100 Days With Sandra Bland… And Counting

There’s an image burned into my memory that never goes away. I see it more and more this week as I approach the 100th Day of standing in solidarity with Sandra Bland. When I close my eyes, I see two women sitting side by side, one in a black and white patterned dress, the other in something less subdued, yellow, I think. But I don’t really see the clothes; it’s not the clothes that matter, or the hair, or the shoes. All I really see are the eyes. Overflowing with a kind of grief that I had never seen before.

I had not come to Hope AME on Day 5 prepared to say anything, but had been asked to give a prayer. As I stepped to the pulpit and looked down into the eyes of Shante Needham and Sharon Cooper, the oldest sisters of Sandra Bland, I felt my world shift. When my eyes locked with their eyes, ten words I had not planned to say tumbled out of my mouth, gently but firmly, and hit the pulpit like a gavel striking on velvet: “I’ll do this as long as you need me to.”

Nine days earlier, not far outside the doors of the very church where we gathered, their young, vibrant sister, Sandra Bland, had been taken from her car. She had been threatened, she had been thrown to the ground, she had been arrested. Whatever the charges said, her main crime was not a crime at all, but something the women I respect most strive to practice on a daily basis: the refusal to prioritize a man’s ego over our rights and dignity.

Yet, even so, what happened to Sandra Bland would not have happened to me; because when my parents gave “the talk” to their white daughter it was about how to avoid getting a ticket when pulled over, not about how to stay alive. The “get home safe talk” is not a conversation white parents have to have with their children; which is why I have limited patience for conversations about what Sandra should have done to avoid police brutality as a black woman, because there should not be a different set of rules for her and for me. Yet, there is. And police brutality should not be something she should have to learn how to avoid, because police brutality is something that simply should not exist.

None of those things were running through my head, however, when I looked down into Sharon’s eyes and Shante’s. All I could think about was the pain they were enduring, and the fact that they should not have to be there to pick up the body of their baby sister.

IMG_6443Sandra’s voice in her first #SandySpeaks video was still ringing in my head from the first night, five days earlier, that I had gone to the Waller County Jail with my friends Rhys Caraway and Nina Bernardin to #SayHerName and ask #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. Sandy had said in her first video, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help. I need you.” She did not know at the time why those words would become so necessary.

Seven weeks later, I found myself standing late at night outside that church, at the memorial that still remains at the scene of Sandra’s arrest. I had not planned to be there, but a friend from out of town had wanted to come. So, after letting her fill me with tacos and sweet tea, I had made the drive out to Waller County for the second time that day.IMG_9475

In the hushed darkness, we lit a candle, and I quickly realized that we had not come there because my out of town guest needed to come; we had come there because I needed to come. Focusing in prayer, I felt my world shift again. I realized that I had promised Sandra’s sisters that I would stand with Sandra, but now I was finding myself promising Sandra that I would also stand with her sisters. Standing in front of the huge, laminated photo of Sandra’s smiling face affixed to the tree, surrounding by stuffed animals and candles, I found myself promising her, “I’ll be there for them. Whatever they need from me.”

Not many weeks more passed before I actually was there with them, in Chicago, at Sandra’s home congregation of DuPage AME. I was not in an easy spot personally. For many weeks through record breaking temperatures in Texas, I had asked myself how long I could do this physically. That night in front of Sandra’s memorial I had found my peace to that question. Yet, now a new question had arisen, which was how long could I do this emotionally? Sitting in the pew, about half way back on the right, I looked up at the large stained glass behind the pulpit.

Once again, I felt my world shift.

This time it was God who challenged me. I felt in my spirit the questions coming fast: You have committed to people, to Sandra’s sisters and to Sandra, but will you commit to me? Will you stay where I have called you and where I have placed you, no matter what anyone says about you?

To quote Sandy, “I know that not everyone believes in God, and that’s alright, but on Sandy Speaks, we’re going to talk about God, because God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”

God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.

And as quickly as that, all of my questions went away. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this physically. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this emotionally. Because I knew that I had been asked if I would do this spiritually, and the answer was yes.

