Tag Archives: #sandyspeaks

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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Why Where Sandra Bland Died is as Important as How

For over 50 days, I have been receiving messages on social media telling me what a fool I am for standing in solidarity with the bold and vivacious activist, Sandra Bland. While the messages vary in their intensity, most of them have two things in common: 1) they know nothing about Sandra Bland and are woefully misinformed 2) they express their own belief that Sandra Bland chose to end her life and, thus, her life is not worth honoring, her grieving family is not worth respecting, and the circumstances surrounding her death are not worth questioning.

Sadly, they have completely missed the point.

While understanding may not be their goal, I know that it is the goal of many of you out there whose concern is piqued not only by our persistence, but even more so by the bold, vulnerable, powerful and loving voice that you have heard in the #SandySpeaks videos. It is to you that I write. It is to you who seek to know justice and mercy that I write. It is to you who know that an uncomfortable truth is better than a comfortable falsehood, it is to you that I write.

First, let me say that my stance is one of solidarity with the family of Sandra Bland as they continue to ask #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, as they continue to demand #JusticeForSandraBland, and as they continue to seek answers. Based on the character, personality and state of mind described by Sandra’s friends and family, I stand with them in their stance that Sandra Bland would not choose to end her life. While at no point have I made any accusations or speculations; at each point I have continued to raise the questions put forward by her family and friends.

While those who are convinced Sandra took her own life have used their belief to dismiss all negligence on the part of the state, local Waller County activists have been consistently pointing out why that is not even the point. They have done so with three words: Care, custody and control. Trained as a theologian, rather than a lawyer, even I have not understood the importance of those words over the course of these last seven weeks.

All that changed five days ago. My father, who is an attorney, challenged me to read up on the case law surrounding Sandra Bland’s death. As I did, a wave of recognition washed over me as I was taken back to a moment in 2009.

In February of 2009, I received a phone call as I pulled into my driveway in Durham, North Carolina. What I heard on the other end of the line left me pounding on my steering wheel as if the rhythmic beating could somehow bring back to life what had been lost.

I was informed that the night before a snow storm had descended upon the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. When the sun rose in the morning and the morning shift arrived for work at my grandmother’s nursing home, they found my beautiful, 89 year-old grandmother lying in the parking lot, frozen to death, wearing nothing but her nightgown.

I pulled back out of the driveway and started driving north. From different directions other family began to do the same. All of us hoping that there was some life left in her cold body. Each of us beginning to descend on the small, mountain town as if the heat of our grief could restore the warmth to her body.

It could not.

In the middle of the night, my grandmother had left her room and gone outside. I will never know what happened to her or why. I do not know if she was experiencing a moment of senility; if she was confused and could not find her way back in; if she knew what she was doing; if she was lured outside; or if she simply wanted some fresh air and got overwhelmed.

Legally, none of that mattered. My grandmother was in the care, custody and control of that nursing home. They were legally responsible for her well-being. The nurse responsible to check on her did so at 1:30 am. She discovered her missing. She said nothing. She did nothing. She went back to her desk, while my grandmother lay in the snow outside.

My grandmother was a local woman, loved and respected. Without delay, the District Attorney swiftly brought criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter because my grandmother was in the care, custody and control of that nursing home and its employees.

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I will never know why my grandmother froze to death in the parking lot of that nursing home. That is not the point, however. She never should have been alone in the snow in that parking lot in the middle of the night to begin with.

In Chicago, Sandra Bland was a local woman, loved and respected. Yet, Sandra Bland did not die in Chicago. She died far from home. She died far from her mother, her sisters, her nieces, her nephews, and her church. She died in a place where she was alone and suffering and in physical pain caused by a violent arrest that never should have happened, and for which she had not received adequate medical attention. She was placed in a cell alone, in what discharged prisoners have called “solitary.” She suffered and she wept. In her case, it was not that the guards said nothing or did nothing, it was that they did not even take the step to do that visual check that they were required to do. Even in the best case scenario for them, her guards sat at their desk ignorant of what was happening while her life left her body.

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In whatever manner her departure took place, she was in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail and its employees. Yet, rather than treating her with respect, the District Attorney in her case called her “not a model person.” Rather than treating her with honor, a Judge involved took to Twitter to describe her as self-medicating with marijuana; and defended his tweets when criticized by saying that the information he shared was pertinent to her mental state; as if he was the prosecutor to the deceased rather than judge. Rather than treating her with caution and care, the Waller County Jail oversaw the departure from life of a bold, brilliant, fun-loving, vivacious woman.

While I profoundly disagree with their characterization of Sandra Bland, legally, who she was does not matter. Her life mattered, and her life was their responsibility. Texas lawmakers have acknowledged that. She was in their care, custody and control.

She was black, while my grandmother was white. She was young, while my grandmother was old. She was an “outsider,” while my grandmother was local. She was in the care, custody and control of a jail, while my grandmother was in the care, custody and control of a nursing home. Tell me, which of these differences makes her worthy of less respect from those charged with her care and supervision during life, and those charged with her justice and investigation after death.

I pray Sandra Bland’s family will have the answers that my family never will. I pray they will know: What happened to Sandra Bland? Yet at a very basic level, in order to be infuriated, we do not even need to know how Sandra Bland died. All we need to know is that Sandra Bland never should have been under arrest. Sandra Bland never should have been alone and out of sight in the back of that jail in the middle of the night, any more than my grandmother should have been alone and out of sight in the back of that snowy parking lot in the middle of the night.

On that night in 2009, the nurse responsible for supervision of my grandmother was legally accountable for her death, and by extension so was the nursing home for which she worked. On July 13, 2015, the guards responsible for the supervision of Sandra Bland were legally accountable for her death, and by extension so is the jail for which they work.

What happened to Sandra Bland?

50 Days Later: Still Grieving, Called, Woke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake up America.

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

How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandy Still Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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