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64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.

Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.

Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.

So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.

All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.

For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.

At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.

From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.

We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.

Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.

On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.

As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”

A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”

He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.

At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.

Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.

Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.

Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.

Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.

Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.

That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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The Distortion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

The cover article of the May 9-16th issue of The Nation Magazine is an article entitled “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” It takes the words first used by alumni of Prairie View A&M University who were mourning Sandra Bland the week of her death, and ultimately used to express a movement, and repurposes them to make whiIMG_8595te people more comfortable. In a rhetorical move as equally unconscious of bias as the #AllLivesMatter shift, the author uses her platform as a journalist and award-winning author to write an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative piece. The article takes the discomfort that has been rising amongst White liberals and defuses it. It converts it from White responsibility back to White guilt.

It does so not by honoring the intention of the words – a persistent and yet unanswered question – but by delivering the author’s answer.

I was there in the Opal Johnson Smith Auditorium when Debbie Nathan requested an insider interview from Sandra’s family. I was there when she was turned down. I was there when she said she would write the article with or without them. At the time, I did not understand their response. I liked Debbie well enough. Now I understand.

What would motivate her to dig more deeply into the personal affairs of the grieving family than she dug into the circumstances surrounding Sandra’s death in a Texas jail?

To understand her article, you have to start by working backwards, realizing that Debbie Nathan is not asking “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”; she is telling her opinion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

Debbie Nathan had already decided the culprits. She committed one of the biggest errors of investigative journalism, she investigated in order to prove her theory rather than to find the truth.

I first met Debbie Nathan when she came to the Houston area with the conviction that she was the one who would write about Sandra Bland. She had become so fixated on Sandra, seeing her as a daughter figure; and consequently had become a student of my work as well. She had studied both of us on Facebook, and felt so attached to me that she had brought me a red scorpion made of beads that she had picked up for me while on vacation. She felt like she knew me. She did not. She felt like she knew Sandra. She did not.

Through a narrative filled with assumptions, such as the assumption that Sandra Bland cut herself in response to Dylann Roof’s murders, Nathan provides the nation with a way out of the discomfort that has become almost unbearable for many. She works to subtly convince the reader that the only intelligent, educated, reasonable answer is that Sandra Bland killed herself, while simultaneously emphasizing the refusal of many in the African American community, especially Sandra’s close family and friends, to accept those results at face value. She even uses a Black child’s refusal to accept that ‘truth’ as the closing line of the article. Pair such logic with the subtle racism of White liberalism, and the results are obvious: A translation of the experience of the Black community utilized to discredit rather than empower their perspective.

Nathan communicates that it was oppressive systems and structures that killed Sandra inch by inch, wearing down her psyche until she was primed for suicidal thoughts: Sandra Bland died from a “thousand tiny cuts.” Diffusion of responsibility.

This rhetorical move will conveniently remove the thing that the dominant culture abhors most: holding individuals responsible for the actions that they carry out as willing participants in racist and oppressive structures. This terrifies us, because to hold any of us accountable raises the possibility that any of us may be held accountable.

Let me be clear, we do seek to hold the system accountable. We do seek to dismantle the system of white supremacy. However, in order to dismantle the system, there must be accountability for the individuals within it. Without accountability, there can be no motivation to change. First, we made corporations people so they can bear our rights, will we next make systems people so they can bear our sins?

Fundamental to the Christian faith, and many others, is the concept of both corporate and individual fault or sin. While we must seek to deal with the crimes we commit as a corporate body, we cannot lose sight of the sins we commit as individuals. Both are important. Repentance for our corporate wrong-doing does not relieve of us accountability for our individual wrong-doings.

By framing her answer in such a manner, Nathan does dishonor to the reason why we sat in front of a jail for 80 days with a sign that said, “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” We were not asking what happened to Sandra Bland before she got to Texas. We were asking specifically what happened to her from July 10-13, 2015. By using the words of our question to avoid the intent of our question, she relocates the answer from Sandra’s present to her past. She colonizes our query, seeking to replace its original inhabitants.

She takes a big question: “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” and makes the reader believe there are only two answers, A or B; homicide or suicide. That binary is exactly what we have been trying to avoid and expand.

