Sandra Bland Believed in You

*Cover photo by Lamarcus Feggins, @differentworldimages

On January 14, 2015, a bold, brilliant, 28 year old African American woman held a phone up in front of her face and began to speak. “Hey, y’all… so… I don’t know where to look…” she said with a smile that could charm the sting off a bee. Rarely has such an important act in history taken place with so much casual and unscripted authenticity.

We all have moments in our lives, where we feel a great sense of urgency that we are supposed to do something. Whether it is calling that friend who you have not heard from in a concerning amount of time; pulling out your cell phone at just the right minute to film an arrest; or raising your hand in class to say that thing that has to be said. The difference in our lives, and potentially the lives of many others, is made in the little moments, the little choices, the decisions to say ‘yes.’

When Sandra Bland’s moment came, she said yes. The calling to begin making her #SandySpeaks videos was weighing so heavy on her that night of January 14, that she began at the end of a long day with a dying phone battery and curlers in her hair. The gravity of the calling left no time for vanity.

Sandy set out to explain that she was not making her videos to hear herself talk: Sandy spoke so that others would be heard. Sandy spoke so that those who were silenced would be seen. And through her videos, Sandy still speaks.

She began, “I wanted to make this video message and plant my seed of #SandySpeaks… with police brutality and everything going on in the news, a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel, and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten about an important group which are the kids… I want to get some dialogue started with them, i want to see how they feel.”

While the ethos that children are “to be seen and not heard” still echoes in our society, Sandra was determined to lift up even the smallest voice, such as the voice of her two year old niece, whom she mentioned with such reverence.

Sandy believed that she could make a difference, as she said, “I’m here to change history”; but more importantly, she believed that that we could make a difference, saying, “If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.” 

Pronouns are important, if I have learned nothing else this year, it is that. Sandra Bland used them to perfection. She knew what she could do. She knew what we could do. She knew what you could do.

Sandra Bland believed in you. It may sound odd, but it is true. Not only is it true, it was at the very core of her mission. It is why she always began her videos after this one with, “Good morning my Kings and Queens.”

Sandra Bland knew what she could do: “Laugh all you want to, say what you want, but I’m here to change history. I am ready to do what I need to do for this next generation. It’s time. It’s time for me to do God’s work, at the end of the day.”

Sandra Bland knew what we could do: “God has truly opened my eyes and shown me that there is something out there that we can do. We can stop sitting around and saying, “well maybe next time” or “Oh, well, we knew that was going to happen.” It’s time to stop knowing that that was going to happen, and its time to start doing something.”

Sandra Bland knew what you could do: “We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen. We sit out here and talk about, ‘we need the next so and so and this and that’ no you don’t. No you don’t. Start in your own home. Start with you. You start being that one to want to make that change.”

Sandra Bland sat there, with her curlers in her hair, and her phone battery dying, and she started a revolution. Why? Because she believed in you just that much. She believed that we would do it, because she believed that you could do it. She believed that we would change history, because she believed that you could change history and she could change history.

Maybe when no one else believed in you, she believed in you; and she trusted you to do something. While the confidence of a woman who is loved by her family, devoted to God, and aware of her worth exuded from her smile, she also clearly understood that she would not be able to carry out her calling alone.

As she said, “I need you. I need y’all’s help. I can’t do this by myself. I need you.”

She knew that she had to take action, and she was ready to lead by example; but she also knew that she could not do it alone.

When Sandra Bland’s friends and family woke up on January 15, 2015, they discovered the video that Sandra had posted the night before at 12:04 am. Many of them recognized the passion in her voice and responded. Yet, none of them could have known how sacred this record of her calling would become to millions of people around the world until they woke up on yet another morning, only two days shy of six months later: July 13, 2015.

So, as you wake up today, and as we return full circle to January 15, I leave you with her words:

“It’s time y’all, it’s time. This thing that I’m holding in my hand – this telephone, this camera – is quite powerful. Social media is quite powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.”FamFull

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Congresswoman to DOJ: Investigate Death of Sandra Bland

On December 22, 2015, a politician told the truth.

You may not have heard about it. It did not make headlines. Truth, especially the kind that makes people uncomfortable, is not quite as appealing for the news to cover as a white man with a famously pompadour-style comb-over insulting people to the cheers of his fans. In the midst of a political season that is playing out more like a reality series, the truth, as with many good deeds, goes unnoticed. We must change that.