Sitting next to Shante, whose eyes had evoked a response from me drawing me deeper into this journey nine weeks earlier, I felt a certain peace wash over me. This was going to take a while, but it was going to be okay. The second week of solidarity with Sandra Bland, a friend had asked me in frustration whether I would be doing this for 100 days. “Of course not,” I had replied incredulously, “That would be crazy. We just need a couple weeks and we’ll have some answers.” Now I knew, that it would take much more than 100 days. It might take a year.  It might take more. Yet, I knew in my heart that I could share a year or two or more of my life with Sandra Bland. How could I not, when all of the years of her beautiful life had been taken away.

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How many tasers will it take to wake Waller County?

“We were advised by legal counsel to cancel the meeting,” Prairie View City Councilmen Jonathan Randall said to the crowd of students and Prairie View community members crowded around the front door of Prairie View City Hall on October 15 to stand in solidarity with their City Councilman, the Honorable Jonathan Miller. Community members had been told that the City Council would be discussing the arrest of the Honorable Jonathan Miller.
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Yes, that Jonathan Miller. The one who voted to rename the road where she was arrested to Sandra Bland Parkway… twice. The Jonathan Miller who has written letters to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to press for answers to what happened to Sandra Bland. The one who was mysteriously tased and arrested in his own front yard by officers who knew him well; officers who told him they knew he was “always making problems” before they tased him.

It was growing tiring to see the same faces show up in this situation as in the arrest and investigation of Sandra Bland. Yes, I am fully aware that in a small town there are not many options for who can erroneously order a City Councilman to be tasered, or who can oversee an investigation of potentially great financial importance. I know there are only six officers in Prairie View and Penny Goodie, who mocked Sandra Bland while she lay in the dirt, had a 1 in 6 chance of being the same officer who would order the Honorable Jonathan Miller to be laid down in the dirt. And I am fully aware that the District Attorney who called Sandra Bland “not a model person” would be the only District Attorney available to oversee the investigation of whether the Honorable Jonathan Miller was honorable or not. I understand it, but understanding it makes it none the less painful.

Moving into the City Council chambers, the crowd filled the seats and began to have their say. The media had been notified by the mayor that the meeting was off and informed not to come, but there was one lingering cameraman and a reporter, as well as a journalist from the LA Times. The purpose of the meeting, without much press present, actually shifted to the community truly listening to one another and dialoguing. Without cameras and microphones, and with the City Councilpersons and Mayor in the back, mostly in street clothes, there was greater transparency amongst residents. It was actually the best environment I have experienced in that room thus far.

One older woman, who asked me not to use her name or face for fear of retaliation, said the following:

Early in the morning, when I am in my bed, and I meditate and think about all the things that have been done, to my brothers and sisters by the police department and they just keep getting away with it. White supremacy is alive and well. And from time to time, I ask myself, what ever happened to the KKK? They used to be known by their white sheets and hoods, you don’t see that anymore. They did not fade into the wide blue yonder. My personal opinion? They did not just disappear. They have, I believe, infiltrated the police department. I believe they have traded in those white sheets and hood for a uniform and a badge and and a gun. And they have infiltrated the good officers. You can’t tell the bad policeman from the good officer. I honestly believe this where they have gone. Because here they can kill and get away with it. They can have their court system pick some more KKK guys, and this is just my opinion. Where did those guys go, who was once known as the KKK. You knew them when they showed up many, many years ago because they wore that distinctive uniform; and I believe they traded that uniform in for a blue uniform, a badge, and a gun.

A young Prairie View student had his say as well:

What if I tell you that the Mayor is also the Fire Chief and he had a Fireman’s Banquet and at that Banquet he honored Sheriff Glenn Smith. Or if I tell you that Waller County is the last county that emancipated slaves, but we don’t celebrate Juneteenth like we should. If I tell you that Sandra Bland was the first black body to be picked up by a white funeral home ever in Waller County. If I tell you that the first President of Prairie View A&M was a former slave of the first President of Texas A&M, then you start reevaluating where are we really? Because the true power is the power that is unseen.

Finally a Prairie View property owner raised the questions on many people’s minds about what the priorities of elected officials were:

How can he be the Mayor of our city, and the mayor of the campus, those two jobs conflict. But he does not receive a payment for being our mayor, he is a volunteer. So in your best assessment, if you had a job that you volunteered for and a job that paid you over six figures, where are your loyalties.

