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The Whistling Sheriff: Sandra Bland Grand Jury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His victory seemed to be complete.

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

(Hint: It’s not over.)

Why You’ve Never Heard Me Say Sandra Bland Was Murdered

You’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered.

Words are precious to me. I handle them with care. I work with poets who shuffle them around like puzzle pieces on a table until they find just the right fit. I was raised by a man who took the half-page permission slips that my elementary school teachers sent home with me and made me late for the bus as he pored over each word before signing. I serve a religious tradition where great debates decades long were waged over whether the word transubstantiation or consubstantiation should be used to describe the Eucharist.

So, no, you’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. That is something I can neither know nor prove. And to say something I can neither know nor prove detracts from the validity of what I do know and can prove.

What you will hear me say is that Sandra Bland’s life was taken.

Day by day a system of white supremacy seeks to chip away at the vitality of young women of color in this nation. Day by day, their souls must expand in order to merely survive as some piece or peace is constantly being taken.

In this journey of five months, I have not been driven and motivated by Sandra’s death, I have been driven by her life. What she was. What she could have been. What has been taken from her family. What has been taken from all of us. What can be given back to her of her legacy by keeping her name, voice, image and story alive.

A death is not enough to drive the movement that this nation needs, because if we are driven by death, we will become dependent upon it occurring.

We cannot need the blood of others. We cannot come to rely upon it being spilt.

I was at a meeting earlier this year when a wise woman, I believe it was Rev. Candy Holmes, said that we could not be dependent on the sacrifice of our young, the blood of our slain to motivate the movement. We must struggle and fight for justice without needing someone to die to herald our attention, motivate our action, or mobilize our masses. It is true, I was out in the streets for Michael, for Eric, for Tamir; but I do not want it to cost anyone else’s life for us to stay motivated to end the injustice that exists.

In this journey, I have been counting not on Sandra Bland’s death but on her life. We have a gift in the record she left us, a gift not to be squandered. I have been counting on her leadership, her voice, her wisdom, her authenticity, her weakness, her struggle, her strength. I could not afford to see her as the image that our media tried to leave to us: a little bit shattered in an orange jumpsuit. That was not her. She was not an object of pity, a vessel broken, or a corpse. She was life. Life was what was taken from us. What she offered us was not her death, what she offered was her life. Her true identity and legacy lies not in the fact that she died but in the fact that she lived, loved, suffered, triumphed, struggled, succeeded.

On many occasions, and as recently as 30 minutes ago, I have had to turn to God, turn to Scriptures, and turn to Sandra’s own words to find my way. When I do so, I do not do so fueled by an image of her in an orange prison jumpsuit. I have never allowed my eyes to more than glance at such an image. When I do so, I am fueled by an image of a perfectly imperfect woman who was passionate enough about her calling to answer it with curlers in her hair and these words: “It’s time ya’ll. It’s time.”

And these words: “I can’t do this alone, I need ya’lls help.”

And these words: “It’s time to stop saying, I knew that was going to happen, and it’s time to start doing something.”

And these words: “It’s God that’s truly opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”

So no, you will not hear me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. The words you will hear me choose to use are that Sandra Bland’s life was taken. And if we do nothing, we are all complicit. And if we do nothing, it will happen again. Because there is a system in place in this nation that seeks to break down what is most threatening to it: a black woman who loves herself and her sisters enough to take action so that they will all live safe and free.

She lost her life in taking that action. Why? Because the action is necessary. If it was not necessary, she would still be alive today. If the racism and system of injustice that she spoke against and struggled against did not exist, she would still be alive today. It was that system that took her life, by whatever method it did so.

Nina Simone once sang:

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear

Later in an interview, when asked what freedom meant to her, Nina Simone answered: “No fear.”

What more was Sandra Bland trying to do but live free so that others might do so as well.