On December 22, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations told the truth when addressing herself to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the letter seen below. In telling the truth, she renewed her demands once again that the Department of Justice do a comprehensive and transparent investigation of the events and circumstances surrounding the arrest and death of Sandra Bland.

While Sandra Bland has endured six months of slander and accusations that she was not respectful of the law, what you will discover in reading Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s letter is that the real truth of what took place has been hidden beneath a deeply rooted misunderstanding of what the law is. While critics have demeaned Sandra Bland for what they saw as failure to respect an officer of the law, they missed the real truth that it was the officer that was failing to respect the law. The crucial truth that we must grasp as a nation if we are going to avoid the abuses of any more Brian Encinias or Daniel Holtzclaws is that the authority given to individuals to enforce our laws does not supersede the authority of the law itself. It is not the authority of the individual that we respect, it is the authority of the law. If it is a just law, meant to protect the people, and the individual is breaking the law, they have given up their authority in that moment and have become the criminal themselves. In the case of Brian Encinia, he gave up his authority to enforce the law the moment that he became a physically dangerous, and we now know perjurious, law-breaker himself.

Stating a truth that few have been willing to acknowledge, Congresswoman Jackson Lee wrote, “The violent verbal and physical assaults Ms. Bland endured have been met with little action and slow responses by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Waller County District Attorney’s Office.” In the midst of a two page letter detailing the failure of the nation and the state to adequately address accountability in policing, it would be easy to miss the importance of this statement. Yet, in making that statement, Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged some very important things:

  • Sandra Bland experienced violent verbal assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Sandra Bland experienced violent physical assault from Brian Encinia.
  • Public Officials in Texas have done little to nothing about the crimes of Brian Encinia.

In appealing at the beginning of her letter that “the Department of Justice conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate action in connection with the death of Sandra Bland”, Congresswoman Jackson Lee also brought to our attention that:

  • A transparent and thorough investigation has not yet taken place.
  • Action is needed for an appropriate response to the death of Sandra Bland.
  • Failing to take any action would be, therefore, inappropriate.

As she continued Congresswoman Jackson Lee acknowledged that Waller County is “a community with deeply rooted racial divides and a history of racially discriminatory practices…” In making this statement, Rep. Jackson Lee made clear what many within Waller County have refused to acknowledge:

  • That Waller County has a history of racially discriminatory practices.
  • That Waller County currently continues to be characterized by deeply rooted racial divides.

She was not finished yet, however, for the recent records of jailing procedures seemed to raise alarms as well; she stated, “This is very troubling, considering the Waller County Jail previously has been cited for violating state rules for failing to properly and adequately train guards and personnel, particularly when interacting with inmates who are mentally disabled or potentially suicidal.” From this we know that:

  • The Waller County Jail has been cited for violated state rules.
  • The Waller County Jail has failed to properly and adequately train its staff.
  • Those who are vulnerable in society, such as the mentally disabled, are particularly vulnerable and in danger while in the care of the Waller County Jail.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee continued,“The practices and policies that have led to the deaths of multiple persons in custody at Waller County Jail call for immediate review and thorough corrective action by the Department of Justice.”  The truth these last words reveal is perhaps most disturbing of all:

  • The Waller County Jail is directly responsible for the deaths of multiple persons due to their faulty practices and policies.
  • The private review and recommendations given to the Sheriff by the committee led by Paul Looney was far from sufficient.
  • A thorough investigation by the Department of Justice is necessary, not when the Texas Rangers say they are finished, but immediately.
  • It will be necessary to take action to correct what has gone wrong in the Waller County Jail system for the safety of local citizens.

What is perhaps most important in this follow up to Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s appeal for a Department of Justice investigation last summer is the legal reasons she gives for an investigation. While Officials in Waller County have attempted to distract the general public for the past six months with accusations of marijuana use and self-harm, it is refreshing to hear the law actually come up in conversation.

First, Congresswoman Jackson Lee states that an investigation is necessary to examine whether the policing practices in Waller County (which would include the actions of police officers, prisons guards, judges, health providers, and public officials), violate the Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which states:

Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnaping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

Reading that law is like hearing a narration of the arrest of Sandra Bland caught on the dash cam of Brian Encinia’s car.