(*I believe he meant the use of the phrase “mayor of campus” metaphorically. Frank Jackson is the Texas A&M Vice Chancellor of Governmental Affairs after a recent promotion.)

The President of the Democrats Club of Waller County made the following remarks:

If I had been in [Jonathan’s] position, I would have considered that assault. I believe that there is no need to lolly gag on this. We need to let Officer Kelly know, we need to thank him for his service up until this point, and we need to let him know that we would be happy to accept his resignation, go ahead and get that notarized, and get that done with.”

We can pray things will move more quickly for Jonathan than they have for Sandra Bland.

95 days have passed since the death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail. 95 days of watching Waller County officials play games to delay or distort information while the family of Sandra Bland suffers without answers. 95 days of watching people change the story to try to make it fit the evidence.

After 95 days of watching and praying, it was comforting to know that there are some people in Waller County who can be honest and transparent with one another. Those people, ultimately, are the Boss of all the rest, for it is the citizens who vote that truly do the hiring and firing of elected officials. In Waller County, as in many parts of the nation, the nature of the democracy is questioned by many after years of watching the political machine work. Yet, in each and every election, the people have a choice whether they will wake up and stop being cogs in a machine.

Today, in Prairie View City Hall, the room was filled with people who had woken up. Perhaps if the machine is to be shut down, it will take an electric surge, the sizzle and flash of a taser. First there was the taser that the white, male Officer, Brian Encinia, used to threaten Sandra Bland and tear her from the safety of her car as Officer Penny Goodie pulled up to watch. Then there was the flash of light as the taser of the white, male Officer, Michael Kelly, drew blood from the back of the Honorable Jonathan Miller at the order of Officer Penny Goodie.

In both cases, officials in Waller County see “nothing to be concerned about” in the treatment of either of these young, African American, Prairie View alumni. It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that they are alone in that opinion.

The Complaint
“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” – Habakkuk 1

The Response
“There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” – Habakkuk 2

 

Why We Say Her Name: Sandra Bland

As she arrived at the security check and showed her I.D., the airport agent’s eyes welled with tears at the sight of Sandra Bland’s mother; proving that even TSA is not immune to the power of her story and presence.

This has become the new normal for the Bland family as Sandra’s voice strikes a chord in people’s hearts whose echo cannot seem to be silenced.

This is why we say: Sandy still speaks.

The young agent pulled herself together, striving to repress the overwhelming emotions that no one should have to repress. Revealing that all of us, in the end, are human.

There is something about Sandy that summons forth a response unlike any other. Something in her voice. Her passion. Her strength. Her courage. Her words hold the most vital components we can hope to see in someone fighting for justice: an unapologetic love of blackness, an unapologetic love of self, and an unapologetic love of others.

So if you fight for justice, if you long for justice: this hurts. It hurts to watch Sandra pushed to the ground and spoken to disrespectfully by Officer Penny Good while Officer Brian Encinia had his knee in her back. Sisterhood betrayed. It hurt a week ago today to watch the same officer, Officer Penny Good order another officer to shoot Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller in the back with a taser as he knelt in his own backyard. Three weeks after he had voted to reaffirm the naming of Sandra Bland Parkway; one week after he had voted to give the officers a raise. Solidarity betrayed.

This hurts. It is the kind of pain that makes you say: what’s the point? The kind of pain that makes you say: I cannot fight anymore.

Then you look up, and they walk into view. The family that formed Sandra Bland. The family that loved Sandra Bland. The family that will fight for Sandra Bland. It strikes a chord. I watched it happen time and time again as young women at the Million Man March and in the streets of Washington, D.C. lit up at the sight of them when recognition struck.

Perhaps it is because their love for Sandra is evident to anyone who takes the time to look. Perhaps it is because we all would want to be fought for like there is no other option but victory. Perhaps it is because we sense how much it must hurt to love like that and lose the one you love. Perhaps it is because we sense how hard it must be to strap on your armor and fight a battle whose terms are as unjust as the unjust and unnecessary arrest of Sandra Bland.

Perhaps it is because this whole struggle we are in as a nation is as unjust as the unjust and unnecessary arrest of Sandra Bland. Many have to drop off, many grow weary. Yet, there are warriors that remain, and in their honor, if for no other reason (although there are many), we have to #SayHerName

So when Sandra Bland’s sister, Mrs. Sharon Cooper, stepped onto the stage at the Million Man March, after 90 days straight of fighting for justice for her sister and said: “Say her name! Then you had better say say her name.