This rhetorical move is so subtle in the article that it is helpful to have gotten the chance to hear her May 5 on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC to discuss her true intentions in writing the article:

Arun Venugopal (substituting for Leonard Lopate): “In terms of the time [Sandra Bland] spent, the last few days, you’ve really tried to clarify and sorta get past the conspiracy theories. What are some of the conspiracy theories that you were trying to sort of put to rest?

Debbie Nathan: “Well, um, the basic one is that she didn’t commit suicide. That was the finding of the autopsy. And so there is a theory that that was wrong and that she was murdered. That it was a homicide. So, you know, I tried to look at all the facts, all the evidence and see if there is anything that would reasonably support the theory of homicide. And the only thing that I could come up with is that since there is no evidence of homicide, there’s no physical evidence of homicide, um, that you would have had to have a pretty big conspiracy. You’d have to have several people in that jail, including the administration, do things like tamper with the film, do things like study for weeks beforehand about how you, um, strangle somebody but make the mark on the neck look like it was a suicide mark, which you’d have to be a genius to do. I mean, I think you’d have to be Hannibal Lechter to figure out how to do this. And, um, there’s just sort of like many things that a bunch of would have to get together and do. So who are these people? I mean like brilliant, psychopathic, really malign racists? I mean, when you look at who was working in that jail, um, many if not most of the guards were either African American or Latino. um. They are low-paid, not very well educated people; to the extent that any of them have education they’ve often gone to the historically black college, to Prairie View, because they live in that community. um, they all have their social media too. I looked at their social media before they all took it down because they got sued. They were doing things like Martin Luther King food drives, they didn’t seem like the kind of people that would be capable of engaging in a very viscious, racist, brilliant, psychopathic conspiracy.”

There it is: the bias. Without even giving notice to the shade thrown at HBCU’s, her belief that it is not possible that footage has been edited would contradict Selma producer Ava Davurnay’s absolute confidence that it has been. Her presentation of the Facebook activity of the guards has portrayed them as saints focused on “Martin Luther King food drives.” She seems to have missed their sinister joking about cell 95 where Sandra Bland died: “Be nice, or else you’re going in 95 and talk with your friend” (Dormic Smith to Elsa Magnus).

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You do not need conspiracies and “tall tales” to know how Sandra Bland was treated. To quote directly from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office Committee Recommended Police & Jail Practices, released in April of 2016: “Epithets such as ‘turd,’ ‘thug,’ ‘gang-banger,’ and ‘piece-of-shit’ were sometimes used to describe suspects. Such ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language is not only dehumanizing in itself, but tends to be a cultural value passed down to other, more junior deputies and engenders an atmosphere that denigrates the rights of suspects and invites misconduct. The risk is that dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions.”

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So where did Debbie Nathan go astray? To understand that, you have to look at another article that she wrote for the Boston Review. In the article, she writes affectionately of Sandra Bland: “Watching the footage these past few weeks, I have felt like one of her queens, and I wish we could all experience the royalty she offered us.” It is there that she shows her cards.

See, the thing is those words were not for us; they were not meant for Debbie and I. They were not meant for white women at all. And that is perfectly okay.

When Sandy was addressing white people, she made it clear, “To my white folks…” and she usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. When she was addressing her African American brothers and sisters, she made it clear as well, “My Kings and My Queens” and she also usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. But her advice was different for the different audiences. Her challenge for white people was different from her challenge for black people.

Nathan’s inability to understand that crucial difference and boundary is the key to understanding why she may not be the one to look to for an understanding of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

She stepped outside her lane. She forgot that the Lemonade being served up in our culture right now is for Black women. It belongs to them. They do not have to share with us. They do not have to give us the recipe. We will not be able to figure out how to make it by watching them. It is not ours.

There are many things I have seen, heard and witnessed about the experiences of Black women in America, but I’m not going to be the one to analyze it. Why? One simple reason: Black women in America are fully capable of doing so themselves. It is not my place. Not my lane. There are plenty of Black women talking about the pain and burden of Black women. Our role as White women is to amplify their voices, not to silence them by telling their stories for them.

Our role is to speak from our own experience: How have we experienced privilege? How can we talk about the impact of racism with other White people? We need to stop thinking that the only way to talk about racism is from the perspectives of those suffering from its effects; we have to start talking about how we benefit from its effects economically and socially, even as it wounds us spiritually.