I still do not have an answer to the question we asked for 80 days in front of the Waller County Jail: “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” The reality is that even if the official story is the fact, it has been so steeped in falsehood that you could not blame anyone who could not recognize it as truth. From shifting stories to slander to preposterous tours of the jail cell where the “untouched” objects were constantly moving in the pictures reporters brought out – the water has become so muddy that we cannot see what is at the bottom of it all. The only thing that is clear is that there is more to the story than we have gotten.

In the midst of all that we do not know, this is what we do know:

Sandra Bland should not have been followed.

Sandra Bland should not have been pulled over.

Sandra Bland should not have been threatened with a taser.

Sandra Bland should not have been taken from her car.

Sandra Bland should not have been thrown to the ground.

Sandra Bland should not have been arrested.

Sandra Bland should never have been in the Waller County Jail.

Regardless of what it cost her, we cannot ignore the fact that in the last moments that we have sight of Sandra Bland, she lived free; by Nina Simone’s definition, she lived without fear.

Many critique her that if she had operated with the appropriate fear and deference she would still be with us today. Yet, we cannot build a just world where people can live free through fear. We have to build it by eliminating the necessity for fear, by eliminating a system that judges us differently. That will cost us all something, and white people like myself must pay our hefty portion of the bill that has come due.

There are many people in this nation who could drive through life without ever being aware that what happened to Sandra Bland was a possibility. In Sandra’s words, “It’s time.” We’ve got to let go of wherever it was that we were trying to get to in life, pull the car over and do something.

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The Creeping Fear of Waller County

There are few vehicles in the world that I am more familiar with than the Waller County Sheriff’s truck. In the 80 consecutive days that we sat in vigil for Sandra Bland outside the Waller County Jail, I lost count of how many times we saw it parked around the side of the building for the inmates in orange jumpsuits to wash by hand.

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So when I heard last week that an arsenal of guns, including a powerful machine gun, had been stolen from that same truck, I could not help but wonder how many times those inmates had been within inches of that arsenal without knowing it.

It was a sobering thought indeed to realize that even the Sheriff himself was not immune to the creeping fear of Waller County.

I had spent months sitting in Waller County before I could verbalize that feeling. The creeping fear. The understanding of your context that grows with time. Wears you down. Remarkable, then, that the Sheriff, who many credit with helping create it, actually felt it himself, for I do not doubt his words. When he said to reporters that he felt the need to carry all those guns partly because of death threats he had received after Sandra Bland, I take him partly at his word. As a woman who carries the Book, I’ve turned to the Book to deal with my own death threats; so I can accept that as a man who carries a gun, he would turn to guns to cope with his.

Since recognizing that almost tangible sensation of fear, I have tried to understand what creates or contributes to this atmosphere.

Learned Helplessness

Encyclopedia Brittanica defines learned helplessness as, “a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.”

The phenomenon was originally discovered when dogs ceased to try to escape after repeatedly being shocked. Even if you turned off the shock fence, they would not try to escape because they had learned they were helpless. This was confirmed in human behavior as well.

Learned helplessness is the kind of phenomenon that might develop if a town were to terminate their Chief of Police, only to have him elected Sheriff and positioned in an office less than a mile away from the one he was forced to vacate. That is what happened to Hempstead when R. Glenn Smith was terminated by vote of the City Council, only to be elected Sheriff by Waller County and positioned in an office 2 minutes driving, or 15 minutes walking, from his original post.

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Learned helplessness might also develop if the media praised that same Sheriff for his transparency and search for accountability, when citizens knew it was anything but that. That is what happened when media praised Sheriff R. Glenn Smith for naming an independent citizen review board to “investigate” the jail after Sandra Bland’s death and to be headed up by what the press described as a Houston attorney who was “not personal friends” with the Sheriff. What the media failed to note was that the Austin St. address of Looney’s offices were actually across the street from the Waller County Court House and that he shared those offices with Judge Trey Duhon who was a personal friend of the Waller County Sheriff. Duhon and Looney were said to have cut ties to avoid any undue influence; yet, if you drive past the Waller County Court House, you will still see this sign hanging.