Sandra Bland.

Say it for her sisters Shante, Sharon, Shavon, and Sierra. Say it for her mother, Geneva. Say it for her brother, Willie, for her nieces and nephews.

Say it because her life mattered. Not because of any of her credentials or her education or her associations, but simply because it mattered. Like your life matters. No more, and not a single jot less.

Say it because every one of these instances of unjust law enforcing sends a message not only to the nation but to law enforcement themselves. We cannot send them the message that they can tase, arrest, strip search, beat, or kill a single one of us without repercussion.

Say it because every time you do, you lift the spirits of a family that is fighting a long and difficult battle for justice. That is important and never think it is not. Every tweet; every blog; every congregation, classroom or club that lifts her name, lifts their arms.

Say it because you understand that long and difficult is the only path available to justice when the system is rigged against you. Winning this battle cannot be based merely on keeping up with what the latest trending hashtag is so that we can seem relevant and woke. It has to include continuing to say those names until justice, and not merely awareness, is won. It has to include not being satisfied with winning the battle for public opinion, but also pursuing the battle for juries and consequences. Otherwise we become like the friends who bring casseroles to the funeral, but are not there when everyone leaves and the adrenaline subsides, and all that is left is the loneliness and the pain. As a parish pastor, I always knew that the real battle would not be the funeral; the real battle would be two months later when everyone but those closest to the pain had moved on. The real battle would be when no one called anymore, and no one visited anymore, because grief is a marathon, not a sprint, and most of us have not been in training for it. How many families has our hashtag battle left sitting alone in their kitchens heating up leftover casseroles from people who have moved on with their lives or started to #SayAnotherName ?

Say it because you intend to do something about it to honor a woman who did not believe in observing, commenting or tweeting about injustice, but rather was committed to doing something about injustice.

  • Give to the family legal fund so that they can continue the fight. Trust me, it’s important. It is like saying “I’ll help be the answer to your prayers” instead of just “I’m praying for you.” It is like saying “We are in this together” instead of just “What you are going through must be so hard.”
  • Demand the immediate termination of the officers who arrested Sandra Bland, who not only put her life into jeopardy but also all of our lives if law enforcement receives the message that this is acceptable and without concrete consequence.

Say it. Say her name. Say it because you understand that saying it will never be enough, but that silence is intolerable.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

When Bernie Promised to #SayHerName #SandraBland

To put your money where your mouth is and support Sandra’s family go to the Sandra Bland Legal Fund; keep track of the movement at SandySpeaksOn.com

“That’s Bernie Sanders,” my sister said, indicating an unpretentious man with a full head of white hair that had slipped past me and tucked himself into a table in the shadowy corner of East Street Cafe, a Thai restaurant in Washington DC’s Union Station.

“Really? Are you sure?” I asked her doubtfully, as I took another bite of my basil chicken across the table from Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal. For better or for worse, he was not a man who had quite the signature look that more polished politicians cultivate; which is probably part of his charm.

IMG_0746 (2)I honestly was not sure if it really was him, but my sister has been working around DC politicians for almost 20 years, so I took her word for it. “Someone should go talk to him. You know he has been saying Sandra Bland’s name for months. Someone should tell him you guys are here.”

I find it wise to do what my big sister tells me on the rare occasion that she tries to exert her seniority, so I pulled my chair back from the table and walked across the restaurant.

“Hello, I’m sorry, are you Mr. Sanders?” I asked.

“I am,” he replied.

“Well, I’m just over there having dinner with the mother of Sandra Bland and I thought maybe you’d like to meet her.”

“Yes, please,” he replied.

I got up to walk back towards our table only to see that Shante, Sandra’s oldest sister, was already headed towards me. She is a woman who knows how to get things accomplished, so I was not surprised to see her coming after me to see if I needed support.

Bringing Ms. Geneva back over to the table, I felt my body trembling. The trembling continued as Ms. Geneva sat down next to Senator Sanders and they began to talk. I was not trembling out of fear or out of being star-struck, it was more that I was completely blown away by the unexpectedness of it all, the sacredness of the moment, and the sincerity of all involved. You do not often get to witness moments like that. Moments when agendas are laid aside and people who might not otherwise ever have the chance to connect without cameras watching can simply honor one another’s pain and humanity.

