Tag Archives: blacklivesmatter

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.

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.

Sandrafam

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.

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.

What Happened to Sandra Bland?

From July 15 – Sitting Vigil for Sandra Bland – Arrested for failing to signal a lane change and found dead in her cell

“Blow that out,” the voice came loud and stern over the loud speakers of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and County Jail.

Moments earlier, we had lit a votive candle on the front stoop of the building with the words, “What happened to Sandra Bland?” written on the side. As I picked up the match stubs, not wanting to give anyone cause for a litter fine, and turned back to rejoin my fellow travelers, a woman leaving her car passed me on her way to the front door.

“Can I help you with something?” she had asked politely.

“We are just here to pray,” I had replied, squinting in the darkness to try to see her face as she walked from her car. It was dark on that street, everywhere except the lights of the Sheriff’s Office. Pitch dark.

We passed one another, and as she reached the front door, she read the sign on the candle, and then continued on to open the door and walk inside.

“Blow that out,” came an angry voice addressing her over the speakers that we could not see on the side of the County Jail.

I spun around from the friends I was begin to pray with, and watched as the woman bent her body completely into a V, lifting one leg slightly off the ground as she balanced with her hand on the front door of the County Jail, and *puff* the candle was out.

Rhys and I looked at each other in shock. “She blew it out, I can’t believe she blew it out.”

I picked the unused matches back up off of the car seat where I had dropped them and slipped them into my pocket. We had known that we must be being watched. We had pulled off the main road into the neighborhood where the Sheriff’s Office lay, just a few minutes after the Texas Rangers and their vehicles had pulled out for the night.

I didn’t know Sandra Bland, but I knew people who did; I loved people who did; I share life with people who did.

She sounds like an amazing woman from their reports, but the truth of the matter is that Sandra does not need anyone to say who she was: she speaks for herself. The internet is full of her videos of inspiring and convicting messages. It turned my stomach to see the video of her explaining the importance of #BlackLivesMatter to those who use the language of #AllLivesMatter – and to know that her name is now being hashtagged as well. But she is more than a hashtag, and #BlackLivesMatter could not come close to strong enough words for what we were feeling.

Even while she believed so strongly in the power of social media: She is more than a hashtag. We are all more than a hashtag. She deserves more than our fingers typing. She deserves our lips to say her name. Our hearts to beat her name. Our feet to march her name.

So when Rhys Caraway said to me, “You think we should go to Waller?” I said, “When?” He said, “Now.” I said, “Yes.”

We decided we would take one of the votive candles we had lit for Charleston, and light one tall, lone, strong candle for Sandra in the last place she had been: Waller County.

Our friend Nina joined us and read evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer in the backseat as Rhys and I prepared ourselves, driving past the college where both Rhys and Sandra had attended: Prairie View A&M. Rhys took anointing oil from his backpack and reached across the front seat to place it on my forehead as I drove.

It was that same anointing oil that Rhys held in his hand as we finished praying in front of the County Jail. He stood up and began to walk away from the safety of our circle and boldly towards the stoop of the County Jail. I followed him with the matches in my hand.

Rhys knelt and began to pray as he anointed the stoop with oil. Praying for truth and justice to be served.

I walked towards the candle.

“She’s going to light it again!” voices began calling to each other from the pitch darkness that surrounded us. The neighbors must have been watching. We had no way of knowing if they were friend or foe. I bent close, struck the match, and watched the wick glow out its strong but powerful statement once again: “What happened to Sandra Bland?”

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My Feet Are Planted

“Don’t you think there is another side of the story,” was his opening line, as I pondered the stranger in front of me with puzzlement. My mind scrambled. What story? What other side?

“What do you mean?” I queried, studying the white collar, Caucasian man, a couple decades my elder.

“Well don’t you think there’s other people who have responsibility?”

“What people? And what responsibility?” I asked, trying my best to remain polite and engaged. Whatever code language it was that we were speaking was one that I either never learned or, more likely, had forgotten how to speak from years of disuse and disarming bluntness.

“Well, Michael Brown. Don’t you think he had a responsibility not to charge at a police officer?”

Oh. Michael. Michael, we are still talking about you. I promise we have not forgotten.

Despite the fact that not a day goes by in my life without a mention of the small community outside of St. Louis that brought national attention to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, I found myself surprised that his line of questioning bent my gaze towards Ferguson.

I was surprised to be questioned about Michael as Baltimore erupted over the killing of Freddie Gray; Chicago demanded answers for the silence surrounding Rekia Boyd‘s homicide; and South Carolina’s old wounds had been laid bare by the murder of Walter Scott.

