Tag Archives: #sandrabland

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.

Open Letter To the Sheriff of Waller County

Dear sir,

Last night, for the first time, I looked at one of the articles that was written after you told me to “go back to the Church of Satan that you run.”  At the time, I’ll be honest, I was aware that there was a good deal of media taking place around your comments to me; yet, I did not look at any of it. The reason was that I had more important things to do, to be frank. I was focused on staying alive and hydrated in scorching heat, and trying to maintain a peaceful and prayerful attitude, despite your threats that there would be “consequences” for those in vigil and despite the death threats I was receiving from people as far away as Alaska and as close as the farm up the road. I could not afford to be distracted, because I needed all of my focus to be on God in order to have the strength to continue.

When I looked at that old article from the Houston Press today, it actually caught me off guard. I think that at the time we all assumed that you either intended a slight towards a) the radically inclusive and loving congregation where I serve b) The Shout community of artist activists or c) that you were simply from an old-school mentality that found it difficult to acknowledge women as clergy.

What I saw instead last night shocked me. You actually intended to accuse me of working for the devil on that day in August. Despite the fact that the local superintendent of my church had come by the jail to sit with me and talk a couple weeks before. Despite the fact that I had sat in front of your jail for three weeks before that and your officers had marked my plates repeatedly and I felt certain you knew exactly who I was, exactly where I worked, and exactly where I lived. Despite the fact that just the week before I had marched beside Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to honor Sandra Bland at Hope AME. Despite the fact that everyone else in Waller County seemed to know I was a Methodist pastor, leading to the organizing of the Concerned Methodists of Waller County to protest against my presence in vigil for Sandra Bland. Despite all of these factors, you still stated that you intended to accuse me of working for the devil?

From the Houston Press: “In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Sheriff Glenn Smith attempted to explain why he called a clergywoman a Satanist, set up barricades to deter protesters, and cut down a nearby tree where protesters liked to gather for shade. “My grandmother used to tell me, if you’re not doing godly things, then you must be working for the devil, because there is no in-between,” said Smith, who was suspended and fired from his post as chief of police in Hempstead [by the predominantly African American Hempstead City Council] in 2008 amid accusations of racism and police misconduct before being elected Waller County Sheriff later that year [by the predominantly white Waller County].”

You went on to say that you had seen Satanists wearing clergy collars like mine before… in Waller County? Despite the humorous letter the Church of Satan wrote, disavowing any connection with me yet offering their wholehearted support, it is clear that you intended your words to be a condemnation of myself, those who stand with Sandra, and those I love. It is clear that you were summoning the most vile condemnation you could muster, and there were no stronger words you could find than to say that I serve the devil. Beyond unprofessional and abusive, your words and actions were reckless and could have put myself and my colleagues in the path of harm.

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Some of the words sent to me that week after you accused me of working for the Devil.

Which brings us to the ironic part of this whole situation. The irony in your statement is that the thing that both summons me to this work and gives me the strength to carry it out is the love and calling of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without the calling of Christ, I could not have endured 80 days at your front door. Without the peace of Christ, I could not have found the compassion to sit in front of your office and pray not only for the conviction and honesty, but also for the safety for those working inside. Without the perfect love that casts out fear, I could not have found the courage to stay there despite the fact that you very clearly intended to draw animosity and danger our way.

To be clear, I am 5’2”, 120 lbs, and the only form of defense I have ever carried is my Bible and my guitar. Yet, I frighten you.

This is why, sir, you make me sad, and I will pray for you. You make me sad because from your own words, you seem to have had a grandmother that loved you and talked to you about God and what it means to serve God; I am sad that you have not given the world the impression that those lessons sunk in. That is important to me, as a Christian minister, and as United Methodist clergy, because all who claim the name of Christ have a responsibility to one another and to the whole world that God created and loves. When we fail to live in a manner that inspires faith in others, we do a disservice to the cross of Jesus Christ. We mock him in his suffering, our crucified Lord, a legally innocent man taken into custody by members of his own faith community, just as Sandra Bland was.

My calling to stand with my sister in Christ, my fellow Methodist, Sandra Bland, is no work of the devil. My choice to continually say her name is no trick of the tongue. My persistence in demanding an answer to “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” is nothing more and nothing less than a conviction that whatever happened to her would not have happened to me; because as a white woman in a collar, I would never have had Officer Brian Encinia try to tear me from my car. That is a state of affairs that, as a Christian minister, I cannot be silent about, because it was my own Christian faith that helped to build a system where black bodies were not treated as sacred, cherished, and loved. I must be a part of dismantling what a distortion of my faith’s teachings put in place.

Know this, intimidation will not work. We will continue to ask: What Happened To Sandra Bland? We want the truth. There is no answer we are afraid of receiving; we stand with her whatever may come, for we already know the truth is that she should never have been in your jail to start. You can understand why, for me, the way you have spoken of and treated me makes it hard for me to believe that her treatment could possibly have been above reproach. You can also understand why it has been difficult to believe the official narrative when I heard you with my own ears say that Sandra had died by tying a noose and then sitting down on the toilet. Remember, you told that activist from Dallas that story and she recorded it? I think I heard three different versions from you that first week. It made it impossible for me to accept your official version once you all got together and got on the same page and decided what it would work to say happened.

You may not see me every day, but we have not gone anywhere; we have merely shifted our efforts to acknowledge the complexity of the justice system. Be assured that we will drop by from time to time to ensure you do not forget to #SayHerName #SandraBland

As for me, sir, I am still waiting on an apology from you. I heard a rumor that you apologized to a reporter for me. Yet, you have already made it abundantly clear that your grandmother was very involved in instructing you; so I am certain that your grandmother made it clear that apologies must be made to the person to whom offense has been given, and that they must be sincere. So I will continue to wait, and pray that God softens your heart. If that be not the will of God, hardened hearts have been known to work just as well to set God’s people free.

Your sister in Christ,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

p.s. I will be lifting up prayers for your friends as well

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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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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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