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

“What happened to your daughter is inexcusable,” he said. “We are broken, and this has exposed us.” He then continued by promising that he would continue to #SayHerName #SandraBland and would not give up in the pursuit of justice.

The spontaneity of the moment lent sincerity to words unrehearsed, phrases unplanned, in an interaction that was never supposed to take place.

We asked Senator Sanders if we could take a picture with him and he consented. He did not impose upon Ms. Geneva to ask for a picture of his own. He did not use the moment as an opportunity to promote his campaign. He took no record, he made no statement. He did not try to turn it into a publicity stunt. He simply made space for a sacred moment, and then let it pass without trying to gain anything from it. Version 3

For that, I respect him. For that, I am grateful. That choice may not have made him a very good politician, but it made him a better man.

When we sat back down at the table, I put my head in my hands and simply continued to gentle shake. “Is she okay?” Shante asked. “Yes, she’s fine,” her mother replied, “she is just blown away.”

There have been so many moments along this journey, so very many moments, when God simply astonished me. When something happened that was so delicately balanced in the table of time that it gave me confidence that there was something truly important happening, something truly historic, something truly sacred, as the continuing story of Sandra Bland unfolds.

When each sacred moment appears and passes, it gives me renewed hope and confidence that the legacy of Sandra Bland’s struggle for justice is making it’s eternal mark in this world.

Senator Sanders was right. Her death was inexcusable; yet her legacy moves forward without yielding.

*Five days later, in the first Democratic Presidential Debate, Senator Bernie Sanders kept his promise to #SayHerName #SandraBland 

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

 

Sandra Bland In A Sea of Red: Remembering The Names We Forget

“Hey, I am from Houston,” I said recognizing the gentle face of the woman walking next to me among the families of those lost to police brutality walking together to the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March. Behind us in a sea of red shirts was Trayvon Martin’s mother, ahead of us Michael Brown’s father. To my right, was the family of Sandra Bland who had become like family to me. To my left was the beautiful woman with the long hair from the city where I lived.

“Hello, Hannah,” she said, recognizing me from advocacy meetings in the city of Houston that we both called home.

A moment of painful awareness washed over me as I realized that she remembered my name, and I did not remember hers.

It is Janet Baker, by the way. Janet Baker. Janet Baker. Janet Baker. Remember it. It is important.

She is the mother of Jordan Baker. Jordan Baker. Jordan Baker. Remember it. It is important.

“I’m so grateful to find myself beside you. God has an amazing way of bringing us to the right place,” was what I said out loud. But through my mind raced a million thoughts. Why could I not remember her name, when she could remember mine? Why was it that it had been at least a month since I had checked in on what was happening with her? What had we done lately in the city of Houston for her son, Jordan Baker?

Walking in the midst of a sea of red shirts, the parents and brothers and sisters of those still seeking justice, I felt overwhelmed both by the sorrow and the beauty of it. Mothers from different cities who had to fight for their children when no one except each other could really understand, walking arm in arm with one another at last. They have been talking. They have been building a new kind of family. They have been seeking to hear and support one another. They have been pushing back against the “hashtag survival of the fittest” struggle for the public’s attention that social media layers onto their mourning process, and they have been building community and solidarity.

Many of them carried signs with pictures, putting a face with a name for the lives that had been lost. Many names were as recognizable as the main street in your hometown; while Sandra Bland Parkway actually was a street name itself. Others, I will be honest to admit, I had not heard before. I was grateful to those who had a face to go with those names; it helps them stay in the memory.

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You cannot always explain why some hashtags take root and grow, and others have a shorter lifespan. You can say it’s because Tamir was young. You can say it’s because Sandra was educated. You can say it’s because Trayvon was innocent and hunted. All of those things are true and important, but they can be said of others as well.

Someday someone will write a doctoral thesis to explain why, in fact they have probably already started to write it, but for now we bear the responsibility of remembering that no life is more valuable than the next regardless of how long we are able to keep their name moving. The homecoming queen is not more valuable than the trap queen. The minister is not more valuable than the drug dealer. If we lose sight of that then we lose the whole battle to say that #BlackLivesMatter. Every. Single. One. Matters.

