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Yvette Smith: Why All Our Rights Are Lies

“Yvette hated guns. She never let her sons play with guns,” Yvette Smith’s mother said to me after Judge McCaig called a 20 minute break, part way through the afternoon of the second day of the defense arguments for ex-officer Daniel Willis murder trial for killing her daughter.

Yvette-SmithI knew what it was like to grow up in a household like that; a household where, as Yvette Smith’s son Anthony put it, the “mother was uneasy around guns.” I was never allowed to play with so much as a water pistol or a nerf gun, and to this day it has had a lasting psychological impact on me. I see guns as something that could wound or kill. My best friend’s father used to leave his guns on the dining room table, and it made my heart beat faster just to see it. I could never touch a gun. That’s how I was raised. That is how Yvette Smith was raised. That is how Yvette Smith raised her sons.

Now I live in a state where people care more about their right to open-carry, than about how it impacts other people and the stress and anxiety they cause. Now I live in a state where open-carry is a lie, because we know it really only applies to certain people. Some people – let me be clear: white men – have the right to carry machine guns openly on the streets, as I saw them do in Austin. Other people – let me be clear: Yvette Smith – will be killed merely because an officer imagined that she was carrying a gun inside of her own house.

“Stand your ground” does not apply to black teenagers.

“Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply black men. 

“Open carry” does not apply to black women.

Havin1403134974000-YVETTE-SMITH-2g all of those things apply to you and not to people of color is part of having white privilege. People who are white have the ability to observe that reality, to acknowledge it, and to work to undermine their own privilege in order that the rights our nation claims to hold as “self-evident” apply to all. If they do not apply to us all, they are not civil rights, by definition they are privileges. Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” If your race and/or ethnicity is a factor in whether you can assert your rights safely, which I believe it is, then civil rights exist only in our imagination.

Just as the gun that Daniel Willis claims Yvette Smith was holding existed only in his imagination. Listening to hours of taped interviews with him during the trial was nothing short of disturbing. Having watched the dash cam video of Yvette Smith’s killing, you see three things happen in three seconds.

First second: Yvette opens the door.

Second second: Daniel yells “Police.”

Third second: Daniel fires 2 quick shots from his personal AR-15 assault rifle into Yvette’s body with no warning, no commands, and no evaluation.

In lengthy explanations, he talks in the interviews shown at trial about how Yvette stepped onto the porch and was “indexing” with her gun. Aiming it at him and his partner. He talks about how he flashed his flashlight at her several times and she kept ducking out of the path of his light and repositioning her aim. He talks about how she had a small, shiny pistol; then a light colored, long barreled gun. He talks about her having a small, shiny L-shape in her hand, which out of his peripheral vision looked like a long gun, like the AR-15 assault rifle he was holding himself. He says he was afraid for his life; then he says he was never afraid for one single second; then he says he was afraid not for his life but for the other officer at the scene. He takes hours talking about things that never happened.

None of it happened. Sitting in the courtroom, we knew already. We had watched the dashcam. We had heard in rapid succession: Door opening, “Police”, BAM BAM. Even if Daniel Willis’ story was not so inconsistent, there was simply not time for any of it to have happened. All of it, and all of the different versions, were lies.

Yet with all the things he had to talk about, there were somethings he did not talk about:

  • He does not talk about the fact that he has night blindness and could not see and, yet, like many stubborn people chose to not wear his glasses while cocking an AR-15 in the dark.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was wearing body armor at in little danger.
  • He does not talk about the fact that his own body was safely behind his car. Nor does he talk about the fact that being behind “cover” was supposed to give him the opportunity to: a) take time to evaluate the situation b) yell commands, such as “drop the gun” c) call for back up.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he seemed eerily undisturbed after the shooting.
  • He does not talk about how he subtly threatened another woman while they waited for Yvette’s body to be taken away. She said, “don’t shoot me,” and he responded “Well, then don’t point anything shiny at me.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he has never shown any remorse or regret to Yvette’s family.
  • He does not talk about how after killing her he laughingly said “I didnt’ want to die.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was in no danger of dying: Yvette was.