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Hempstead offices of Looney & Conrad across from Waller Co.Court House
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Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, DA Elton Mathis, Judge Trey Duhon

Thus, for those paying attention on the ground, it came as no surprise when Looney came forward later on to say that his review was really just casual and for the eyes of the Sheriff alone for him to do with what he wanted. Many at a distance had been fooled into thinking this was a sign of hope. Yet, it is what has proven to be a classic stalling technique to distract the press and the populace.

Another example would be when DA Elton Mathis said that Sandra Bland’s death would be investigated as a murder, then quickly followed it up with a statement a couple days later that it had been deemed a suicide. Yet, that initial statement distracted people repeatedly as it was shared again and again as the months wore on.

Perhaps the strongest illustration of how learned helplessness is maintained, however, was the arrest of the Honorable Jonathan Miller. Shortly after he had voted to confirm the naming of the road Sandra Bland was arrest on Sandra Bland Parkway, the Honorable Jonathan Miller, the youngest City Councilman on Prairie View’s City Council, was shot with a taser and arrested in his own front yard. His crime? Questioning why police were hassling his guests in his front yard. The police officers insisted they had very good reason to be questioning his friends; yet, once they had Jonathan Miller tased and on the ground, they told his friends they could disperse and that they had no problem with them. Since that time, the Honorable Jonathan Miller has not been able to be employed in his occupation as a teacher because DA Elton Mathis has neither moved forward with the case, nor dropped the charges against him. Leaving him in a cruel limbo until the timing is right in the press or, more likely, until the press goes away. The message is clear: if this can happen to a City Councilman, why could it not happen to you or your neighbor? Why even try?

Fear of Retaliation

Witnessing events like this over and over again leads to a fear of retaliation. On August 11, I arrived at the jail to discover a group of women waiting for me. Although their presence was alarming at first, they were not waiting for me for the reason you might have guessed. The first words were spoken with tears in their eyes, “Please, please be careful…” as I promised them that I would before they drove off. They were concerned because the day before the Sheriff had told me 1) to go back to the Church of Satan 2) that there would be consequences for myself, those with me, and anyone who tried to help me 3) that things would be different if I came back the next day. Therefore, their concern when I returned the next day

The fear that I had seen in their eyes was something that I would see and hear again on an almost a daily basis from many in the area of Hempstead who wanted to help or befriend me, but were terrified of the consequences for doing so. What would the consequences be? I do not know; but the terror was real and tangible. I do not have an explanation, that is their story to tell; what I have is an observation. People will say, as they have said, that this is all made up and I am just a really good writer; to which I say: a) Thank you for the compliment b) If people feel authentic fear I am not going to divulge personal details about them in order to prove a point.

Intimidation

This fear is kept relevant by small and persistent signs of intimidation. As our vigil for Sandra Bland wore away at people’s fear, the walls protecting the culture of fear were reinforced by small yet public acts of intimidation. Many people are aware of the cycle of intimidation that ran its course and sputtered out between the Sheriff’s department and the Sandra Bland supporters. By that I am referring to the “Church of Satan” – erection of barricades -cutting down of trees – reporting to the FBI – dismantling of toxic barricades – welding of permanent steel barricades – removal of prayer stones – paving of the parking lot – cycle of intimidation through which the Sheriff mysteriously carried out “maintenance” that had been delayed for years or decades in a matter of weeks in an attempt to dissuade our prayer vigil from continuing.

What most are not aware of are the men who sat in cars and watched us. The men who sat in cars and followed us. The man who sat watching me in a green car in the parking lot of Hope AME and ominously asked me, “Is this your church?” To which I could most easily reply, “It is not. It is God’s.” We can only imagine that our experience is not an isolated experience.

Insulated Social Media

Yet, while our experience of intimidation may not be different, our experience of social media does seem to be. People around the country noticed from the start that there was something peculiar about the social media world of Waller County and the way officials engaged on social media when Judge Trey Duhon tweeted about Sandra Bland from what seemed to be a professional account.Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 1.30.48 AM

Granted, many of us tweet very opinionated or strongly worded tweets on a regular basis; but what was unusual was that it was coming from an account titled @WallerInfo. For many, that was the first time they had experienced a sitting Judge tweeting information and opinions about a case and an individual.

