Friday, July 17, 2015

What Really Happened to Sandra Bland?

Sandra Bland known as "Sandy" to her family
July 17, 2015.

It's been one year to the day since NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal choke hold on an already-subdued Staten Island resident named Eric Garner as he pleaded "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" before dying in the street like an animal.

Despite video evidence taken at the scene, a Staten Island grand jury heard the evidence and failed to indict Pantaleo and he's still on active duty with the NYPD to this day.

Sadly, today also marks one week since Sandra Bland, a 28 year-old African-American woman from Napersville, Illinois (pictured left) was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failure to signal a lane change at about 4:30pm on July 10th.

What happened between the time the trooper approached her vehicle and Bland and the trooper got into some kind of verbal disagreement still isn't clear, but video footage of a portion of the traffic stop that was taken by a bystander shows Bland face down in the grass on the side of the road with a member of law enforcement on top of her with his knee in her back holding her down while other unidentified officers stand around over her.

Sandra Bland on the right with an officer on top of her
In the video Bland can be heard arguing about having been slammed to the ground by the trooper and according to an article in The Chicago Tribune posted last evening, Bland's older sister Sharon Cooper stated:

“We understand that she was stopped,” Cooper said. “We understand that she felt that she was handled very harshly. That she was handled in a way that was overzealous from her perspective.”

How Bland's failure to use a turn signal to make a lane change elicited that kind of response still isn't clear either, but according to a statement by a spokesman for the Texas Department of Safety, Erik Burse, Bland was about to be released with a warning but she allegedly kicked the officer at the scene.

Waller County Jail where Sandra Bland's life ended
Bland was eventually handcuffed, placed in a cruiser and taken to the Waller County Sheriff's Office & County Jail located in Hempstead, Texas about 50 miles northwest of Houston (pictured left).

Bland was booked for "assault on a public servant" and placed in one of two "tanks" inside the jail facility specifically reserved for women; and it was there she was found dead about 9am Monday morning less than three days after her roadside confrontation with the trooper.

What happened to Bland inside that jail is still a mystery but her death has sparked global outrage and demands for answers from citizens, politicians (including Texas State Senator Royce West and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee), clergy and activist organizations including the local Houston chapter of the NAACP.

Tricia Bentley, a spokesperson for the Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences in Houston where an autopsy of Bland's body was conducted on Tuesday, said the cause of death was ruled suicide by hanging.

Statements from Waller County officials indicate Bland was given breakfast at 7am Monday morning and the last time guards saw her alive was about 8am when she asked them about using a phone through an intercom. She was later found about 9am with a garbage bag tied around her neck that had been secured to a partition in the ceiling of the jail cell.

But it's not just the strange circumstances of Bland's death, it's also the county where it occured.

According to an article by St. John Barned-Smith published in The Houston Chronicle earlier this morning, "Waller County has a complicated racial history. With a largely rural population, the county still ranked among the state's highest in a study from the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that tallied lynchings from 1877 to 1950, with 15 documented cases. And the current sheriff was suspended as Hempstead police chief in 2007 for racist behavior."

Waller County Sheriff Glenn R. Smith
The Sheriff in question, Glenn R. Smith (pictured left) who also spoke at a press conference about the incident last week, is part of Waller County's "complicated racial history" too.

According to an article by Eric Hanson published in The Houston Chronicle back in April, 2008, Smith was fired from his job as Hempstead police chief following allegations leveled against him and four officers of police misconduct towards African-Americans during a "mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police."

After being fired as police chief Smith was selected as the Republican candidate for Waller County Sheriff and won.

When his removal from office was brought up by a reporter at a press conference on Thursday, Smith dismissed the allegations of racism as being politically motivated and insisted that "Black lives matter to Glenn Smith." 

Interestingly Smith isn't the only official involved in the investigation of Sandra Bland that seems to be part of Waller County's "complicated racial history" either.

Waller County DA Elton Mathis
District Attorney Elton Mathis, the Waller County prosecutor handling Bland's case, was publicly accused in June of sending some troubling and threatening text messages to Reverend Walter Pendleton according to an article by Bobby Blanchard posted on The Houston Chronicle Website on June 3rd.

Whether the text messages are threatening or not isn't clear, but they are rather disturbing considering they were sent by a DA in response to a request that he provide information to clarify allegations that he tends to prosecute African-Americans at a much higher rate than whites in Waller County.

Mathis did announce that he will request that a grand jury review the evidence to see if charges should be brought in response to regards to Sandra Bland's death.

Regardless it's not any one single thing in this case that makes it so controversial, after all Waller County is near the campus of the predominantly-black Prairie View A&M and in the past there have been allegations that county officials actively blocked black college students from voting.

It's a combination of the fact that two major officials involved with the investigation in Waller County have had charges of racial bias leveled against them before.

Plus in comments made in interviews and during a press conference held by the members of Bland's family, and in a number of messages posted on social media by her friends and former college classmates, all who knew her insist she was not suicidal or prone to the kind of deep depression that would lead her to take her own life by hanging herself with a garbage bag.

She was a gifted and active student and a graduate of Prairie View A&M, and she'd just gotten a new job at her alma mater; which is where she was headed when she was stopped by the Texas state trooper last Friday.

To add to the intrigue, she was also an active supporter of Black Lives Matter and used her Facebook page to protest against police violence against, and mistreatment of people of color.

Given the fishy circumstances of her death and the intensity of global media attention to this case at a time when the high-profile deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of overzealous police is already such a major domestic issue, we can expect to hear much more about the facts of this case in the coming days as members of Bland's family and their attorney head to Hempstead to get answers about what happened inside the Waller County Jail last Monday morning.

In the wake of media pressure, demands for answers from politicians and petitions signed by thousands of people around the nation, the Texas Department of Safety has called on the FBI to review the evidence as it emerges.

Regardless it's yet another case of members of local Texas law enforcement reacting with excessive physical force against an unarmed African-American woman that is totally disproportionate to the relatively minor infraction for which she was stopped.   

Frankly it's a disgrace that a minor traffic citation like an illegal lane change would lead to someone being arrested, let alone loosing their life.

It's a sad statement about where we are as a nation as Sandra Bland becomes yet another member of The Counted.

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