Part of me wanted to say exactly that. Part of me wanted to simply say “Walter Scott” and walk away, but I knew I could not do that. To direct his attention away from Michael would somehow feel like walking away and leaving Michael lying in the street. But I had taken my shoes off, out of respect, and laid my bare feet against the pavement where Michael’s blood still remains, and I cannot walk away from him now. I will not walk away from him. My feet are planted.

Quickly self correcting, I said instead, “Let’s not get lost in the weeds. You and I could stand here all day and debate whether Michael charged a police officer, but we really have no way of knowing for certain what happened that day in a way that will satisfy both of us. But that is not even the point; the point is that I know that if I charged a police officer, I would not be shot. I could even hit a police officer and I would not be shot.”

He had to agree with me. Seeking to remove my diminutive size from the equation, I pushed the point further.

“And the same is true for you. You know that you could charge a police officer and not be shot.”

My conversation partner could not disagree. The fact that we did not disagree on this point is important. The reason why it is important is not whether or not it is true that I can do what I want to a police officer without being shot; the important detail is that we, as a white man and white woman, believe that it is true that the police will not shoot us. That is what people have called white privilege.

White supremacy, consequently, is the belief that that reality is acceptable. In other words, believing that the police will not shoot me is a part of my reality, regardless of how I feel about that fact. I can cry out to high heaven that it is wrong that I do not have to be cautious around law enforcement while other people do have to be cautious around law enforcement, but it will still be my reality. When, we accept this reality and do not fight against it, however; when we see it as justifiable and acceptable that a black man is more likely to be shot than a white woman, it is then that we have bought into white supremacy. We have accepted the current reality as just. We have become accomplices to a system of white supremacy.

White supremacy does not look like a cryptic figure in a hood. It looks like you and I when we are silent in the face of injustice.

Silence is simply not an option. Our only ethical option is to speak out and act out against a white supremacy system built upon an acceptance, whether active or passive, of white privilege. Our only option is to undermine the very system that seeks, through the offer of benefits and privileges, to purchase our integrity and occupy our souls.

“The point is that we have a real problem in this nation,” I said to him, “that problem lies in the fact that regardless of what Michael did or did not do, the reason he was killed is because he was black.”

Once again, he could not disagree. So we ventured deeper into the footnotes of our minds.

We discussed all the painful history of our nation’s crimes against humanity. The painful reality that it was Christian theologians who, along with European philosophers, created the foundation for our system of slavery, rape and murder. That it was our own beloved Scriptures that were twisted and tortured until the god they squeezed out of its pages could no longer be called love. That it was the words of our own prophets that were wrestled to the ground, bound, whipped, and gagged until they fought their way free and came roaring out like a loosed lion from Sojourner Truth’s throat. That it was the blood of Christ himself that we spilled with every single life we took. That five hundred years of unspeakable cruelty and outright heresy were not going to be undone in the flash of an eye.

That there were theologians who taught that the Indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas and Australia, were not quite made in the image of God in the same way that the people of Europe were, and thus, it was not murder to kill them. The fact that this encouraged our nation to put in place the 3/5ths compromise, that defined people in bondage as 2/5ths less than a whole person. That this lie, built upon theological heresy, philosophical errancy, and scientific fraud led to a devaluing of life whose repercussions are still felt to this day.

That the fact that the shootings of Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – are related to this history and not independent of it. That the heresy that many churches taught, that black lives do not matter, is the heresy that we now have a profound responsibility to speak against as clergy.

Once again, he could not disagree. And I loved him for it. It meant there was a chance.

He could admit that his feet belonged planted firmly beside Michael, Eric, Rekia, Walter, Freddie, but would he stand there?

First he tried the ‘use your family as an excuse’ maneuver. “Are you married? Do you have children? Then you wouldn’t understand, it is so much harder when you have others to think about.”

“The question is not whether it’s hard,” I responded, “The question is whether it’s right.”

Yet, there was still one “Hail-Mary” left, the ‘your generation will change things’ maneuver. “I really believe that it is going to be your generation, the Millennials, that will fix this,” he said, making the full turn from active resister to passive ally.

But to be passive and an ally is not a possibility.

“I know you’ve heard people say,” I replied, “that ‘we’ll have to wait until so-and-so dies before we can change the carpet or the organ or the parking.’ Well, my generation does not want to spend our whole life waiting for your generation to die. I don’t want to spend my whole life waiting for you to die. It would be so much better if we could do this work together. Join us; let’s do this together.”

In that moment, he had no maneuvers left, for who wants the world to place their best hope in our own fleeting mortality.

I do not know where his feet will be planted; but I know where my feet are planted.

And they shall not be moved.

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