The second way that people became aware of the insulated manner of engaging social media was through The Waller County News, a closed and private Facebook group that included the Sheriff, among over 5,000 other members. It’s been reported that the communication that went on within the group seemed to very strongly support locally elected officials and discourage critique. Many who expressed critique reported being removed from the group by the administrators.

The result was a social media environment that was insulated from the outside world, and in which local officials utilized social media to  increase the fear of the outside world.

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This reality, thus, becomes very pertinent when the topic at hand is the death of Sandra Bland. On the one side of the scales of justice is the death of a woman whom local, insular social media has portrayed as

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Just a reminder… this is the real Sandra Bland.

a disrespectful, drug-addicted, criminal who was estranged from her family and an out-of-towner to boot. On the other side, are the salaries, careers and futures of locals, along with the potential for a legal settlement that would cost the county financially. Without intervention from the Department of Justice, those who will decide whether any wrongdoing occurred to Ms. Bland will be those who have been immersed in this culture and will have to live with the repercussions or rewards of their decision.

Isolation

Being less densely populated, a rural location provides residents with more limited options socially, politically and economically intensifying all of the factors above. Relationships bear a different value, a different weight when options are fewer. Without the support of those around you, life can be very hard and very lonely; making the avoidance of rifts a high priority. In addition, if you do not like who you have elected into office, you have limited options for who can replace them. Lastly, if word spreads that you are not a friend of the community, it is easier to create financial repercussions. In light of all this, intimidation bears a different weight than it does in a more urban setting. Not perhaps a greater weight, but simply a different weight.

Implications

Bearing all of this in mind, it should be clear why the people of Hempstead, Prairie View and Waller County merit our fervent support and prayers: most particularly, perhaps, those selected to serve on the Grand Jury.

 

 

Open Letter To the Sheriff of Waller County

Dear sir,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sister in Christ,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

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

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100 Days With Sandra Bland… And Counting

There’s an image burned into my memory that never goes away. I see it more and more this week as I approach the 100th Day of standing in solidarity with Sandra Bland. When I close my eyes, I see two women sitting side by side, one in a black and white patterned dress, the other in something less subdued, yellow, I think. But I don’t really see the clothes; it’s not the clothes that matter, or the hair, or the shoes. All I really see are the eyes. Overflowing with a kind of grief that I had never seen before.

I had not come to Hope AME on Day 5 prepared to say anything, but had been asked to give a prayer. As I stepped to the pulpit and looked down into the eyes of Shante Needham and Sharon Cooper, the oldest sisters of Sandra Bland, I felt my world shift. When my eyes locked with their eyes, ten words I had not planned to say tumbled out of my mouth, gently but firmly, and hit the pulpit like a gavel striking on velvet: “I’ll do this as long as you need me to.”

Nine days earlier, not far outside the doors of the very church where we gathered, their young, vibrant sister, Sandra Bland, had been taken from her car. She had been threatened, she had been thrown to the ground, she had been arrested. Whatever the charges said, her main crime was not a crime at all, but something the women I respect most strive to practice on a daily basis: the refusal to prioritize a man’s ego over our rights and dignity.

Yet, even so, what happened to Sandra Bland would not have happened to me; because when my parents gave “the talk” to their white daughter it was about how to avoid getting a ticket when pulled over, not about how to stay alive. The “get home safe talk” is not a conversation white parents have to have with their children; which is why I have limited patience for conversations about what Sandra should have done to avoid police brutality as a black woman, because there should not be a different set of rules for her and for me. Yet, there is. And police brutality should not be something she should have to learn how to avoid, because police brutality is something that simply should not exist.

None of those things were running through my head, however, when I looked down into Sharon’s eyes and Shante’s. All I could think about was the pain they were enduring, and the fact that they should not have to be there to pick up the body of their baby sister.