Ironically, his lawyers then used that as his defense. They had a forensic psychiatrist testify that because there was an officer outside, Yvette Smith exhibited impaired judgement by opening the door.

Yes. That is the defense. That a black woman is responsible for her own death because she opened her door when there was a police officer outside. 

Are the lives of black women in so much danger in this nation that there are responsible for their own deaths if they are foolish enough to leave their own house?

Nay, not to leave their own house; if they are foolish enough to open their door.

Foolish enough to claim to have rights? Foolish enough to drink a beer in their own home, or smoke a cigarette in their own car? Foolish enough to think they were citizens? Foolish enough to think they were children of God, and their bodies sacred and powerful vessels?

If a black woman’s life does not have value in our nation, than nothing that we believe about ourselves or our country is true. We have no civil rights, we only have privileges awarded to the few. We are not free, we are not safe, we are not good.

This week, perhaps even today, a verdict will come forth from Judge McCaig. Daniel Willis has waived his right to a jury trial in this retrial; his attorneys citing their absolute certainty that McCaig would give them a “Not Guilty” verdict.

If his attorneys are correct and a “Not Guilty” verdict comes in, before Judge McCaig moves on to the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia, will we be silent? What will we do? Or, as Sandra Bland was known to say, “What will you do? What will you do Queen? What will you do King?” What will you do to show the truth that the lives of black women are sacred indeed?

Sacred beyond measure. Sacred beyond comprehension. Powerful enough to strike fear into the heart of a man holding a taser, a man holding an assault rifle. Powerful enough to make him claim that he was the victim and that you, unarmed black woman, were a threat to him, well-armed and equipped with body armor.

…and you are. A threat to him. Not a threat to his life, but to his power, his comfort, his privilege. The end has already been written, and justice will win. White supremacy knows in its heart that it will be you, black woman, that will bring it down. Its fear and violence is only increasing to keep pace with the increase of your power and confidence. It knows its end is near. Do not give up.

“For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).

 

‘The Next Generation of Waller County’

Tomorrow marks the first day of a new month, and it could be the first day of a new chapter in Waller County’s history. That will only come to pass, however, if the people of Waller County want it.

Primary elections for both the Democratic and Republican parties will be held on March 1st, and on the ticket for Sheriff, you will still find Sheriff R. Glenn Smith.

Yes, that Sheriff Smith.

What truly made me marvel was not that Sheriff Smith was still running even after a year full of highly public mishaps that embarrassed the County. Instead, it was the slogan that his supporters had chosen: “Keep R. Glenn Smith Sheriff – Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.”

Driving past these signs on the backroads of Waller County, as I journeyed to help facilitate a leadership retreat for some of our nation’s most promising young minds, the irony of those words was not lost on me.

Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.

I can and do understand how people have felt offended that rightful criticism of the Sheriff reflected on their County, and I do understand how that has made people defensive at times. It is one thing, however, to defend what you have; it is quite another thing to not want something better for your children. It is one thing to resist chaos by trying to protect the stability of your community from what you see as outside forces; it is another thing to reject change when it is handed to you and all you have to do is take it with your ballot.

You see that “Next Generation of Waller County” is my generation and my nieces’ generation. A generation is not bound by County lines, it is bound by common experience and common calling. It is bound by the fact that as time goes on, we will have to figure out together what to do with the messes and the blessings that others have left behind for us. Our responsibility to one another is not now, nor will it be in the future, limited by County, State or even National boundaries.

As Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

My responsibility to my generation lies in my concern not only for the magnificent Prairie View A&M students, but also for the young, local white man their age who came to the jail once and spent the day sitting with me just because he wanted to know for himself whether we were the monsters people said we were. We gave him water, and laughter, and friendship, and I respected his courage to sit out there with us, just to know for himself what was going on. I have a responsibility to the young, local white woman, whose pastor brought her to meet the “Wicked Witch of Waller” so that she could know for herself whether I was truly what people said I was. I have a responsibility to the young woman who came to the jail the day after Sheriff R. Glenn Smith threatened us and told me to go back to the Church of Satan; she came to me with tears in her eyes and begged me to be careful, telling me that I was in more danger than I thought. I have a responsibility to the young men and women who lived around the jail and truly loved me and truly were concerned whether I had enough water and food and strength.