There was so much real investigative journalism to be done in Waller County. The truth is not even hard to sniff out. It lies on the surface like the algae in my father’s pond. You only have to reach for it and it is in your hand. Yet, Debbie Nathan has chosen to tell the nation through The Nation, that corruption is not there. There is so much white-people work to be done in Texas. Yet, Debbie Nathan left Texas to fly to Chicago; and finding no one close to the situation willing to talk to her, she found people who would say what she wanted to hear, and she let her displeasure with the grieving family’s reticence be known through her writing:

“Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly… She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500.”

The amount of effort that it must have taken to dig into the struggle of the woman who had been the most supportive of her sister’s Sandy Speaks videos and activism could have been put to so much better use in seeking the truth in Texas. Yet, maybe that was not the goal.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of facts to distract people from seeing the truth.


The pain and struggle of Black women in America is not one more possession for white women to claim. Their lives and minds are not ours to pick apart, to analyze, to interpret. We have our own work to do. Clearly.

If you want to listen and amplify:

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy A Yoke

Everything on Candace Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus

 

Yvette Smith Verdict: No Comment Necessary

*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County. 

Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.

On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.

He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.

Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.

Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.”  Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.

It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.

This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.

I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.

I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.

But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.

In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.

I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.

And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.

I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.

We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others. 

So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.

To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.

To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.

So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?

Will the defendant please stand.

And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way: 

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.

Yvette Smith: Why All Our Rights Are Lies

“Yvette hated guns. She never let her sons play with guns,” Yvette Smith’s mother said to me after Judge McCaig called a 20 minute break, part way through the afternoon of the second day of the defense arguments for ex-officer Daniel Willis murder trial for killing her daughter.

Yvette-SmithI knew what it was like to grow up in a household like that; a household where, as Yvette Smith’s son Anthony put it, the “mother was uneasy around guns.” I was never allowed to play with so much as a water pistol or a nerf gun, and to this day it has had a lasting psychological impact on me. I see guns as something that could wound or kill. My best friend’s father used to leave his guns on the dining room table, and it made my heart beat faster just to see it. I could never touch a gun. That’s how I was raised. That is how Yvette Smith was raised. That is how Yvette Smith raised her sons.

Now I live in a state where people care more about their right to open-carry, than about how it impacts other people and the stress and anxiety they cause. Now I live in a state where open-carry is a lie, because we know it really only applies to certain people. Some people – let me be clear: white men – have the right to carry machine guns openly on the streets, as I saw them do in Austin. Other people – let me be clear: Yvette Smith – will be killed merely because an officer imagined that she was carrying a gun inside of her own house.

“Stand your ground” does not apply to black teenagers.

“Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply black men. 

“Open carry” does not apply to black women.

Havin1403134974000-YVETTE-SMITH-2g all of those things apply to you and not to people of color is part of having white privilege. People who are white have the ability to observe that reality, to acknowledge it, and to work to undermine their own privilege in order that the rights our nation claims to hold as “self-evident” apply to all. If they do not apply to us all, they are not civil rights, by definition they are privileges. Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” If your race and/or ethnicity is a factor in whether you can assert your rights safely, which I believe it is, then civil rights exist only in our imagination.

Just as the gun that Daniel Willis claims Yvette Smith was holding existed only in his imagination. Listening to hours of taped interviews with him during the trial was nothing short of disturbing. Having watched the dash cam video of Yvette Smith’s killing, you see three things happen in three seconds.

First second: Yvette opens the door.

Second second: Daniel yells “Police.”

Third second: Daniel fires 2 quick shots from his personal AR-15 assault rifle into Yvette’s body with no warning, no commands, and no evaluation.

In lengthy explanations, he talks in the interviews shown at trial about how Yvette stepped onto the porch and was “indexing” with her gun. Aiming it at him and his partner. He talks about how he flashed his flashlight at her several times and she kept ducking out of the path of his light and repositioning her aim. He talks about how she had a small, shiny pistol; then a light colored, long barreled gun. He talks about her having a small, shiny L-shape in her hand, which out of his peripheral vision looked like a long gun, like the AR-15 assault rifle he was holding himself. He says he was afraid for his life; then he says he was never afraid for one single second; then he says he was afraid not for his life but for the other officer at the scene. He takes hours talking about things that never happened.

