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The Whistling Sheriff: Sandra Bland Grand Jury

“It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!,” Sheriff R. Glenn Smith joked, Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.15.25 AMpointing at Officer L. Watts, a female, African American Officer on his force. It was individuals like Officer Watts that Sheriff Smith had referred to repeatedly in the media when arguing that there could not have been any racial component in Sandra Bland’s arrest and death because not all his staff was white.

On hard benches outside of the District Courtroom on the third floor of the Waller County Courthouse sat several Sandra Bland supporters, Officers from the Waller County Sheriff’s staff, and several members of the media. Many familiar faces sought or avoided eye contact as the same officers who had walked past those holding vigil for Sandra Bland now had to sit across from them while members of the press, who had once sweltered in the July heat, typed away on their laptops only a feet away.

When Officer Penny Goodie, of the Prairie View Police Department, emerged from the Courtroom looking dazed, she was quickly ushered down the stairs by a fellow female, African American Officer, S. Rutledge of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, before a voice said that Sheriff R. Glenn Smith was up next.

Emerging from Judge Albert M. McCaig, Jr.’s office, the room next to the courtroom, Sheriff Smith sauntered slowly past the Sandra Bland supporters to the door of the courtroom and took a seat on the bench. After a few minutes a man poked his head out and said to the Sheriff, “You’re good to go!” At which point, overcome with good humor, Sheriff Smith turned to Officer L. Watts and Officer J. Henry and delivered his crowd-pleasing line, “It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!” before chuckling and sauntering back past the Sandra Bland supporters and into Judge McCaig’s office once again to rejoin his Captain of Patrol, Officer Brian Cantrell, and the others gathered there.

A few minutes later, Sheriff Smith re-emerged from the Judge’s office whistling, as he had been wont to do several times in the preceding hours, and strolled up and down the hall before returning to the Judge’s office once again. It was a ritual that he would repeat several more times before the Officers seemed to tire of our social media reporting from the scene and demanded that “the public” leave at 5:00 pm; forcing everyone down the stairs and out into the quickly gathering dusk of evening, over the protests of local Waller leaders and television reporters who had never experienced such a curfew before.

The intentionality and persistence with which the Sheriff sought to flaunt what he saw as his triumph was unlike anything I had seen outside of slightly comedic scenes in television or on the stage. The exaggerated slowness of the saunter and persistent whistle was akin to a scene out of the early days of silent film, when the characters had to exaggerate their movements to get their point across without the assistance of audio. I was torn, uncertain whether he intended to be menacing or humorous; I suppose it was a little of both, for there have always been those who find amusement in seeking to intimidate others.

IMG_9454I could not help but wonder what these Officers on the bench across from me were really thinking and feeling. Certainly, I knew they were not too fond of me. I recognized Officer J. Henry from that time he walked behind Ranger and I as we sat in front of the Waller County Jail and joked to Assistant Chief Jailer L. Thibodeaux, “Got any room left in there?” (“For what?”) “For these two.” Yet, even so, putting their feelings for me aside, I found it hard to believe that they could feel proud of the behavior that their supervisor was exhibiting.

I have struggled for months to find a word to really capture the Sheriff’s particular brand of unassailable privilege that seeks to flaunt itself. The only word I have been able to quite find to describe it is hubris, but even that word seems to fall short of capturing its essence.

Or perhaps, on second thought, hubris does work. For it was that pomposity in the Greek tragedies that led the men of myth and legend to make decisions out of pride so excessive that it defied even the gods. In the Christian tradition, it was akin to the pride of Saul with his height, Samson with his strength, and Absalom with the flowing locks that were his undoing.

I have spent a good amount of time around the men and women of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office & Jail over the past five months. Enough time to have a certain fondness for some of them that makes me wonder if they feel trapped in the roles they occupy, or if they carry out their duties willingly. Enough time to have a healthy caution around others of them, whom I have watched as they have watched me; doing so long enough to know that the uneasy feeling I have in their presence never goes away. Enough time to know that even if they felt their stories were true, the Sheriff’s Office has wrapped them in so much subterfuge that it would be impossible for them to ever ring true now.

And so it happened, that we found ourselves ejected from the doors of the Waller County Courthouse by some of those same Officers, Rutledge, Watts, and Henry, to stand on the sidewalk outside of the Waller County Courthouse with a cadre of stunned television reporters who could not believe that they had really just been rudely tossed out of the building.

I could not help wondering, as I always do, why was it that the Sheriff always had his African American Officers be the ones to engage when there were people in protest or vigil.

Actually, no, that is not what I wondered. I knew the answer to that, as the well-informed reader will as well. The actual question in my mind was: how did these Officers feel about being used that way? They had to be familiar with the Sheriff’s rhetoric that he could not be racist because they were on his staff. And they had to have noticed, as we all did, that they were always the ones chosen to be on the front lines; from the time when Rutledge and other African American staff were sent into the lobby first to ask protesters to leave, all the way up to tonight, when she was once again put in that position, along with Watts and Henry, while white Officers and staff watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office.

I know they seem to hate me, and they probably think I hate them; but in truth, I can’t help but love them and hurt for them and wish we could all be set free from the bondage of this patriarchal, white supremacist culture that prioritizes the comfort of white men over the lives of black women: whether it be Sandra Bland or Officer S. Rutledge.

After 4 hours of waiting in the dark, the five special prosecutors finally emerged from the darkened Courthouse and descended the stairs towards the presser. Darrell Jordan, the spokesperson for the special prosecutors approached the microphone and began, “After presenting all of the evidence, as it relates to the death of Sandra Bland, the Grand Jury did not return an indictment…”

Sheriff R. Glenn Smith watched through the glass doors from the hallway above (just as those gathered with him had watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office), as we now listened to the news that neither he, nor anyone on his staff would be indicted in the death of Sandra Bland.

His victory seemed to be complete.

Yet, it would only appear that way to someone who did not know the way that stories about hubris end.

(Hint: It’s not over.)

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