At 4:30 p.m. on July 10, exactly one year after a state trooper stopped Sandra Bland on Prairie View’s University Drive, a group gathered to sing, speak and mourn along the grimly significant shoulder of the street that now bears Bland’s name.
Bland, a Prairie View A&M University graduate who was returning from Chicago for a new job at her alma mater, had built an online following with her “Sandy Speaks” videos, sharing defiantly upbeat messages about seeking justice, ending police brutality and affirming the value of black lives in America. In just a few moments on the side of the road — State Trooper Brian Encinia told her she’d changed lanes without signaling — she was forced from her car, pinned to the ground, handcuffed and driven to the jail. A bystander with a cell phone and Encinia’s dashcam caught the events on tape.
Three days later, Bland was found dead in her cell in the Waller County Jail. Police and a medical examiner said that she committed suicide by hanging herself with a plastic bag.
A crowd of 50 or so gathered to mark that chain of events on Sunday. Slam poets from Houston, Bland’s former Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sisters, and Prairie View student activists all paid tribute to Bland and the struggle to end police violence. Though it had been planned long in advance, the ceremony came at a particularly raw moment for the movement: five days after Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police while pinned to the ground in a Baton Rouge parking lot. Four days after Philando Castile was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop and his girlfriend livestreamed the aftermath. Three days after a sniper in Dallas opened fire on a police brutality protest, targeting police officers and killing five.
Appropriately, the first to speak on Sunday was Bland herself. Hannah Adair Bonner, a United Methodist minister from Houston who took part in an 80-day camp-out at the Waller County Jail after Bland’s death, held a cellphone against a mic, playing one of Bland’s last videos. In the video, Bland addresses white commenters who called her racist or reminded her that “all lives matter.”
“White people, if all lives mattered, would there need to be a hashtag for black lives mattering?” she asks. “We can’t help but get pissed when we see situations where it’s clear that the black life didn’t matter. … Show me in American history where all lives have mattered. Show me where there has been liberty and justice for all.”
Looking back on the year since Bland’s death, Bonner recounted activists’ victories, including the new Sandra Bland Parkway signs — “If they don’t want to say her name, they have to hear Siri say it if they want to get on this road,” she quipped — and Encinia’s firing from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Bonner also challenged white Christian pastors to start talking about police brutality in their congregations.
After the roadside service concluded, Bonner offered communion and began a three-day encampment outside the jail alongside other activists, to run until the anniversary of Bland’s death on Wednesday morning.
Joshua Muhammad, an engineering student at Prairie View read a list of goals for the next year. Among them: a speedy conclusion to Encinia’s appeal, which administrators in Austin have repeatedly delayed, and which must be resolved before the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bland’s family against Encinia and county officials can move forward. Surrounded by other members of the Prairie View student group Join the Movement, Muhammad also called for a new conflict resolution center and more local investment in a historically black university that he said has long been controlled from the outside. Hardly any businesses in town are locally owned, he said, and the campus is policed by five different agencies. “We don’t live in a community,” he said. “We live in a colony.”
Many spoke to their lingering doubts about the official story of Bland’s jail suicide, and said they were angry at officials, including Sheriff Glenn Smith and District Attorney Elton Mathis, who first asked for patience and trust in the process, and have since betrayed that trust by lashing out at protesters. DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County justice of the peace, said the investigation has fallen far short of the transparency officials had guaranteed.
Charleston recalled Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s remark, after the Dallas sniper attack, that Black Lives Matter demonstrators were “hypocrites” for seeking help from police. “Dan Patrick, who came in three days after Sandra Bland was discovered killed in her jail and said that it would be an open investigation,” recalled Charleston. “What a hypocrite.”
Most of the two-hour ceremony was devoted to poets and singers, who honored Bland and bared fears that they, or their loved ones, will share her fate. Houston poet Chris Crawford was among them, delivering a poem she wrote soon after Bland’s death: “Dear God, please never let me become a hashtag,” she said. “I pray that there are never any marches of protest seeking justice for me. I pray never to be the reason for a candlelight vigil. I pray never to become the face of a movement.”
Demonstrators led by the Austin Justice Coalition will mark the anniversary of Bland’s death in Austin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, with a march from the Victory Grill to the state Capitol.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.