None of it happened. Sitting in the courtroom, we knew already. We had watched the dashcam. We had heard in rapid succession: Door opening, “Police”, BAM BAM. Even if Daniel Willis’ story was not so inconsistent, there was simply not time for any of it to have happened. All of it, and all of the different versions, were lies.

Yet with all the things he had to talk about, there were somethings he did not talk about:

  • He does not talk about the fact that he has night blindness and could not see and, yet, like many stubborn people chose to not wear his glasses while cocking an AR-15 in the dark.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was wearing body armor at in little danger.
  • He does not talk about the fact that his own body was safely behind his car. Nor does he talk about the fact that being behind “cover” was supposed to give him the opportunity to: a) take time to evaluate the situation b) yell commands, such as “drop the gun” c) call for back up.
  • He does not talk about the fact that he seemed eerily undisturbed after the shooting.
  • He does not talk about how he subtly threatened another woman while they waited for Yvette’s body to be taken away. She said, “don’t shoot me,” and he responded “Well, then don’t point anything shiny at me.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he has never shown any remorse or regret to Yvette’s family.
  • He does not talk about how after killing her he laughingly said “I didnt’ want to die.”
  • He does not talk about the fact that he was in no danger of dying: Yvette was.

Ironically, his lawyers then used that as his defense. They had a forensic psychiatrist testify that because there was an officer outside, Yvette Smith exhibited impaired judgement by opening the door.

Yes. That is the defense. That a black woman is responsible for her own death because she opened her door when there was a police officer outside. 

Are the lives of black women in so much danger in this nation that there are responsible for their own deaths if they are foolish enough to leave their own house?

Nay, not to leave their own house; if they are foolish enough to open their door.

Foolish enough to claim to have rights? Foolish enough to drink a beer in their own home, or smoke a cigarette in their own car? Foolish enough to think they were citizens? Foolish enough to think they were children of God, and their bodies sacred and powerful vessels?

If a black woman’s life does not have value in our nation, than nothing that we believe about ourselves or our country is true. We have no civil rights, we only have privileges awarded to the few. We are not free, we are not safe, we are not good.

This week, perhaps even today, a verdict will come forth from Judge McCaig. Daniel Willis has waived his right to a jury trial in this retrial; his attorneys citing their absolute certainty that McCaig would give them a “Not Guilty” verdict.

If his attorneys are correct and a “Not Guilty” verdict comes in, before Judge McCaig moves on to the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia, will we be silent? What will we do? Or, as Sandra Bland was known to say, “What will you do? What will you do Queen? What will you do King?” What will you do to show the truth that the lives of black women are sacred indeed?

Sacred beyond measure. Sacred beyond comprehension. Powerful enough to strike fear into the heart of a man holding a taser, a man holding an assault rifle. Powerful enough to make him claim that he was the victim and that you, unarmed black woman, were a threat to him, well-armed and equipped with body armor.

…and you are. A threat to him. Not a threat to his life, but to his power, his comfort, his privilege. The end has already been written, and justice will win. White supremacy knows in its heart that it will be you, black woman, that will bring it down. Its fear and violence is only increasing to keep pace with the increase of your power and confidence. It knows its end is near. Do not give up.

“For 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 2:3).

 

‘The Next Generation of Waller County’

Tomorrow marks the first day of a new month, and it could be the first day of a new chapter in Waller County’s history. That will only come to pass, however, if the people of Waller County want it.

Primary elections for both the Democratic and Republican parties will be held on March 1st, and on the ticket for Sheriff, you will still find Sheriff R. Glenn Smith.

Yes, that Sheriff Smith.

What truly made me marvel was not that Sheriff Smith was still running even after a year full of highly public mishaps that embarrassed the County. Instead, it was the slogan that his supporters had chosen: “Keep R. Glenn Smith Sheriff – Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.”

Driving past these signs on the backroads of Waller County, as I journeyed to help facilitate a leadership retreat for some of our nation’s most promising young minds, the irony of those words was not lost on me.

Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.

I can and do understand how people have felt offended that rightful criticism of the Sheriff reflected on their County, and I do understand how that has made people defensive at times. It is one thing, however, to defend what you have; it is quite another thing to not want something better for your children. It is one thing to resist chaos by trying to protect the stability of your community from what you see as outside forces; it is another thing to reject change when it is handed to you and all you have to do is take it with your ballot.