IMG_6443Sandra’s voice in her first #SandySpeaks video was still ringing in my head from the first night, five days earlier, that I had gone to the Waller County Jail with my friends Rhys Caraway and Nina Bernardin to #SayHerName and ask #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. Sandy had said in her first video, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help. I need you.” She did not know at the time why those words would become so necessary.

Seven weeks later, I found myself standing late at night outside that church, at the memorial that still remains at the scene of Sandra’s arrest. I had not planned to be there, but a friend from out of town had wanted to come. So, after letting her fill me with tacos and sweet tea, I had made the drive out to Waller County for the second time that day.IMG_9475

In the hushed darkness, we lit a candle, and I quickly realized that we had not come there because my out of town guest needed to come; we had come there because I needed to come. Focusing in prayer, I felt my world shift again. I realized that I had promised Sandra’s sisters that I would stand with Sandra, but now I was finding myself promising Sandra that I would also stand with her sisters. Standing in front of the huge, laminated photo of Sandra’s smiling face affixed to the tree, surrounding by stuffed animals and candles, I found myself promising her, “I’ll be there for them. Whatever they need from me.”

Not many weeks more passed before I actually was there with them, in Chicago, at Sandra’s home congregation of DuPage AME. I was not in an easy spot personally. For many weeks through record breaking temperatures in Texas, I had asked myself how long I could do this physically. That night in front of Sandra’s memorial I had found my peace to that question. Yet, now a new question had arisen, which was how long could I do this emotionally? Sitting in the pew, about half way back on the right, I looked up at the large stained glass behind the pulpit.

Once again, I felt my world shift.

This time it was God who challenged me. I felt in my spirit the questions coming fast: You have committed to people, to Sandra’s sisters and to Sandra, but will you commit to me? Will you stay where I have called you and where I have placed you, no matter what anyone says about you?

To quote Sandy, “I know that not everyone believes in God, and that’s alright, but on Sandy Speaks, we’re going to talk about God, because God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”

God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.

And as quickly as that, all of my questions went away. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this physically. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this emotionally. Because I knew that I had been asked if I would do this spiritually, and the answer was yes.

Sitting next to Shante, whose eyes had evoked a response from me drawing me deeper into this journey nine weeks earlier, I felt a certain peace wash over me. This was going to take a while, but it was going to be okay. The second week of solidarity with Sandra Bland, a friend had asked me in frustration whether I would be doing this for 100 days. “Of course not,” I had replied incredulously, “That would be crazy. We just need a couple weeks and we’ll have some answers.” Now I knew, that it would take much more than 100 days. It might take a year.  It might take more. Yet, I knew in my heart that I could share a year or two or more of my life with Sandra Bland. How could I not, when all of the years of her beautiful life had been taken away.

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Sandy Still Speaks

“Mommy why are the police mad? The police pushed me…” the small African American girl said to her mother as she and a handful of other young girls were shuffled into the arms of a waiting grandmother. Looking down I saw a sight that seared itself into my memory: five pairs of eyes, in five little faces, welling with tears that balanced on the very brink of overflow and the very depth of terror.

I have never seen anything so painful in my life. Except the eyes of Sandra Bland’s sisters overflowing with tears as I looked into them at Hope AME and committed to stay at the Waller County Jail as long as they needed. Or that pair of eyes, similar to theirs, that cause me even more pain: the eyes of Sandra Bland, brilliant and lively in her videos, a constant reminder that her eyes will never well with tears again, and because of that ours must.

Just minutes earlier, the crowd that had gathered for the recently ended rally of Remembrance & Response surged to the doors of the Waller County Jail and began to chant: “Sandy still speaks. Sandy still speaks.”

I came close to see what was happening and then stepped back as a news camera asked me to get out of the way so that they could dive into the midst of the crowd. I turned to answer someone’s question when suddenly my attention was snapped back to the doors of the jail as screams erupted and people started tumbling over one another out of the doors. They weren’t so much fleeing as falling, like grains of sand sliding down an incline when you try to force them up into a pile.

