Geneva Reed-Veal has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Texas state Trooper Brian Encinia for the arrest of her daughter, Sandra Bland, in Harris County. Bland was found dead in her jail cell three days after her July 10th arrest. Bland’s grieving mother is beginning to make good on her vow to “find out what happened to my baby.” “This means war,” said Reed-Veal at her daughter’s funeral.
But Reed-Veal is not the only one angry and demanding justice. Bland’s death has touched a nerve among the public, particularly people of color.
When Bland’s story first emerged, I watched one of her “Sandy Speaks” videos, which are short clips she posted of herself commenting on social issues. She had a wide, warm smile and twinkling eyes, and spoke with confidence and clarity: “If we can get enough white people to show that all lives matter, then maybe they’ll stop killing our black brothers.” I immediately loved her. And I mourned the loss of such a vibrant soul that had recorded the video just a few months earlier.
Although Bland died in a jail cell in Texas, her digital footprint has kept her alive and humanized her in a world that continues to deny the humanity of black people. Bland used the social media avenues available to her to speak out at a time when mainstream, corporate-sponsored media outlets continue to dramatically underrepresent minority voices, particularly those of African-Americans. It was only after Bland’s death that we began to seek her out and listen to her opinions. But there are thousands of African-Americans active on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites today, using the means available to them. And like Bland, they by and large reject wholesale the lie that the U.S. justice system works equally for all Americans.
So thoroughly did Bland’s case capture the public imagination that it has inspired wild conjecture that she was already dead when she was photographed for her mug shot. In order to dispel the rumors, Texas authorities released a surveillance video of her getting her photo taken. They also claimed that Harris County Jail employees received death threats.
In Ohio, just nine days after Bland’s arrest, an unarmed African-American man named Samuel DuBose was killed by University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing during a traffic stop. Prosecutors swiftly indicted Tensing on murder charges, but only after DuBose’s family demanded answers and the release of Tensing’s body-camera footage.
The fact that authorities were on the defensive in both these cases, and released video evidence, is a good thing. It means the pressure being applied across the country has started to have an impact. The system of policing that is, in theory, supposed to be based on public trust has been widely exposed as being severely corrupted by racism. Every day, new evidence emerges as people arm themselves with documentary evidence acquired through their smartphones.
Even U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has openly sided with police, was moved enough by the circumstances under which Bland was arrested that she said, “It shows the frustration that many minority communities feel when they feel that, you know, maybe it wouldn’t have escalated in a different community.” But such speculation is not shared by most white Americans.
A new survey of policing in the U.S. found that great disparities continue to exist between black and white perceptions. African-Americans are “nearly four times as likely as whites to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an extremely or very serious problem.” In contrast, “[t]wo-thirds of whites label police use of deadly force as necessary and nearly 6 in 10 say race is not a factor in decisions to use force.”
This disconnect is reflected in the skewed priorities of mainstream media and its coverage of police violence, compared with, say, the killing of a Zimbabwean lion. On July 29, The Washington Post ran an op-ed headlined, “What justice for Cecil the Lion would actually look like.” The Post’s coverage of Sandra Bland was far less clear-cut, and never invoked the idea of “justice” for her.
Mainstream media coverage of police killings is often biased in favor of police. Fox News coverage of DuBose’s death featured guests who lectured that people need to stop resisting arrest in order to survive police encounters. But it’s not just the far-right media: Even the Los Angeles Times has been guilty of skewed coverage. Writing about the autopsy of Skid Row resident Charly Leundeu Keunang, who was killed by Los Angeles Police Department officers, the paper chose the headline, “Autopsy shows man shot six times, had meth in system.” In fact, as GQ’s Jeff Sharlet pointed out, the news actually worthy of reporting was that the police officer involved “pressed his gun into the chest of an unarmed man and shot him through the heart.” Sharlet rightly complained that “the L.A. Times devotes more ink to the effects of small amounts of meth and marijuana than to the effects of a police officer pressing his gun directly into Charly’s chest and pulling the trigger.”
When honesty and clarity from police departments and the media is not standard operating procedure, people will imagine the worst. And they will rely less and less on institutions and more on their own networks and communities. Which is why so many people are convinced that Bland was murdered by Harris County officials in jail.
But in truth, many of us are heartbroken at the idea that Bland may indeed have killed herself. If she did, that does not absolve the state of Texas, for Bland died in state custody, either by her own hands or someone else’s. When you are in police custody, you are their responsibility. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards blamed Harris County Jail authorities for not checking on Bland every hour, as they were supposed to. A black Texas legislator named Garnet Coleman went even further, saying the original traffic stop was a “catalyst” for Bland’s death. She should never have been pulled over to begin with. And, when pulled over, she should never have been arrested. Bland’s arrest set off a chain reaction of events that led to her death, and for that the state of Texas appears to deserve blame. The question is, will anyone be held accountable, and will there be justice for Bland?
Black women dying in jails around the country should not be a trend. But it is. Five black women have died mysteriously in custody since the middle of July alone. A new study found a dramatic increase in the rates of suicide in jails. More than a third of all jail deaths are attributable to suicide, and those numbers have jumped since 2009. Today, 15 out of 100,000 people in the general public commit suicide. In jail, that number jumps to 41 out of 100,000. Something about our jail system is literally killing people. People like Sandra Bland.
As we come upon the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., it is a good time to take stock of the victories achieved by the myriad movements for racial justice since Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry. Sadly, there have been very few wins. Among them are the conviction of Mary O’Callaghan, a white female officer of the LAPD, who was charged with assaulting an African-American woman named Alesia Thomas in 2012. Thomas died shortly after the brutal assault. Despite the conviction—which was for assault, not murder—O’Callaghan will only serve 16 months in jail, and could be out in five with good behavior.
Meanwhile, Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson walks free. And in Texas, Brian Encinia has simply been placed on administrative leave, but continues to remain gainfully employed. To be fair, Ray Tensing in Ohio, and the six officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, are facing murder charges. But so far, they are simply charges. Until there are convictions and sentences so serious that all cops think twice before shooting unarmed black Americans, there will be no victory. And what best constitutes victory is justice.
DuBose’s friend Donte Fleming distilled what the fight for racial justice is really about, saying, “Hopefully this will be the turning point when the rest of the world starts to understand that our lives matter,” he said. “We love our children and our husbands and our fathers and our uncles just as much as they do. We deserve the right to live and be free.”