For me, that is part of what it means to honor the legacy of Sandra Bland. Because Sandra Bland understood the importance of continually taking action and continually seeking to remind people of the humanity of those names that teeter on the edge of becoming symbolic. “What if that was your uncle?” she says when alluding to Walter Scott in her #SandySpeaks video.  “I’m trying to turn this into a PRAYrade” she wrote when Ram Emmanuel led a parade for the the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory the day after a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Instead of shifting focus to the sports victory, she became creative in finding a way to use it to remind people of our responsibility to one another. She did make a poster for the parade, but it said: “Real Hawks Pray for the Emmanuel 9.”

The one thing that got her really fired up more than any other was the loss of life, and people’s indifference to it. That extended even beyond police brutality to her concern about violence in the city among young people when the weather got warm, and the homicide rate rose. Life was important to Sandra Bland. Stopping those who took the lives of another was often the focus of her videos.

Then her life was lost to us, and we still do not know exactly how.

As the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March began, Sandra Bland’s mother did get to see her daughter’s face on the screen. She did get to hear them #SayHerName as out of all the families gathered, the family of Michael Brown and the family of Sandra Bland were the ones each given one minute to speak.

She did get to hear her daughter, one of the most natural public speakers the movement has been blessed with, Mrs. Sharon Cooper speak to the thousands gathered at the Capitol saying, “The world has shown us that we need to control our own narrative… Can I ask you to do one thing: Say her name.”

Yet, it was not the victory of hearing one daughter’s voice or the other daughter’s name that dominated her mother’s thoughts for the rest of the day. It was all of the names that had been left unsaid. All of the faces that had been left unseen. All of the families that had been unheard.

She was not thinking about herself, she was thinking about the other women she had walked arm in arm with to that place. The mothers whose stories Sandra Bland had watched unfold herself as she continually sought creative ways to take action in the struggle. The mothers that Sandra Bland herself had mourned alongside as she lifted up the words: Black Lives Matter.

In the midst of walking through the greatest pain of her life, Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal still is thinking about the suffering of others. She is still strong enough to keep room in her heart for other’s losses along with her own.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. It takes a strong woman to raise a strong daughter, and this is the woman who raised Sandra Bland.

*It is important to remember that many times the reason that names fade from view is that the family becomes drained of resources in their fight for justice. Help the Bland family continue their fight: Family Legal Fund.

Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal walks hand in hand with her oldest daughter, Shante Needham.
Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal walks hand in hand with her oldest daughter, Shante Needham
Mrs. Sharon Cooper speaks at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March
Mrs. Sharon Cooper speaks at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March

Sandra Bland & The Heart of An Aunt

“It’s okay, she understands,” my sister said on the end of the line. “It will really be okay if she doesn’t get to see you. She understands that you have priorities.

Pain cut a line down from the area right behind my chin to a spot in the middle of my chest, and my breath became tight; I believe this is what they would call a lump in my throat. It struck me as unacceptable that my life would ever get to a point where my niece would think of the word priorities and her name would not show up at the top.

I blinked hard to keep the tears back. It was the weekend of my niece’s twelfth birthday; I was in the city where she lived; and she was leaving in the morning for a trip out of town. I felt my heart collapsing in on itself. I had not seen her in several months; I won’t be specific because I am embarrassed at how long it had been, but long enough to leave me wracked with guilt and a longing to have her in my arms.

Those words – “She understands that you have priorities” – rang in my head. “Exactly,” I finally replied, “that is why I need to see her.”

Climbing into the backseat of a rental car with Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal, I sat quietly to keep the tears inside. Being in the city where my niece lived was a coincidence, as we were in town to #SayHerName #SandraBland at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March.

About halfway through the drive to the hotel, a tear snuck past my guards and slid quietly down my cheek, intent on leading others to freedom.

“I hate to see you cry,” Ms. Geneva said. ‘I feel the same about you,’ was my unspoken response. It was 88 days since she had received news of the death of her daughter, Sandra Bland. 86 days since we had begun to ask “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” at the Waller County Jail where she had died.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. I just get emotional when I think about my nieces and nephews,” was my spoken response. In truth, I could never think about any of them without tearing up. To say they are important to me would be an understatement. There is no better sound than their voices on the other side of the line. There is no better sight then seeing them liking my Instagram pictures at the Waller County Jail late at night when they can’t sleep. There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing than getting to babysit them; sitting with them on either side of me, with a bowl of ice cream on my lap, and an episode of Myth Buster’s on the television.

