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The Postmortem Prosecution of Sandra Bland

On February 2, 2016, the world finally got to hear some of the “investigation” interviews concerning the death of Sandra Bland. In audio obtained from the state of Texas and released by the Bland family and their attorneys, an investigator asks inmates who had been in cells close to Sandra nothing of substance beyond repeated questions about whether they thought she could have smoked marijuana in her cell. To which the answer was a clear and confident: no.

This confirmed something many of us have known since Day 1: Officials in Waller County have not been investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s death, they have been prosecuting Sandra Bland in the imaginations of Waller County residents.

They have been doing so in order to avoid their own actual prosecution, because they never believed it would go this far. They never believed that a family in Chicago saying they did not believe their daughter/sister had committed suicide, alumni of Prairie View tweeting #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, and a rag tag group of die hard supporters sitting in front of a jail for 80 days could turn into a national uproar.

But it did. They overplayed their hand. They did not know the power of Sandy’s voice.

In frantic, sloppy and ill-advised attempts to avoid offering real justice in the courts, they chose instead to prosecute the victim, Sandra Bland, in the court of public opinion. They chose poorly and they have been beaten most profoundly, soundly and deeply, by no other voice than her own.

In attempting to understand this choice, we must ask ourselves why a Sheriff and District Attorney, whose own relatives are said to have been arrested for drug use, would focus in upon marijuana as the most prominent and pertinent topic to publicize.

To understand that, you have to understand the trigger that the word marijuana is, as well as the generational divide around the topic.

Sandra Bland, myself, and nearly all Millennials have never lived a day outside of the New Jim Crow, a system of creating criminal records for people of color in order to maintain our nation’s historic pattern of creating different prospects and opportunities based on race.

The generations that preceded GenX and the Millennials had been able to rely upon Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, separation, and increased opportunities for white people to advance. When that legal system was dismantled, however, anxiety built, in much the same way that we now observe it doing so among Trump supporters that flock to his racist pronouncements like moths to a flame. Enter the revival in the early 80’s of the “War on Drugs.”

Less than three weeks before I was born in 1982, Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs, such as marijuana, to be a threat to national security. Being a threat to national security elevated them in the psyche of white America from being the naughty pastime of hippies in the 60’s, and rock gods in the 70’s to a sinister force. Without diminishing the real harm done to lives through addiction and drug-related violence, it is crucial to understand how these policies have been racialized both in their enforcement and in the imagination of Americans.

No one explains it better than Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow” a taste of which she gave us in her 2011 HuffPo piece: “From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.  The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.”

Now, place a campus full of Millennials, a generation with a 68% statistical preference for the legalization of marijuana, in the middle of a community with a significantly older and more traditional demographic, and you will quickly find the same situation that you find in communities all around the world: drug use and differing perspectives on it lead to significant inter-generational tensions and concern from the community.

Consequently, you create a local populace who is very sensitive to certain trigger words, and one especially: Marijuana.

Officials in Waller County thought that associating the word marijuana with Sandra Bland’s name would be sufficient to turn the populace against her, triggering generational tensions in some cases and racial prejudices in others, and silencing the topic of her mysterious death.

They were wrong.

They thought that they could continue to pass off white people’s involvement in drug trafficking as “adorable” mistakes and aberrations from the norm, while framing Sandra Bland as the impetus for her own demise.

They were wrong.

They thought that at the word “Marijuana” Sandra’s voice would be silenced, and her supporters would scurry away in shame.

They were wrong.

Seeing as they have not done a real investigation, I am going to tell you just two of the countless things I observed during those 80 days outside the jail:

No women were released during the first couple weeks to walk out the front door where supporters could see or interact with them, only men who would not have been in cells close to Sandra at the end. The woman who they did release was first spotted instead in front of a news camera on another local street telling a version of Sandra’s last hours that matched the false portrayal of Sandra by officials much better than it matched the character known to family, friends, and even the casual #SandySpeaks viewer.

The men who did come out spoke of Sandra Bland as the woman whose arm was hurt, not as the woman who was using drugs. Since the pain she was experiencing seemed to be pretty public knowledge in the jail, one must ask why that wasn’t what the investigators asked about?

The answer is simple: they were not investigating Sandra Bland’s death, they were prosecuting her life.