Tag Archives: #sandyspeaks

5 Things to Know About Judge in Brian Encinia Trial

On July 10, 2015 Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland for failing to use her turn signal. Encinia escalated the stop, according to the Department of Public Safety, and after attempting to pull her from her car, threatened her with his taser before taking her out of sight of the dash cam throwing her to the ground. On July 13, Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell. On January 6, 2016, Brian Encinia was indicted with a misdemeanor charge of perjury for lying about why he took her from her car. On March 22, 2016 he will be arraigned before Judge Albert M. McCaig.

1. Judge Albert M. “Buddy” McCaig was elected on a Tea Party Platform: Judge McCaig built his campaign upon anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric heavily tinged with xenophobia.

From his 2010 campaign speech: “We were not attacked by a bunch of blonde haired Scandinavians, but by radical Islam. Say it and do something about it. In addition to that, a strong defense means protecting our borders from the 24-7-365 invasion going on from the south… Education is essential to liberty. I have great respect for teachers and educators. But, they have been inundated with rules and regulations that interfere with their ability to teach. They have been swamped with students who do not speak our native language… We know what the problems are, but what can we do to make it right? Short of armed rebellion, is there hope for America? I say that there is. We are not yet at a point of armed rebellion – and I pray to God we never get there – but it is time to act. Call up your neighbors, your sisters, your brothers, your sons and daughters, and tell them plainly that we must take back America now, before it is too late… Illegal immigration is the enemy, but it is not the primary enemy. The primary enemy is the progressive liberal ideas that promote illegal immigration; that sues our citizens; takes down our flag in favor of the Mexican flag; and that forces us to “dial one” for English. That is the enemy. “

2. Experience in presiding over high profile corruption cases: In 2014, in a case upon which Flint has cast new light, Judge McCaig chose to recuse himself from a case involving environmental justice when local authorities were accused of making back room deals that ran the risk of polluting local drinking water.

From the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage of the case: “At stake in the trial, is whether the 15-story dump can be built at the proposed site near Highway 6 and above an aquifer that provides drinking water for many in the Houston region. Opponents argue the project was discussed and moved forward illegally in back-room talks between Green Group Holdings and Waller County officials.”

After a civil trial ruled that the County Judge had acted inappropriately in making the deal to host the dump in back room meetings, District Judge McCaig blocked a criminal trial from proceeding.

From the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage of the case: “A civil jury in December ruled that Waller County – primarily County Judge Glenn Beckendorff and Commissioners Stan Kitzman and Frank Pokluda – repeatedly violated open meetings and public records laws by holding closed sessions with developers more than two years before agreeing to host the project… “My hands are kind of tied on issues of possible criminal prosecution because I was not vested jurisdiction over that,” Mathis said. “Until the district judge says otherwise or until the prosecutors send the case file back to me and ask me to take over, I can’t do anything.”

3. Oversaw 2015 mistrial of ex-Deputy Daniel Willis murder trial for killing Yvette Smith: On February 16, 2014, Daniel Willis shot local African American woman Yvette Smith as she opened the front door of her house. Willis had been responding to a call about two men fighting and was interacting with the men in the front yard when Smith opened her front door to check on the situation and Willis shot her twice as she stood on her front porch. Judge McCaig was brought in from Waller County to Bastrop County to preside over the case, reportedly because of his experience with handling the press. In a shocking turn of events, in September of 2015, the jury delivered a mistrial and Daniel Willis was released back into the community.

From the Austin Statesman coverage of the case: “The ruling allows Willis, 30, to walk free for now in the shooting death of 47-year-old Yvette Smith, sparking accusations of racial discrimination in Bastrop County and anger among Smith’s friends and family. Willis, who is white, shot and killed Smith, who is black, while responding to a domestic disturbance in Camp Swift in February 2014. Smith was unarmed when Willis opened fire on her.”

The evidence that The Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office had lied repeatedly in a blatant attempt to cover up the murder had not been sufficient to ensure a conviction.

From the Daily Kos coverage of the case: “Police not only claimed that Smith emerged from the home with a firearm, they stated that she ignored police commands. In essence, Smith came out of that house, according to police, ready to bring hellfire and damnation on police and they acted out in self-defense from an incredibly dangerous woman. This is a lie. A complete fabrication. When Sheriff Terry Pickering issued the statement, he was fully and completely aware that Yvette Smith wasn’t armed. No weapon was found on or near her. He knew this. The officers on the scene knew this, but Sheriff Pickering issued that statement anyway.”

4. Fought the end of the “pick-a-pal” Grand Jury selection in Texas: In a highly publicized series of letters. Judge McCaig, along with Waller County DA Elton Mathis, passionately disputed the end of the “pick-a-pal” system that was replaced by a more random process of selection for those to serve on Grand Juries. Concerned about how the new system would impact proceedings, on July 27th, two weeks after the death of Sandra Bland, Judge McCaig wrote a letter to Sen. John Whitmire, who had sponsored the bill to reform the Grand Jury System, complaining about the new process that he and DA Elton Mathis would have to use.

From the Texas Tribune coverage: “I remain convinced that the Texas Legislature has given us a law that is not only unworkable but is fraught with avenues of abuse,” state District Judge Albert McCaig Jr. wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to state Sen. John Whitmire about the new law, which ends the controversial “pick-a-pal,” or “key man,” grand jury system.

Throughout the month of August, as the time for Grand Jury selection in the death of Sandra Bland approached, Judge McCaig continued to correspond, exhibiting a particular focus on concerns about the Bill’s language around race.

From the Houston Press coverage: “McCaig claimed in the letter that the new bill required him to select a grand jury based on “seemingly subjective standards of race, ethnicity, sex and age.” In his letter, McCaig had a number of questions about the specifics of the bill, including “What is the difference between race and ethnicity?” and “Does the word ‘consider’ mean ‘must consider’ or ‘may consider’ or some other subjective standard?”

5. His Office hosted Sheriff R. Glenn Smith throughout the Grand Jury proceedings: Members of the press and supporters of Sandra Bland observed Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, Captain Brian Cantrell and other senior members of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office keeping a watchful eye over the Grand Jury proceedings from Judge Mccain’s office adjacent to the courtroom. This took place both during deliberations concerning Waller County Jail employees on December 21st which ended in no indictments, and deliberations concerning Brian Encinia on January 6th which ended in a minor indictment for perjury.

From my own report of the scene: “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.”

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Sandra Bland Believed in You

*Cover photo by Lamarcus Feggins, @differentworldimages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Congresswoman to DOJ: Investigate Death of Sandra Bland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add your voice along with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee:

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He took a picture,” Officer Rutledge responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would she do that?” I asked.

“I have to go,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all in this together, after all.

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