To be honest, that is one of the strongest emotional chords that Sandra Bland struck with me. I knew what it was is to be the 4th sister in the family. I knew what it was to be the fun, young, single aunt. I knew what it was to love your nieces and nephews with a fierceness and sense of responsibility that those with children of their own cannot understand.

Last year, I said to my niece when she was going through a particularly difficult period at school, “Can you tell me, who in the world is more important to me than you?” I watched the wheels in her head turn as she realized that they are the center of my world.

When I fight for justice, I don’t just fight for Sandra Bland, I fight for her. I fight for this to be the kind of world that does not value my golden locks over her gorgeous brown tresses, courtesy of her Cuban father. I fight for this to be a world where the choke hold in which white supremacy holds our young women has been broken once and for all.

Ms. Geneva was watching me. I could feel her eyes on me. She is always watching. She hears everything. She knows when the people she loves are hurting. I tried my best to hide my pain, but you cannot hide anything from her.

“What is wrong?” she says.

“She needs to see her niece,” Shante replies from the front seat, always reading my mind without even having to look at me.

“Well, that has to happen then,” Ms. Geneva replies.

I call my sister back, who is still understandably concerned about inconveniencing Ms. Geneva. What my sister did not understand, however, was that I was with two women who loved me and who were uncompromising in making things happen for the people they loved. Hence, the reason why I feel sorry for anyone who tries to get in their way with delays and dishonesty as they seek truth and justice for their daughter and sister, Sandra Bland.

“We are taking you there,” Shante said in that tone of voice that lets me know not to argue. Leaning forward, I lay my head on her shoulder and whisper, “thank you.”

Arriving at my sister’s house, I saw my nephew and then my niece’s heads peering out the windows. They have been doing that since they were three years old. Always watching for me when I am coming. For some reason, I am shocked. Perhaps I thought they had gotten too old for that after more than a decade. Yet, their heads are still there, watching eagerly, and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

They run out of the house and soon I have my niece and then my nephew in my arms. I cannot stop crying as I hug my nephew tight. The most important man in my life.

I realize once I pull myself together that I am in a moment of becoming whole again. There was a moment, about 60 days ago, when I put the most important parts of me in a box for safe-keeping. It was after the Sheriff of Waller County had taken a picture of my license plate and my face on his own personal cell phone; it was after he told me to go back to the church of Satan; and it was after he informed me that there would be consequences for me and anyone who tried to help me seek justice for Sandra Bland. Much like the Officer who took a picture of my face on his personal cell phone in front of the Texas Headquarters of the Department of Public Safety in Austin last week, I knew then as well as now, that the picture would be shared and the safety of myself and those close to me would be impacted.

So I stopped talking about my nieces and nephews. Put them in a box for safe-keeping. Hid them from the world, afraid that the danger people thought I was in could spread to them.

With my nephews tousled, wavy hair in my hand, and my niece in my lap, I felt a piece slide back into place.

Beware that you do not view Sandra Bland as a woman without children. Beware the mistake of underestimating the visceral power that nieces and nephews have upon their aunt’s heart. Beware the mistake of forgetting that we think about them every single day. I know the names and the faces of the young people that Sandra Bland was thinking of when she was in that cell in Waller County. They are the same people she refers to in her first #SandySpeaks videos when she is explaining that her motivation for starting the videos is to make the voices of the children heard.

Beware the power of a devoted aunt. The very fact that those children we love are not our 24/7 responsibility is the very thing that makes us dangerous: having the love for children without the responsibility for children frees us up to fight for them. There is no limit to the fire and the fight that lies in an aunt’s heart when her nieces and nephews are the center of her life, and whether they will live in a just world where their voices are heard and honored is on the line.

Sandy said she spoke so that the children might be heard. Well… are you listening?

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Sandra Bland was not perfect. Thank God.

“I have this lady’s records from Chicago, and from ’89 to 2014, she’s no good.” The older African American gentlemen turned around from the podium of the Prairie View City Council to glare at Sandra Bland’s supporters and sorority sisters and repeat, “She’s not. She’s not. She’s not.”