Second, Congresswoman Jackson Lee calls for an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a which guarantees the Attorney General of the United States the right to investigate jails when it is believed they have deprived those in their care of any rights, as well as taking corrective measures to rectify. In other words, neither the Sheriff of Waller County, nor the ad hoc “suggestions” committee he set up, nor the DA nor any official in Waller County has the final say if Constitutional rights are being violated.

Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that any State or political subdivision of a State, official, employee, or agent thereof, or other person acting on behalf of a State or political subdivision of a State is subjecting persons residing in or confined to an institution, as defined in section 1997 of this title, to egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive such persons of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States causing such persons to suffer grievous harm, and that such deprivation is pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, the Attorney General, for or in the name of the United States, may institute a civil action in any appropriate United States district court against such party for such equitable relief as may be appropriate to insure the minimum corrective measures necessary to insure the full enjoyment of such rights, privileges, or immunities, except that such equitable relief shall be available under this subchapter to persons residing in or confined to an institution as defined in section 1997(1)(B)(ii) of this title only insofar as such persons are subjected to conditions which deprive them of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution of the United States.

After that, there was nothing left to be said other than: “For these reasons, I am calling upon the Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, and to take appropriate action necessary to vindicate the federal interest to protect the civil rights of all Americans and to ensure that all persons receive equal justice under law.”

I think that is what we would call a *mic drop* from one of the great Stateswomen of American politics.

Add your voice along with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee:

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The Eyes Behind Us: Final Day of Sandra Bland Grand Jury

*This is the blog you write when your writing pen and your phone are your only form of defense while walking amongst armed men and women, and you hope that somehow those tools can make the people you care about safer. 

In the third floor Courtroom of the Waller County Courthouse, the Grand Jury finished their discussion of Brian Encinia’s arrest of Sandra Bland, as I stood with supporters and reporters in the packed hallway outside. Crossing my thrift store cowboy boots, I leaned against the railing at the top of the stairs next to an elderly, African American man in overalls. I do not know why he was there, perhaps official business, perhaps curiosity.

Looking to my left, I noticed a man in blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a jacket trying to look casual as he snuck pictures on his cell phone of myself and the others in the hallway. He was trying to fit in with us, but his posture gave him away as an undercover officer attempting to infiltrate.

Walking across the top of the stairwell to his side, I held out my hand, “Hello, I’m Hannah Bonner.”

“Hello,” he replied.

Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.
Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.

“So, are you here with these Officers?” I said, making polite small talk.

“No, I came from New York. I’m here to support the movement. I support the movement.”

“Wow, so you came all the way down from New York today to support us? That is so far to have come,” I inquired, confused.

“No, I mean I’m from New York. I live around here now. I am into movement things. I have been to other things to support the movement. I am here for the movement. I want to get involved.”

While he did look familiar, it was not because he had “been to other movement things.” He looked familiar because I had sat in front of the Waller County Jail for 80 days and I am an alive,  observant person. His name was actually Alex Kassem and word on the street was that he worked with the SWAT team in Waller County as well as in Houston, along with being a body guard for hire with experience serving in the Egyptian Special Forces. In truth, of all the people I have come across in my life, he is the one most highly trained in the use of lethal force.

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Looking to my right, I saw the elderly African American man taking a picture of “New York” on one of those simple phones that people buy for their parents for safety. As I spotted it, so did Officer S. Rutledge from the Waller County Sheriff’s Department. Not knowing I was looking, she dashed across the hallway and told the elderly gentleman, “You’ll have to come with me” as she pulled him quickly towards the elevator.

Something was not right. Granted, unlike the rest of the Courthouse, you could not take pictures on the third floor. Yet, I had watched dozens of people do so over the past hour with the only consequence being a simple verbal request from the officers not to do so.

I dashed across the hallway myself, forgetting “New York” for the moment. “Wait, where are you taking him, he has not done anything wrong.”

“He took a picture,” Officer Rutledge responded.

“I’ve been watching people take pictures all day, and all you’ve done is tell them to stop. Why are you taking him away?”
“Don’t interfere,” she said as the younger African American woman pulled the older African American gentleman into the elevator and a small line of officers blocked the entrance while the doors closed between us.

I did not know what to do. Turning to the reporters who sat on benches along the wall typing. I pleaded, “Did you see that? They are trying to intimidate him because he is local. You have seen people taking pictures all day and they did not take anyone else away.” Looking behind me, I saw some of the Sandra Bland supporters began to rush down the stairs and I realized that they were right, we had to make sure this gentleman did not disappear without any way of knowing who he was or how to check on him.