You see that “Next Generation of Waller County” is my generation and my nieces’ generation. A generation is not bound by County lines, it is bound by common experience and common calling. It is bound by the fact that as time goes on, we will have to figure out together what to do with the messes and the blessings that others have left behind for us. Our responsibility to one another is not now, nor will it be in the future, limited by County, State or even National boundaries.

As Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

My responsibility to my generation lies in my concern not only for the magnificent Prairie View A&M students, but also for the young, local white man their age who came to the jail once and spent the day sitting with me just because he wanted to know for himself whether we were the monsters people said we were. We gave him water, and laughter, and friendship, and I respected his courage to sit out there with us, just to know for himself what was going on. I have a responsibility to the young, local white woman, whose pastor brought her to meet the “Wicked Witch of Waller” so that she could know for herself whether I was truly what people said I was. I have a responsibility to the young woman who came to the jail the day after Sheriff R. Glenn Smith threatened us and told me to go back to the Church of Satan; she came to me with tears in her eyes and begged me to be careful, telling me that I was in more danger than I thought. I have a responsibility to the young men and women who lived around the jail and truly loved me and truly were concerned whether I had enough water and food and strength.

Yet, perhaps even more than to them, I have a responsibility to the young woman who tried to lure me to a local restaurant for who knows what reason when folks were looking for me to “confront” me. And I have a responsibility to the young mothers, women in my generation, who sat at home and commented on posts about Sandra, or about those holding vigil, or reported when and where they had last seen my car, concerned that their way of life was being threatened by calls for justice. I was tired, but I could have done better by them. I could have tried harder to find a way to communicate to them that God’s justice is for their children as well and that we are all in this together.

As Ephesians 2:19 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household…”

For them, for their children, I believe that God has something better in store for them than the kind of repetitive injustice, threats, and danger that many before them have already known. I believe that Justice for Sandra Bland, also means Justice for them and for their neighbors. I believe that we are all connected in a web of mutual responsibility.

God has something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County” than what has come before because we are called not to fear the future and protect the ways of the past, but to serve a God who promises to “make all things new.”

Even as voices continue to seek justice, transparency and answers, the people of Waller County have an opportunity themselves to quite easily, without investigation or legal case, offer accountability for the way they have been represented. Vote.

How they vote will show us whether R. Glenn Smith represents who they are and who they want to be, or whether he does not.

I pray that they will show us that they truly do want something better for “The Next Generation of Waller County.”

Sandra Bland: Justice Delayed, Not Denied

Sitting in Judge Hitner’s Courtroom in the Bob E. Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, Texas on February 18th, you would quickly realize that the level of transparency and honesty that each lawyer was willing to offer could be measured by the size of their smile.

For those of you who have read about the past hearings, you already know that the state attorney, Seth Dennis, representing Brian Encinia, has a quirky approach to lawyering in which he pretends he does not know anything while smiling largely at the judge in the traditional bromance courting ritual of white men seeking to remind one another of their common stake in maintaining injustice through the ‘good ol’ boy’ system. For instance, saying he does not know when Brian Encinia’s arraignment in the Criminal Trial is; when everyone else in the room seems to have heard it was first March 23, and then moved to March 22. Thus far, it does not seem to be working. Outwardly, Judge Hitner seems to have no time for the games and arrogance he receives from the state attorney, but only time will tell. Only through concrete rulings that compel action will we know that his refusal to enter into the flirtation is secure.

There were several topics discussed, most notably perhaps was the fact that the civil trial was not dismissed.

The attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal, Cannon Lambert and Larry Rogers, Jr., all business as usual, were seeking access to the original video footage both from Sandra’s arrest and from the hours that she spent inside of the Waller County Jail. To which the state attorney replied, “It’s all over the internet. It’s on YouTube” as his justification for resisting doing so. In some way, it seemed that both the original footage and the Texas Rangers Report were being tied up by the Criminal Case of perjury against Brian Encinia. The judge said that the attorneys will be given access to view the footage but not remove it from the possession of the state.