“Get behind me,” my friend Steven called out, directing me back from the conflict in the same direction that that mother took the little girls. I looked down to my right, into their eyes, overwhelmed with the sorrow of their fear.

The doors of the jail pulled shut and were chained, and I thought that it was over until people started to chant, “Let them out! Let them out!” and realized to my horror that people were trapped inside… I realized to my horror that the mothers of some of these little girls were probably trapped inside… I realized to my horror that these little girls were watching their mothers be trapped inside a building where another young African American woman had lost her life, the woman whose name we chanted: Sandra Bland.

Things I did not know at that moment: I did not know what was happening inside. I did not know that crowds of troopers in riot gear were waiting around the corner ready to charge at the slightest provocation. I did not know that officers were pulling assault rifles out of their cars. I did not know that one of my mentors PK was trapped inside. I did not know which of these set of terrified eyes knew that their mother was trapped inside.

Things my friends did not know at that moment: Where I was.

Having become one of the most recognizable people at the Waller County Jail after 26 days of sitting vigil, my friends experienced several minutes of terror as I seemed to have disappeared in the midst of the confusion. They did not know that I was standing further back with my body planted between those five sets of eyes and the County Jail.

Finding me, they could only repeat, “Never do that again. Never disappear again.”

The people trapped inside the jail were eventually led out through another door. Amazingly, they had captured every second on tape on the little devices that Sandra Bland said were powerful enough to change things in this country: cell phones. Multiple videos from multiple angles all showed the same thing: people chanting “Sandy still speaks” for a couple minutes until police officers come out of the jail and into the lobby and begin pushing, shoving and sometimes hitting them until they shove the majority of them out the doors and chain them behind them leaving a few trapped inside. At the beginning of the conflict, one woman stands in the center, determined to be peaceful, her hands raised high in the air, repeating “Sandy still speaks” until it appears she is struck and falls.

The unnecessary escalation led to great sadness and confusion. People milled around shocked. It was exactly the kind of police-initiated escalation that cost Sandra Bland her life. As we struggled to overcome our shock, we had no idea that around the corner troopers in riot gear stood ready to charge at the least provocation.

Why? It was a peaceful, organized protest. We had made all the information about the event and the speakers public.

Yet there persisted a fear. A fear of black bodies that are unapologetic about their rights. A fear that has been perpetuated by local law enforcement spreading rumors to the community that we are rioters and spreading rumors to us both today and yesterday that the KKK or other groups may try to interrupt our gatherings. All of the fear, all of the rumors, have been encouraged and spread by law enforcement; escalating rather than deescalating tensions in the community. Causing the pastors that speak up to lock their doors during church services out of fear, and the pastors that do not speak up to encourage their congregations to see us as outside agitators.

Yet, if we are to be criticized as outside agitators for journeying into places of pain with a message of justice and love, then we are keeping good company with Jesus Christ who spent his life doing just that, turning over tables when necessary; as well as Paul after him, who traveled even further abroad, disrupting the plans of the Romans and the business of the Greeks.

As the dust settled, an older woman, knocked to the ground by the domino effect of the police shoving, was loaded into an ambulance; garbage lay scattered; and five sets of eyes wiped away tears as those trapped inside were released and their mothers returned.

The entire staff came out the doors of the jail and stood in full gear as a sign of force. One white officer walked past me as I picked up trash and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”

“Yes,” I replied, “you have; and you’ll see me here again.”

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Sandra Bland: Fighting For Life, Both Hers & Yours

“Isn’t that what you are here for?!?” the white, female ABC reporter in front of us raged. She had watched from her SUV as those of us keeping vigil for Sandy Bland outside of Waller County Jail watched the video of Sandy’s arrest for the first time, huddled around one of our smart phones. It was a disturbing video; traumatic; infuriating; and we were visibly upset. The majority of those sitting in front of the County Jail were African American women close to Sandy’s age, similarly outspoken, and committed to the same ideals of justice that she was so vocal about in her #SandySpeaks videos. Over the course of the past seven days that we have sat in front of the scene of Sandy’s death, they have made it very clear: Sandy could have been any one of them.