With his finger inches from my face, it felt for a moment as if Twitter had taken on human form in the middle of Prairie View City Hall to unleash all its vitriol.

That is what Sandra Bland’s friends have been enduring for months as they refuse to be silent and refuse to let Sandy be silenced.

Having gotten off a plane that morning from Sandra Bland’s Chicago, that he claimed to know so much about, I focused deeply in prayer to maintain my composure. I closed my eyes and saw the faces I had just left: the faces of Sandra Bland’s mother, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews; the faces of a family just as transparent about their strengths and questions and convictions and love for one another as Sandra Bland had shown herself to be. I knew that my name was coming up after one more person, slotted to speak after the two most vocal opponents of the recently renamed Sandra Bland Parkway.

Laying aside for the moment the fact that Sandra Bland was 2 years old in the year 1989 that he claimed to have researched, the richness of personality and passion that Sandra Bland brought to the world and the extravagantly loving manner in which her family journeyed through life together still had me reeling.

I have been accused on more than one occasion of portraying Sandra Bland in just as narrow and unrealistic a manner as this man: as a saint rather than a sinner.

To see her as one or the other, however, would be to completely miss the point both factually and theologically. Like every person in that room had the capacity to be, Sandra Bland was both. For “all fall short” but at the same time all who seize God’s love are “forever made perfect” through it.

What made her compelling for so many in my generation was not that she was a saint. My generation has grown up respecting sincerity and authenticity far above the value we place on the perfection we do not see as realistic and the self-righteousness we have experienced as hurtful. Instead, she grasped the hearts of many with the boldness, sincerity and vulnerability with which she shared herself; the urgency with which she expressed love and concern for others and their well-being and personal growth; and the commitment she had to taking action to make the world better even if she had to take action alone.

Through her #SandySpeaks videos there remained a constant refrain: she wanted people to know that they were loved and valuable. To be told you are loved and to be told you are valued, not only by a human being, but also, as Sandra Bland said, by God, is perhaps the deepest longing of the human soul.

It is understandable, as reporters in the room were quick to note, that there was a generational divide in the room. The older members of the Prairie View community had been assembled with City Councilwoman Paulette Barnett to oppose Sandra Bland Parkway in what would ultimately turn out to be an utter failure of a reversal when the City Council voted 4-1 to keep it Sandra Bland Parkway. Their ignorance of Sandra Bland’s impact was understandable because they did not know Sandra as many of her young adults friends did; neither were they likely to have gotten to know her by having explored her #SandySpeaks videos.

Yet, neither generational difference, nor lack of technological access, nor lack of personal connection could ever justify the lack of compassion with which they spoke about a person, a child of God – yes, a young woman whose impact has transcended borders and languages – but more importantly, a child of God whose freedom, rights and life would come up equal on God’s balances to both the Mayor of Prairie View and the current occupants of the Waller County Jail. We can never allow frustration to extinguish our ability to clasp onto one another’s humanity and hold it as if it was sacred – because it is.

As for me personally, do I think Sandra Bland was a saint? Of course not, no one has ever claimed that. It is not necessary for her to be a saint in order to honor her, respect her, and be impacted and changed by her witness.

What is true is that I like her. I really do. Enough to give her space in my life for as long as she needs it. In fact, she is so likable that she has become a litmus test of sorts for many. She easily reveals the misogyny on the one hand, and the racism on the other, of the people who seem incapable of speaking of her with a tone of respect befitting a beautiful life lost. It is highly likely that those who do not feel an easy affection for Sandra Bland would also find themselves struggling to appreciate the magnificence of Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumpin in my living room.

It is easy to celebrate her if you understand that all the things that people criticize about her in the last moments we see her speaking are exactly what the world needs in order to become a better place: an unapologetic black woman who loves herself, knows her rights, and is not willing to bend the knee to injustice.

The fact that that unbending knee was knocked out from under her is more painful than can be bourn for those who understand its importance. The fact that that unbowing head was slammed to the ground is enough fuel to fire the call for justice for years to come. The fact that that unapologetic voice seemed to be silenced, only causes the sound of her voice to travel further across the planet.

I thank God that Sandra Bland did not have to be perfect in order to impact the world. It gives me hope that maybe you and I can make a difference too.