Yet, perhaps even more than to them, I have a responsibility to the young woman who tried to lure me to a local restaurant for who knows what reason when folks were looking for me to “confront” me. And I have a responsibility to the young mothers, women in my generation, who sat at home and commented on posts about Sandra, or about those holding vigil, or reported when and where they had last seen my car, concerned that their way of life was being threatened by calls for justice. I was tired, but I could have done better by them. I could have tried harder to find a way to communicate to them that God’s justice is for their children as well and that we are all in this together.

As Ephesians 2:19 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household…”

For them, for their children, I believe that God has something better in store for them than the kind of repetitive injustice, threats, and danger that many before them have already known. I believe that Justice for Sandra Bland, also means Justice for them and for their neighbors. I believe that we are all connected in a web of mutual responsibility.

God has something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County” than what has come before because we are called not to fear the future and protect the ways of the past, but to serve a God who promises to “make all things new.”

Even as voices continue to seek justice, transparency and answers, the people of Waller County have an opportunity themselves to quite easily, without investigation or legal case, offer accountability for the way they have been represented. Vote.

How they vote will show us whether R. Glenn Smith represents who they are and who they want to be, or whether he does not.

I pray that they will show us that they truly do want something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County.”

Sandra Bland: Justice Delayed, Not Denied

Sitting in Judge Hitner’s Courtroom in the Bob E. Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, Texas on February 18th, you would quickly realize that the level of transparency and honesty that each lawyer was willing to offer could be measured by the size of their smile.

For those of you who have read about the past hearings, you already know that the state attorney, Seth Dennis, representing Brian Encinia, has a quirky approach to lawyering in which he pretends he does not know anything while smiling largely at the judge in the traditional bromance courting ritual of white men seeking to remind one another of their common stake in maintaining injustice through the ‘good ol’ boy’ system. For instance, saying he does not know when Brian Encinia’s arraignment in the Criminal Trial is; when everyone else in the room seems to have heard it was first March 23, and then moved to March 22. Thus far, it does not seem to be working. Outwardly, Judge Hitner seems to have no time for the games and arrogance he receives from the state attorney, but only time will tell. Only through concrete rulings that compel action will we know that his refusal to enter into the flirtation is secure.

There were several topics discussed, most notably perhaps was the fact that the civil trial was not dismissed.

The attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal, Cannon Lambert and Larry Rogers, Jr., all business as usual, were seeking access to the original video footage both from Sandra’s arrest and from the hours that she spent inside of the Waller County Jail. To which the state attorney replied, “It’s all over the internet. It’s on YouTube” as his justification for resisting doing so. In some way, it seemed that both the original footage and the Texas Rangers Report were being tied up by the Criminal Case of perjury against Brian Encinia. The judge said that the attorneys will be given access to view the footage but not remove it from the possession of the state.

Speaking only for myself, it is my impression that the relatively minor charge of perjury is the state’s way of delaying the civil trial, and not in any way a real pursuit of justice in the death of Sandra Bland on the part of the state. If they have charged him with lying in saying he had reason to pull Sandra from her car, then logic would follow that they should charge him with wrongful arrest, official oppression and assault & battery for what followed. Seeing as they have not done that, I am left to conclude that the slap-on-the-wrist charge they have entered against him is only means of delaying the justice that others seek through a civil trial, as well as distracting from calls for a DOJ investigation.

It is to be noted that the Criminal Trial and whether it will be completed in a timely manner is also cause for concern. Currently, Brian Encinia is set to be arraigned in the courtroom of Judge McCaig. This seems to be necessary because Brian Encinia’s attorney, Larkin Eakin, is husband to the County Court at Law Judge June Jackson. As a result, it appears that Encinia’s criminal trial needed to be moved to the District Courtroom of Judge Albert McCaig, who was elected on a tea party ticket that espoused racism and xenophobia, and was also the judge who recently oversaw the mistrial in the officer involved homicide of Yvette Smith in Bastrop County. One must wonder why, if he lives in Katy and is based out of Austin DPS, would Brian Encinia choose a Hempstead attorney who was married to the County Court at Law Judge if not to precipitate this series of events.

The second topic of discussion that I discerned in the Civil Trial status hearing yesterday was the long disputed Rangers Report. The FBI was in possession of a copy of the report that they had brought with them. Yet, in opening it, Judge Hitner discovered that it was excessively redacted, blacking out even the name of the officer at the scene, and told them to diminish the redactions and bring him a better copy on Monday. The FBI agreed to do so.

The third topic of discussion was the state’s desire to sever Brian Encinia from Waller County and cause there to be two separate trials. One trial against Waller County and the other against Brian Encinia. The attorney for Waller County argued that this was necessary with a deeply flawed analogy. He said that keeping the charges against Waller County connected to the charges against Brian Encinia was like holding an officer who had picked up an injured person and driven them to the hospital responsible for their injuries if they slipped and fell at the hospital. Larry Rogers, Jr., pointed out much more calmly than I would have done, that this was one sustained continuum not separate incidences. The reality was that the Waller County’s attorney’s analogy was erroneous because Brian Enicinia did not pick up an injured Sandra Bland in order to help her and give her a ride; he injured her and arrested her in order to justify doing so; creating the circumstances under which she was held unjustly and lost her life.

The third topic of discussion I discerned was the fact that the attorney for Waller County and for the state were demanding the depositions of Sandra’s mother and sisters. It was particularly painful to hear him say that he did not care where the depositions took place, “as long as it is not in Chicago.” In other words, as long as it is not in a place where the women will feel comfortable.

Concurrently, the attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal were continuing to request the original copy of the Rangers Report that lies in their possession as is appropriate to review before the depositions. The state’s attorney was once again resistant to turning over the Rangers Report; protesting – as he had when saying the videos were already on YouTube – that the FBI was already delivering a copy of the report. It is important, however, to have both copies; especially as it is possible that they do not match.

Leaving, it seemed like a lot was still up in the air as this trial moves forward at a snail’s pace. On we journey in observing a trial between one of the large economies of the world, the state of Texas, and a grieving mother. The odds may be stacked against her, but never underestimate the power of a mother’s love and the determination of the truth to be seen and recognized. Truth is the thing, the Gospel of John says, that will set us free.

Justice delayed is not justice denied.

An Open Letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson

Dear DA Devon Anderson,

I am writing to you because I remain in possession of one of the many lives you put at risk when you and Sheriff Hickman blamed the shooting of Deputy Goforth on #BlackLivesMatter, resulting in threats being directed towards those holding vigil for Sandra Bland at the Waller County Jail.

Now, today, the Houston NAACP is honoring you as a white ally in naming you one of the 2016 Alex Award recipients for an outstanding commitment to Equal Justice and Legal Excellence.

All of the discussion that this has prompted has brought back unpleasant memories of those days of my life that caused my mother the most anxiety. Let me explain.

On July 13, when Sandra Bland’s friends found out that she had died, it caused great pain in our community of Houston. Many Houston residents were Prairie View alumni who knew, or knew of, Sandra Bland. She was the type of woman who made an impression. As uproar grew, one of those Prairie View alum, my friend Jeremyah, continuously peppered my phone with comments from his friends, and his own concerns, as well as the hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. My spirit sat heavy within me; I was deep in prayer all afternoon on July 15th, until late in the evening, my friends Nina and Rhys agreed to go out with me to the jail where Sandra died. It was simple. We lit a candle and we prayed.

Yet, that simple act became contagious. Others joined in, everyone from local farmers to a Lutheran Bishop, and we kept vigil there for 80 days. Intimidation attempts from Sheriff R. Glenn Smith escalated after the first month, and he earned himself a spot in the 2016 Texas Bum Steer Awards when he told me to go back to the Church of Satan. There was risk involved, yet what truly intensified the risk was your words on August 29th.

That week, on August 27 a member of the Katy Fire Department began toIMG_8892 publicize in a private Waller County group, the Waller County News, that he was lying in wait for us at the Waller County Jail. Other members of the group tried to help him find me by telling him what kind of car I drove, and one messaged me and tried to lure me to a local restaurant to trap me. Unfortunately for him, there was a health emergency with my Aunt Jackie that had called me away and he did not find me there. They assumed it was cowardice, my mother claimed it as Divine Providence. He returned the next day, the 28th, and did not find me then either.

That same evening, however, another family was deprived of their father and husband in the tragic and unexpected shooting of Deputy Darren Goforth.

There were clues from the outset that Deputy Goforth was actually at the gas station with his mistress, not on patrol; yet, rather than investigating that aspect, officials rushed quickly to the promote the idea that #BlackLivesMatter was at fault, which provided what they thought would be an acceptable catharsis for them in the midst of building tensions and grief.

Perhaps this decision was affected by the fact that the Officer investigating the shooting of Deputy Goforth, Sgt. Craig Clopton, was having a sexual relationship with Deputy Goforth’s mistress himself, as was Deputy Marc DeLeon and potentially others. How might that have affected their investigation? Knowing that the eyewitness to the crime was someone multiple officers were involved with. I can imagine they might want to divert attention from that fact.

The next day, on August 29th, you did a press Conference in which you and Sheriff Ron Hickman blamed the shooting on #BlackLivesMatter activists with no proof for your accusation except that Darren Goforth had his uniform on while meeting up with his mistress and the man who shot him happened to be black. Your careless rush to judgment and your call upon “the silent majority in America to support law enforcement” put many lives at risk.

The very next day, Breitbart seized upon the opportunity that your words had given them. For more than a month, we had seen reporters Lana Shadwick and Bob Price come around the Waller County Jail. All that we had given to them, however, was an unapologetic solidarity with Sandra Bland and an unapologetic commitment to the rights of people of color. We did not give them the material that they wanted in order to distort the #BlackLivesMatter movement as built on hatred of white people rather than a love for black people.

Your words gave them the excuse they had been waiting for, however, as they pulled out photos almost a month old and wrote a scathing and dishonest article about what had been going on at the Waller County Jail. They drew from what had happened on two days of what was close to 50 days to perpetrate a lie, creating a false impression that it was protestors and not Sheriff R. Glenn Smith that were carrying arsenals of machine guns around in their trucks on a daily basis.

Following that, retired law enforcement officer Nathan Ener put out a highly publicized video encouraging people to drive away or kill the #BlackLivesMatter activists at the Waller County Jail. The lack of consequences that resulted from his threats exhibited how socially acceptable racism is amongst law enforcement and officials. For Texas officials to allow that to pass only two months after Dylann Roof carried out similar orders, inspired by similar videos, at a church in Charleston was callous beyond belief.

Yet, you know who was out there in front of the Waller County Jail in the line of fire that next week? A bunch of pastors and farmers and activists. That day. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day… because Sandra Bland does not have justice yet, and her life matters.

Perhaps that is something you can think about as you receive this award for a Commitment to Equal Justice from the NAACP today. Look around you at the beautiful lives that surround you and ask yourself, do they have equal justice? Are they as safe in Texas as you are? There is room in the movement for everyone, and it is never too late to start to say: Black Lives Matter. It is never too late for true repentance, a changing of actions and not merely words.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to #SayHerName #SandraBland and demand the Department of Justice investigate Waller County. Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

The Postmortem Prosecution of Sandra Bland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were wrong.

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

They were wrong.

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

They were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Simone once sang:

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Bland should not have been followed.

Sandra Bland should not have been pulled over.

Sandra Bland should not have been threatened with a taser.

Sandra Bland should not have been taken from her car.

Sandra Bland should not have been thrown to the ground.

Sandra Bland should not have been arrested.

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

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

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

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

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Why We Say Her Name: Sandra Bland

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

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

This is why we say: Sandy still speaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Bland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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