hear them #SayHerName as out of all the families gathered, the family of Michael Brown and the family of Sandra Bland were the ones each given one minute to speak.

She did get to hear her daughter, one of the most natural public speakers the movement has been blessed with, Mrs. Sharon Cooper speak to the thousands gathered at the Capitol saying, “The world has shown us that we need to control our own narrative… Can I ask you to do one thing: Say her name.”

Yet, it was not the victory of hearing one daughter’s voice or the other daughter’s name that dominated her mother’s thoughts for the rest of the day. It was all of the names that had been left unsaid. All of the faces that had been left unseen. All of the families that had been unheard.

She was not thinking about herself, she was thinking about the other women she had walked arm in arm with to that place. The mothers whose stories Sandra Bland had watched unfold herself as she continually sought creative ways to take action in the struggle. The mothers that Sandra Bland herself had mourned alongside as she lifted up the words: Black Lives Matter.

In the midst of walking through the greatest pain of her life, Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal still is thinking about the suffering of others. She is still strong enough to keep room in her heart for other’s losses along with her own.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. It takes a strong woman to raise a strong daughter, and this is the woman who raised Sandra Bland.

*It is important to remember that many times the reason that names fade from view is that the family becomes drained of resources in their fight for justice. Help the Bland family continue their fight: Family Legal Fund.

Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal walks hand in hand with her oldest daughter, Shante Needham.
Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal walks hand in hand with her oldest daughter, Shante Needham
Mrs. Sharon Cooper speaks at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March
Mrs. Sharon Cooper speaks at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March

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: 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.