The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Friday announced it was joining the probe into the disturbing death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in police custody in Texas on Monday.
An investigation was launched on Wednesday by the Texas Rangers, a branch of the state's Department of Public Safety, after a campaign spread demanding answers about the young woman's death under the hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland.
Bland, who had just moved to Texas from Naperville, Illinois for a new job at her alma mater of Prairie View A&M University, was arrested July 10 for an alleged assault on an officer during a traffic stop and detained in Waller County Jail. After three days behind bars, Bland was dead in her cell.
Authorities said her death was a suicide. But those who knew Bland said it was "unfathomable" that Bland would harm herself.
Friends and family have said they believe her death was a case of foul play in an area with a deeply prejudiced history. A former Waller County judge, DeWayne Charleston, described it as "the most racist county in the state of Texas."
At a press conference in Chicago on Thursday, family members said they would be traveling to Texas to meet with the investigators.
"To know Sandy was to love her," said her sister, Sharon Cooper. "It is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our minds around."
In an interview with Democracy Now! on Friday, Cooper said, "Each one of us feels like we lost a part of ourself. And it's hard. It's going to be hard for a very long time."
During the same interview, Bland's friend Cheryl Nanton said, "I do suspect there was foul play, and I believe that we all are 100 percent in belief that she did not do harm to herself."
"We’re very suspicious," added another friend, LaVaughn Mosely. "And we’re a very tight community, and we’re very upset that this is happening, and it seems like there’s nothing really being done about it."
The call for justice was amplified after cell phone footage emerged showing a portion of Bland's arrest and brutal treatment by Texas state troopers.
In the video, Bland can be heard telling her arresting officer, "You just slammed my head into the ground, do you not even care about that? I can't even hear! You slammed me into the ground and everything!" As the officer takes her to the patrol car, Bland thanks the bystander who filmed her arrest.
Shauna Dunlap, a spokesperson for the Houston chapter of the FBI, told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday that the agency would look at the data compiled during the local inquiry and "if warranted could pursue a federal investigation."
"I talked to her Friday and she was in good spirits," Mosely told USA Today on Friday. "Although she was incarcerated she was in good spirits. She was looking forward to posting bond Saturday and getting out. So you don't go from that to hanging yourself."
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said his office was "actively consulting with and monitoring the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers into Ms. Bland's death. Once the investigation is complete the matter will be turned over to a Waller County grand jury for any further proceedings deemed appropriate by them."
Bland was an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, producing a series of videos entitled "Sandy Speaks" in which she discussed her experiences of racism and the continuing fight for justice. In a clip shown on Democracy Now!, Bland stated, "For those of you questioning why was he running away, well, [bleep], because in the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops and still be killed."
The system of "cradle to grave racism" previously described by Judge Charleston is also present in its jails. Juan Thompson at The Intercept looked in-depth at the similarities between Bland's death and that of James Harper Howell IV, detained at Waller County Jail in 2012. Like Bland, Howell was arrested violently and died in his cell under suspicious circumstances. Like Bland, officials termed it a suicide.
As Bland's story unfolded and the history of Waller County came to light, Twitter users launched the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody to highlight and dispel the oft-used narratives that follow the deaths of unarmed black men and women that occur in police custody:
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody I did not kill myself. I did not resist arrest. I did not reach for a weapon. I was not disrespectful.
— MISS AMOR (@sailorimg) July 17, 2015
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody I did not take my own life. I did not have a weapon. I did not physically assault an officer. I did not resist.
— Zora Neale Baéston (@bdoulaoblongata) July 17, 2015
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody question everything. Don't believe a word they say. Demand the truth by any means necessary.
— ShordeeDooWhop (@Nettaaaaaaaa) July 17, 2015
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody raise hell. Just know I didn't resist nor was I armed.
— Blocka Flocka Flame (@GregariousAli) July 16, 2015
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody know that I was afraid and the officer was not.
— kimorocka7 (@kimorocka7) July 17, 2015
Kerry McLean, a human rights lawyer based in New York City, said Bland's death was "unfortunately all too familiar to African Americans. There have been [instances] of Blacks mysteriously dying while in police custody for generations. Sandra Bland's death is a reminder for some that even if you are a woman, or upwardly mobile, ultimately all that matters to the police is your Blackness. Respectability will not save you."
Invoking the names of several other black women who died in police custody, McLean concluded, "We need justice. For Sandra Bland, for Kindra Chapman, for Sheneque Proctor and so many more. We need an end to racist police violence."
In another video on her Facebook page, Bland states plainly, "Being a black person in America is very, very hard. Black lives matter. They matter."