credit: Ashley Anderson
Every week, there is a new case of police brutality in the news. Every week, we are expected to put the victim on trial and scour his life story for evidence that he "deserved" his own murder.
Last Friday, 28-year-old Sandra Bland forgot to use her turn signal to signify a lane change while driving down a Texas street. Three days later, she was found dead while in police custody.
If Bland had been a black man, by now authorities and the media would have suggested that she was a criminal or a thug. Her social media feed and background would have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb looking for "evidence" that she was an unsavory character. That is, after all, how we excuse the murders of men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We criminalize the victim while we absolve their murderers.
But Bland was not a black man. Instead of labeling the outspoken #blacklivesmatter advocate and former sorority girl a "thug," the authorities had to dig a little deeper. And what authorities and the media settled on was the same accusation that has been leveled against women since the dawn of time — or at least the patriarchy. Black men are thugs but Bland, according to the Waller County district attorney, was mentally ill.
Authorities didn't entirely manufacture this scenario, of course. Bland spoke openly on social media a few months ago about dealing with depression and PTSD. This was quickly latched on to by the district attorney and the media to "explain" her otherwise inexplicable suicide.
Now, I don't know what happened to Sandra Bland, but I do know that Waller County, Texas has an abysmal record of police targeting black men and women. In fact, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith was fired from his prior position for racially-motivated mistreatment of prisoners.
I also know that accusations of being "crazy" have long been leveraged against women. If Bland was murdered for being an outspoken woman of color, it wouldn't be the first time that a woman has been murdered in the name of being "crazy."
The official account from Waller County is that what happened to Bland is her own fault, from beginning to end. Smith said that Bland was arrested for assault on a public servant after kicking an officer as he was about to issue her a written warning. Had Bland simply cooperated with law enforcement, she would have gotten off with a warning and would never have gone to jail at all.
Except, of course, that video captured by an onlooker doesn't show Bland committing assault. It clearly shows Bland laying motionless on the ground with an officer's knee and body on top of her while another officer assists. While Bland is visibly upset and questions the officers' treatment of her, she makes no movements, violent or otherwise. Instead, as she lays motionless on the ground, she tells officers that they slammed her head into the ground and hurt her arm. "You don't even care," she said. When the officer got her up to put her into his patrol car, she cooperated fully, and even thanked the person videotaping the arrest.
Still, we are expected to believe that Bland was locked up last Friday for assault of a police officer. From there, the story gets even stranger. Bland, who had just moved to Texas to start a new job at her alma mater, spoke to her family from jail last weekend. Her family arranged to post her $5,000 bond and Bland knew she would be getting out quickly. According to her family, Bland thought her arm was broken, and she was very upset by what had happened, but she still managed to laugh on the phone. She showed no signs of acute distress or a mental health crisis.
While Bland was in jail, her behavior was also unremarkable, according to authorities. On Monday morning, the day she was expected to be released on bail, breakfast was delivered to her at 7 a.m. Around 8 a.m., she spoke to a staff member over an intercom about making a phone call. An hour later, she was found dead. The medical examiner ruled her dead by asphyxiation, and stated that she hung herself from a partition on the ceiling using a garbage bag from the trash can. Or, at least, he "thought" he saw a mark on her neck and a garbage bag hanging from the ceiling.
In case the idea of a woman with a possibly broken arm hanging herself with a garbage bag on the day of her release from jail for a minor offense seems unbelievable to you, don't worry, the story gets even weirder. According to authorities, prison records indicate that Bland made bail and was released the morning of her death.
There is so much wrong with this story that I barely know where to begin. What I do know is that an independent medical exam needs to be performed on Bland's body immediately, and that no one from Waller County should be allowed anywhere near any surveillance footage or computer records. I also know that forgetting to use a turn signal can now be added to the never-ending list of reasons why a black person can die while in police custody.
It's possible, of course, that Bland committed suicide. It's improbable, but it's possible. It's also possible that even if she did commit suicide, it was related to suffering a head injury at the hands of police or even the despair she might have felt over the impact of an assault charge on the new life she was building in Texas. But it's also possible that Bland suffered foul play, and that her openness about her mental health is being used to cover up her murder. And that's bullshit.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter much whether Bland killed herself or was murdered. In both cases, she died because she was hauled into custody for a minor offense that hardly merited being pulled over to begin with. Maybe her head injury led to uncharacteristic behavior, or maybe the traumatic arrest triggered a severe PTSD episode, or maybe someone flat-out killed her. But, in every case, she died because she was in that police cell.
Every week, there is a new case of police brutality in the news. Every week, we are expected to put the victim on trial and scour his life story for evidence that he "deserved" his own murder. Every fucking week, we are told to trust our police officers and to overlook the startlingly high number of people murdered by police in 2015 alone. It's 518 today, but it will be higher by the time you read this.
And every week, we take to social media and we argue over logistics and race, and sometimes we hold protests, and sometimes we even burn shit down. But nothing ever changes, and every week a new black name is added to the list of the dead, until they form a mantra of brutality too long and too disturbing for any of us to bear.
But here's the thing. I have a choice whether to bear this brutality because I am white. If it hurts too much to consider that our criminal justice system is racist and broken, I can walk away from the Internet and it will end — for me. But Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland didn't have that choice. They died because they sold cigarettes on the street, played with a toy gun, and forgot to use their turn signal. They died because we allowed a broken system to kill them. They died because we are part of that system. They died and we let the system that killed them keep right on killing.
I didn't know how to change the enormity of what is broken when I protested for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. I protested because it was something tangible that I could do to make it clear that what we are doing is wrong. But those protests didn't do anything but send a message — and messages aren't enough when people are dying.
I still don't know how each one of us can actually make this broken system stop killing black men and women. But I know that Sandra Bland wasn't crazy and I won't allow her identity and her experience to be washed away in defense of her murder.
I know it's not enough. Maybe it's meaningless. But today, Sandra Bland, I want you to know that your mental health didn't define you. You were not crazy. You did not deserve your death.
We failed you, and we have failed ourselves.