Speaking only for myself, it is my impression that the relatively minor charge of perjury is the state’s way of delaying the civil trial, and not in any way a real pursuit of justice in the death of Sandra Bland on the part of the state. If they have charged him with lying in saying he had reason to pull Sandra from her car, then logic would follow that they should charge him with wrongful arrest, official oppression and assault & battery for what followed. Seeing as they have not done that, I am left to conclude that the slap-on-the-wrist charge they have entered against him is only means of delaying the justice that others seek through a civil trial, as well as distracting from calls for a DOJ investigation.

It is to be noted that the Criminal Trial and whether it will be completed in a timely manner is also cause for concern. Currently, Brian Encinia is set to be arraigned in the courtroom of Judge McCaig. This seems to be necessary because Brian Encinia’s attorney, Larkin Eakin, is husband to the County Court at Law Judge June Jackson. As a result, it appears that Encinia’s criminal trial needed to be moved to the District Courtroom of Judge Albert McCaig, who was elected on a tea party ticket that espoused racism and xenophobia, and was also the judge who recently oversaw the mistrial in the officer involved homicide of Yvette Smith in Bastrop County. One must wonder why, if he lives in Katy and is based out of Austin DPS, would Brian Encinia choose a Hempstead attorney who was married to the County Court at Law Judge if not to precipitate this series of events.

The second topic of discussion that I discerned in the Civil Trial status hearing yesterday was the long disputed Rangers Report. The FBI was in possession of a copy of the report that they had brought with them. Yet, in opening it, Judge Hitner discovered that it was excessively redacted, blacking out even the name of the officer at the scene, and told them to diminish the redactions and bring him a better copy on Monday. The FBI agreed to do so.

The third topic of discussion was the state’s desire to sever Brian Encinia from Waller County and cause there to be two separate trials. One trial against Waller County and the other against Brian Encinia. The attorney for Waller County argued that this was necessary with a deeply flawed analogy. He said that keeping the charges against Waller County connected to the charges against Brian Encinia was like holding an officer who had picked up an injured person and driven them to the hospital responsible for their injuries if they slipped and fell at the hospital. Larry Rogers, Jr., pointed out much more calmly than I would have done, that this was one sustained continuum not separate incidences. The reality was that the Waller County’s attorney’s analogy was erroneous because Brian Enicinia did not pick up an injured Sandra Bland in order to help her and give her a ride; he injured her and arrested her in order to justify doing so; creating the circumstances under which she was held unjustly and lost her life.

The third topic of discussion I discerned was the fact that the attorney for Waller County and for the state were demanding the depositions of Sandra’s mother and sisters. It was particularly painful to hear him say that he did not care where the depositions took place, “as long as it is not in Chicago.” In other words, as long as it is not in a place where the women will feel comfortable.

Concurrently, the attorneys for Geneva Reed-Veal were continuing to request the original copy of the Rangers Report that lies in their possession as is appropriate to review before the depositions. The state’s attorney was once again resistant to turning over the Rangers Report; protesting – as he had when saying the videos were already on YouTube – that the FBI was already delivering a copy of the report. It is important, however, to have both copies; especially as it is possible that they do not match.

Leaving, it seemed like a lot was still up in the air as this trial moves forward at a snail’s pace. On we journey in observing a trial between one of the large economies of the world, the state of Texas, and a grieving mother. The odds may be stacked against her, but never underestimate the power of a mother’s love and the determination of the truth to be seen and recognized. Truth is the thing, the Gospel of John says, that will set us free.

Justice delayed is not justice denied.

An Open Letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson

Dear DA Devon Anderson,

I am writing to you because I remain in possession of one of the many lives you put at risk when you and Sheriff Hickman blamed the shooting of Deputy Goforth on #BlackLivesMatter, resulting in threats being directed towards those holding vigil for Sandra Bland at the Waller County Jail.

Now, today, the Houston NAACP is honoring you as a white ally in naming you one of the 2016 Alex Award recipients for an outstanding commitment to Equal Justice and Legal Excellence.

All of the discussion that this has prompted has brought back unpleasant memories of those days of my life that caused my mother the most anxiety. Let me explain.