When I got to the first floor, there was already a bewildered group of supporters there being blocked from continuing down the hallway. This had never happened in the six months I have been observing.

At the end of the hallway, we could see out through the glass doors that Officer Rutledge was giving the gentleman a lecture. “Why can’t we go through?” the Sandra Bland supporters were asking. “You can’t come through, go out another door. You are just wasting time here.”

The group began to move up the stairs and out of the Courthouse through the back entrance ahead of me. As I came up the stimage3airs and around the side of the building, I realized I was alone with “New York” close on my heels. My demeanor seemed to have left him unaware that
I knew he had no intentions of “supporting the movement.”

I turned the corner to hear Jinaki crying out, “They have the elder.”

As we got to the entrance where we had seen Officer Rutledge with the gentleman, the officer and gentleman were gone.  the group told me that the officers had coordinated it for them to send us out the back entrance, while she brought him back in the side entrance to where we had been.

As I filmed my reaction, “New York” the “movement supporter” stood behind me pretending to support me and filming reactions that he would probably share later on with his colleague Officer Rutledge.

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Coming back in the entrance was a slow process as the group had to go through security one by one. On the other side, sat Officer Hood, a young African American officer who I had not seen before, chuckling to himself. Three African American Sandra Bland supporters went through security ahead of me and they wanded and patted down each one. As I came through I spread my arms and legs like you do at the airport and waited my turn. “No, we’re not going to do you,” the Officer said. “But you did all of them, why aren’t you going to do me?” They refused.

When we arrived back at the third floor, we discovered that Officer Rutledge had returned the older gentleman to the hallway and he was talking to a young man. Coming over we asked if he was okay.

“She took my license. She ran my license,” he said tearily.

“Why would she do that?” I asked.

“I have to go,” he replied.

“Well, we are walking you to your car,” we said to the gentleman to whom we had no connection apart from a new and profound sense of responsibility.

We walked down the stairs silently, and out the back door. When we reached the corner of the sidewalk, I finally said, “So what brought you out here to the Courthouse today?”

Turning towards me, I saw the pain of decades and perhaps generations well up in his eyes with unstoppable force and begin to overflow. It was too much heartbreak, for too long.

I put my arm around him slightly and then pulled it back and waved it wildly behind my back, beckoning to the three young African American men walking slightly behind us. I was beyond my depth. I did not have the resources he needed. Sensing what was needed, my friend Malik stepped forward and put his arm around the gentleman’s shoulder as we finished walking him to his car.

Once there, we got his phone number and the number of two of his relatives so that we could check on him from time to time. “She took my license,” he said as he dried his eyes, “She let me know if there was any tickets or problems, they could take me to that jail.”

[Now it may not be my place, but someone reading this blog is Officer Rutledge’s aunt or cousin or momma’s friend; perhaps it is your place to talk to her about this man’s tears and the history of generations that caused them. We are all in this together, after all.]

As he closed his car door and we began to walk away, I walked back and knocked on his door. He opened it and I said, “Can we pray before you go?”

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.06.51 AM“Yes, please,” he said.

I prayed that God would surround him with protection from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. I prayed comfort. I prayed justice. I prayed all the words I had left in my heart.

He closed his door, and we turned back to the Courthouse, surprised to hear “Left, left, left, right, left,” as a column of 21 Texas State Troopers marched directly toward me. They turned the corner, and so did the gentleman as he drove out of town.

A few minutes later the Grand Jury emerged from the side, and five special prosecutors emerged from the front to tell the press that they had indicted Brian Encinia with the smallest, paltry charge – my words not theirs – that they could come up with. They had indicted him for perjury in stating that he had a justifiable reason for pulling Sandra Bland from her car; rather than indicting him for the actual act of pulling her from her car and falsely Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.58.44 AMarresting her.

We did not see Alex “New York” Kassem again. Some of the other supporters said they had told him they knew he was an officer and he dipped out. We did call the gentleman to make sure he got home. He told me that he had gotten home safe but that a trooper had followed him all the way down the highway.

“I need to tell you why Officer Rutledge did that to me,” he said. “It was not because I was taking a picture, it was because of who I was taking a picture of. That man you were talking to at the top of the stairs, I recognized him. He has followed me before.”

It seems that while we thought we were looking out for him, it was the older gentleman who had been looking out for us all along.

We are all in this together, after all.