Tag Archives: waller county

64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merciful God,

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

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

White Fear & the Hate Next Door

Recently a Facebook Group was brought to my attention by a friend. Before I could read the title, I was struck by the images of my face photoshopped.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 4.29.14 PM

10513491_1109615835756114_6654035767011217024_nThe photo of me reading scripture at the celebration service of Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, her Bishop’s crook carefully photoshopped out and my nose elongated as a reference to deceit.

The photo of me throwing my head back and laughing while holding my friend’s niece, her curly black baby hair rising up to almost touch my chin. The baby had been carefully deleted from the p1915561_1109614982422866_1961854907786616656_nhoto and my face altered, once again, transforming my joyful smile into more of a menacing appearance.

The first feeling that I had was violation. That someone would search me out, and go through my photos dating back several years. The second feeling that I felt was a cold child, that someone could do all of that and not be impacted in the least by those images of my humanity, my moments of joy and closeness with loved ones. It was chilling that the their sense of hatred and anger was in no way dampened by examining who I am and the people who have made me that person. Instead, they chose to distort some of the most joyful and intimate moments of my life into images of hate.

There was a mixture of horror and humor from those that saw it. Some finding the pettiness of it amusing, others finding the heartlessness of it frightening. One person commented that it must have been a “band of wretched psychos” who had put the group together.

What is truly frightening, however, is that it was not psychos. What was truly disturbing was not my altered photos, but their unaltered photos. When you clicked on the link to see the members of the group, the pictures were very similar to my own photos before they had distorted them. The people in the group were someone’s grandmother, someone’s mommy, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. They were your neighbor. They were your church member. They were the person next to you at the rodeo, the woman cheering at your son’s baseball game. They were your brother’s boss, and your sister’s jogging buddy. They were that grandmother whose cookies you can never resist at the church baked good’s fundraiser. They were the Judge who you let kiss your baby when he was running for election.

names removed group

They were not psychos. They were us. They were white America. Terrified of losing “our” country to the people who had lived there before any white people arrived. Terrified that “our” way of doing things would not be allowed to continue. Terrified of what it meant for that way of life when a woman like Sandra Bland could expect her legal rights to be respected regardless of her mood or her cigarette; and when a white woman would break ranks with them to stand with Sandra instead, calling that same Sandra Bland they had linked to drugs and disorderly conduct an evangelist and an activist instead.

They were white America. Terrified that the word “reconciliation” would be torn from the grip and control of the white America who had worked so hard to domesticate it, changing it’s meaning to “peace” and the ability to live together in comfort; terrified that the word would be taken back by the same kind of people who had used it to indicate radical change during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s; terrified that reconciliation, once set free, would be reunited inseparably with its partner justice, making it impossible to have one without the other.

The only face that I recognized of the group was a man who represents the face of Justice in Waller County, Judge Trey Duhon, who I have been told is a member of a local congregation of the United Methodist Church, as well as a member of the Texas Bar Association. The fact that he would choose, as an elected official, to be a member of a group whose banner said of me, “I hope you choke on your lies,” seemed odd. What made it stranger was that he had reportedly written himself, around the time of joining the group, to a woman named Dottie Moore, in a letter that she made public to her friends on Facebook on August 27, 2015, and as a result of tagging a friend of mine made it visible to me as well. In his letter Judge Trey Duhon wrote:

As you can see, it bothersome that someone wearing a minister’s collar is engaging in potential slander. You would think that she, more than anyone, would be familiar with scripture like the following:

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Or how about:

Matthew 7:1-29 Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. …

I really don’t want to sue Ms Bonner for slander and I really don’t want to give her more publicity either.

Judge Trey Duhon was correct: I am indeed very familiar with those verses. In fact, I memorized them as a child and they became part of the infrastructure of my decision making. I am also very familiar with the fact that whether we can quote them is much less important than whether we can live them, and that the truth of our words and of our hearts will most assuredly be known by our fruit.

Our nation is on the brink of a change. People are fighting for their lives to be valued, while others are fighting back, afraid of what that will mean for our way of life. There is confusion, as people grapple with seeing things they do not understand.

White people who are any measure of woke: talk to your neighbors, to your brother, to your grandmother; talk to the woman who is proud of her cookies, the woman who is proud of her grandkids, and the woman who is proud of her guns.

If our country misses the opportunity to make this nation a more just place that honors God by honoring the sacredness of each of God’s children, it will not be because of those on the fringes yelling out the N-word into the open air. It will be because of us, our grandmothers, our brothers, and our children. It will be because enough of us were silent when the time came to speak up. It will be because enough of us quietly stood still when it was time to step out and break ranks to go where God called us.

That does not have to be the story of white people in America. We can change this. We can make a difference.

“I can’t do this alone. I need you. I need y’all’s help. I need you.” -Sandra Bland

 

‘The Next Generation of Waller County’

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

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

Yes, that Sheriff Smith.

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

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

Sheriff for the Next Generation of Waller County.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Bland: Justice Delayed, Not Denied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice delayed is not justice denied.

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.”

image1

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.

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.

Newyork2

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.

image5

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.