On July 13, when Sandra Bland’s friends found out that she had died, it caused great pain in our community of Houston. Many Houston residents were Prairie View alumni who knew, or knew of, Sandra Bland. She was the type of woman who made an impression. As uproar grew, one of those Prairie View alum, my friend Jeremyah, continuously peppered my phone with comments from his friends, and his own concerns, as well as the hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. My spirit sat heavy within me; I was deep in prayer all afternoon on July 15th, until late in the evening, my friends Nina and Rhys agreed to go out with me to the jail where Sandra died. It was simple. We lit a candle and we prayed.

Yet, that simple act became contagious. Others joined in, everyone from local farmers to a Lutheran Bishop, and we kept vigil there for 80 days. Intimidation attempts from Sheriff R. Glenn Smith escalated after the first month, and he earned himself a spot in the 2016 Texas Bum Steer Awards when he told me to go back to the Church of Satan. There was risk involved, yet what truly intensified the risk was your words on August 29th.

That week, on August 27 a member of the Katy Fire Department began toIMG_8892 publicize in a private Waller County group, the Waller County News, that he was lying in wait for us at the Waller County Jail. Other members of the group tried to help him find me by telling him what kind of car I drove, and one messaged me and tried to lure me to a local restaurant to trap me. Unfortunately for him, there was a health emergency with my Aunt Jackie that had called me away and he did not find me there. They assumed it was cowardice, my mother claimed it as Divine Providence. He returned the next day, the 28th, and did not find me then either.

That same evening, however, another family was deprived of their father and husband in the tragic and unexpected shooting of Deputy Darren Goforth.

There were clues from the outset that Deputy Goforth was actually at the gas station with his mistress, not on patrol; yet, rather than investigating that aspect, officials rushed quickly to the promote the idea that #BlackLivesMatter was at fault, which provided what they thought would be an acceptable catharsis for them in the midst of building tensions and grief.

Perhaps this decision was affected by the fact that the Officer investigating the shooting of Deputy Goforth, Sgt. Craig Clopton, was having a sexual relationship with Deputy Goforth’s mistress himself, as was Deputy Marc DeLeon and potentially others. How might that have affected their investigation? Knowing that the eyewitness to the crime was someone multiple officers were involved with. I can imagine they might want to divert attention from that fact.

The next day, on August 29th, you did a press Conference in which you and Sheriff Ron Hickman blamed the shooting on #BlackLivesMatter activists with no proof for your accusation except that Darren Goforth had his uniform on while meeting up with his mistress and the man who shot him happened to be black. Your careless rush to judgment and your call upon “the silent majority in America to support law enforcement” put many lives at risk.

The very next day, Breitbart seized upon the opportunity that your words had given them. For more than a month, we had seen reporters Lana Shadwick and Bob Price come around the Waller County Jail. All that we had given to them, however, was an unapologetic solidarity with Sandra Bland and an unapologetic commitment to the rights of people of color. We did not give them the material that they wanted in order to distort the #BlackLivesMatter movement as built on hatred of white people rather than a love for black people.

Your words gave them the excuse they had been waiting for, however, as they pulled out photos almost a month old and wrote a scathing and dishonest article about what had been going on at the Waller County Jail. They drew from what had happened on two days of what was close to 50 days to perpetrate a lie, creating a false impression that it was protestors and not Sheriff R. Glenn Smith that were carrying arsenals of machine guns around in their trucks on a daily basis.

Following that, retired law enforcement officer Nathan Ener put out a highly publicized video encouraging people to drive away or kill the #BlackLivesMatter activists at the Waller County Jail. The lack of consequences that resulted from his threats exhibited how socially acceptable racism is amongst law enforcement and officials. For Texas officials to allow that to pass only two months after Dylann Roof carried out similar orders, inspired by similar videos, at a church in Charleston was callous beyond belief.

Yet, you know who was out there in front of the Waller County Jail in the line of fire that next week? A bunch of pastors and farmers and activists. That day. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day… because Sandra Bland does not have justice yet, and her life matters.

Perhaps that is something you can think about as you receive this award for a Commitment to Equal Justice from the NAACP today. Look around you at the beautiful lives that surround you and ask yourself, do they have equal justice? Are they as safe in Texas as you are? There is room in the movement for everyone, and it is never too late to start to say: Black Lives Matter. It is never too late for true repentance, a changing of actions and not merely words.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to #SayHerName #SandraBland and demand the Department of Justice investigate Waller County. Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner