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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

Sandra Bland was not perfect. Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Bland: 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.

Sandra Bland: Fighting For Life, Both Hers & Yours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Hannah Bonner

St. John’s Downtown, Houston, Texas

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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A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

“I cannot wait until I am in a different appointment, so that I can preach the way that you do.”

I cocked my head to the side, a little puzzled. I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God as the guest preacher at a predominantly white gathering. It is true that serving as the first white pastor on the staff of a predominantly African American congregation means I am accustomed to receiving a consistent flow of interesting statements and questions from those both inside and outside of our congregation. But the clearly articulated assumption that my situation somehow gives me immunity to the consequences and discomfort of addressing injustice made me pause.

After that pause, my response was very simple, “Actually, I’ve always preached this way. No matter where I’ve served. You can preach this way anywhere. It is possible.”

When I first became clergy at the age of twenty-six, I was appointed to two small congregations in rural Maryland, in the beautiful marshes of the Chesapeake. When the appointment was made, my District Superintendent presented the congregations with a resume that led them to expect anyone but a small, blonde woman to walk through their doors. It informed them that I had served an African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina; been part of multiple anti-racism trainings and efforts; and most recently served a diverse, urban congregation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, or appropriately, the city of Coatesville, that I was leaving, shared an ignoble distinction with this community in Maryland, which I can only assume was an act of coincidence or divine intervention. The distinction is that Coatesville was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Pennsylvania; while Princess Anne was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Maryland. In the case of Coatesville, it was Zachariah Walker in 1911; in the case of Princess Anne, it was George Armwood in 1933. Both of them accused of crimes; but more importantly, both of them innocent for all eternity, denied their right to be proven guilty or not.

The way that I found out about the lynching of George Armwood was not from my District Superintendent or from a history book. The way that I heard the story was, instead, over coffee with a man who explained to me that he had relatives who had been a part of the mob. He had relatives who had told him about watching George Armwood die. He presented the facts with little value judgment given; to this day, I do not know with certainty how he felt about those who had taken part in the murder.

What I do know is the reason why the conversation, and many more like it, came up. That reason is the same reason for my colleague’s recent response: I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God.

It is true that I preach that way in Houston, Texas, at St. John’s Church, one of the largest predominantly African American congregations in Methodism. But it is also true that I preached that way in the pulpits I served in Durham, North Carolina; Dames Quarter & Oriole, Maryland; Coatesville, Wayne, & Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and any other places I have traveled. The truth of the matter was that I spoke to my congregations and audiences about these realities not because we did not care for one another; I spoke to them about hard truths because I loved them and they loved me, and we all deserved the space to talk and think about how to act in order to love others better.

I do not lead a charmed life where there are no consequences for what I do and say. The reality is that there are consequences, and I have and will pay them.

I must also acknowledge, however, that I preach this way because I can; I am able to say things from the pulpit as a white person with privilege that it would be much more difficult for my colleagues who are people of color to say without different repercussions, pressures and stresses.

For this reason, I also acknowledge that I preach this way because I must. I preach this way, in whichever pulpit I stand, because when I search “Cross-Racial Clergy” on Facebook, I am confronted with a virtual monument which will last for as long as God and Mark Zuckerberg will allow. It is the profile of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Joyce Anderson, in whose eyes my youthful exuberance often caused both a smile and a sigh. A smile because she was a loving person; a sigh because I did not really understand the difficulty of her life as “Cross-Racial Clergy.” I wish I could tell her that I understand better now; I wish I could tell her that I am still listening to her and that her experiences and witness have not been silenced by death.

In her last blog post, exactly 3 months before she passed away from cancer, Joyce wrote:

“During Black History Month worship services in white churches I have experienced White members passively, but passionately, apologizing to me for the centuries of oppression, suppression, and dehumanization against my African ancestors.  This always made me uncomfortable, because the fact is that those acts were everything but passive. They were blatant acts of cruelty and violence. They were done with calculated evil and conviction, supported by carefully legislated laws, and laced with thin and blasphemous attempts at corroborating them with Biblical principles. The true offense was, and still is, against God.  If anyone needs an apology, it’s God.”

These are the feelings that Joyce endured as she struggled to remain polite in a church culture where the silence of we, her white colleagues, caused the burden to be too heavy and change to seem too far away. We perpetuate this reality when we, as white leaders, are more concerned about the comfort of our congregations than we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our colleagues who are persons of color.

Several years ago, Bishop Kenneth Carder explained to a group of students at Duke that it is not the role of women alone to make churches ready for female pastors; male pastors must also preach as if equality was their responsibility. I raised my hand and asked him a question that he was glad to answer in the affirmative: should not the same also be true for white pastors who bear the responsibility to prepare their congregations to love, accept and follow pastors of any race or ethnicity?

This is the reason why we must preach as if lives depend on it; because somebody’s life does.

I have been quiet for the past few months; unable to write since the blog I posted about standing in a street still stained with the blood of Michael Brown. My ears were still ringing with Justin Hansford’s explanation that this disregard for Michael’s body, this lengthy exposure and exhibition of it, was – in effect – a modern lynching. The body sending a traumatic message to the community where it was left to lie.  It has been my time to listen, rather than speak; to read, rather than write; to follow, rather than lead.

The question was raised by someone a couple months back of whether it was right for me to stand, on occasion, in the pulpit of a predominantly African American church during such a time as this. I have done a good deal of thinking about it. And I know that it is, in fact, for just such a time as this that I stand where I stand. That I speak, after listening. That I write, after reading. That I lead, in the very act of following.

This is where God and the Pastors of St. John’s have asked me to stand. This is where we have chosen to stand together.

Have the courage to join us. Not only in knowing when to speak, but also in knowing when to be silent – when to listen, to read, to follow.  Then, when it is your time, speak truth; in whichever pulpit, podium, or desk you stand; with whichever congregation, classroom, or context you address; carrying whichever fears and apprehensions you bear.

“I say come ye ye who still have hope
That we can still survive now
Let’s work together as we should
And fight to stay alive

I say come ye ye who would have love
It’s time to take a stand
Don’t mind abuse it must be paid
For the love of your fellow man”
Nina Simone