Rushing out of her SUV and eager to capture the emotion, the reporter shoved a microphone in their faces saying, “You just watched the dash cam video didn’t you. What’s your reaction?” When they politely asked to be left alone and said they could not answer any questions right now, she badgered them aggressively. Finally, in my exhaustion, I said, “Fine, I’ll do an interview, please just understand that what we just watched is very painful and this is a traumatized space right now. Please will you speak to them in a more respectful manner.”

“What, don’t you want your message to get out? Isn’t that what you are here for?!?!” she raged.

My next words were clear: “I won’t be doing an interview with you,” I said as we all walked away and she continued to rage. I was shaking. I was shaking because it was not the first time that week she had treated us that way. I was shaking because in that moment she was giving embodiment to the very things we were fighting against: white indifference to the suffering of African Americans; the expectation and insistence of white people that our own comfort, feelings, and agendas will be prioritized over those of people of color even in moments that most impact people of color; and the inability to mourn the death of African Americans, compounded with the unwillingness to allow African Americans space to mourn without analysis.

White supremacy is not usually a man in a white hood; in fact, it hardly ever is. It is the way that we, as white people, daily occupy space in this country in a manner that demands and expects our needs, wants, comfort and feelings will be prioritized.

The dangerous implications of that reality are what we see playing out in the dashcam footage released on Tuesday: a man with authority becoming enraged that his feelings, comfort, and pride are not prioritized over the rights, safety and life of an African American woman.

The dynamic is all too similar to the arrangement upon which our nation was built: that black lives are less important than white comfort. That was what was taught by philosophers and theologians, and then spoon-fed to congregations by white pastors like myself who promoted a system of “Christian slave-holding” – a contradiction if there ever was one.

Now many white people are feeling the discomfort as we try to right the ship midstream. Our discomfort is necessary to right the scales on which their lives have been undervalued for so long.

This is what I would have said if I had given Jessica Willey of ABC an interview:

First, we are not sitting outside the Waller County Jail for the sake of the media. We are sitting out there for Sandra Bland. We are sitting out there because, as her mother said last night at the Memorial Service on the campus of Prairie View University, Sandy knew she had a purpose here in Texas. As her mother quoted her, “My purpose is to go back to Texas, my purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South.” That calling was so evident in her videos. Which is why, as we sat overwhelmed with the tragedy of her death a week ago, listening to the words of one of her #SandySpeaks videos, we could not ignore her call for assistance: “I need your help. I cannot do this alone.” We knew what we had to do. We had to go to the spot where her life had been taken and give her honor, sitting vigil for our sister in Christ so that the world will know that #SandySTILLSpeaks and cannot be silenced.

Second, what I see in this video is a woman fighting for her life from the minute she is pulled over. Fighting to live in a country in which she had rights, and in which her humanity was respected. Fighting to live in a place where you are able to assert your legal rights regardless of the color of your skin, and you do not have to genuflect to authority when that authority is misused and abused in order to save your own skin. In doing so, Sandra Bland was not just fighting for her own life, she was fighting for all of our lives. Fighting back against a system that says you have to treat police with respect even if they do not treat you with respect. Fighting against a system where the wounded male ego is cause for arrest. Fighting against a system where the voices of women are silenced, and the bodies of women are grasped without their permission.

On Monday, July 20, a week after Sandy’s death, District Attorney Elton Mathis said, “It was not a model person who was stopped.” To say I disagree could never be enough.

So I will continue to sit outside the Waller County Jail in vigil to let the community know that here was lost a life that deserves to be honored. I will continue to listen to #SandySpeaks and encourage you to do likewise.

I am confident that Sandra Bland did not kill herself. I have been confident from the second I heard her voice: the voice of a woman who unapologetically loved herself, others, and her God. That can be a difficult thing to be, however, when you live in a world that expects women like Sandy to apologize for their own greatness.

Rev. Hannah Bonner

St. John’s Downtown, Houston, Texas