Over the last few weeks, I’ve followed the coverage of the arrest and mysterious death of Sandra Bland while in police custody. For those who don’t know, Sandra Bland was a 28 year old Black woman who was pulled over for an illegal lane change in Texas on July 10, 2015. After a verbal altercation (not illegal by the way) with the officer, she was forcibly removed from her vehicle and violently arrested. Three days later, she died in police custody. The police claim that Bland committed suicide, however the voicemails left for family and friends present a different story. They tell a story of a young woman excited about her recent move and new job. A woman confused about how a minor traffic violated turned into a jail stay.
Since the coverage of Bland’s death started, I’ve had several conversations about the case both online and in-person, yet it was not until yesterday’s brief conversation with one of my younger sisters that I decided to write a blog post on the subject. Yesterday was my niece’s first birthday, after wishing her a happy birthday my sister said “I’ve been meaning to call you about this Sandra Bland situation.” I said “yea, it’s really sad and scary” and then she said the words I have been trying not to say out loud. She said, “I kept thinking she could’ve been my sister. I mean you say way more radical things on social media all the time and you live in the South. It could’ve been you.”
For the rest of the day, “she could’ve been my sister” replayed in my head. It’s not that I hadn’t considered it myself, but I hadn’t allowed myself to fully acknowledge it until that moment.
You see like me, Sandra Bland was vocal about the need for police reform and a self-proclaimed Black Lives Matter activist. A quick Facebook search of her name will lead you to a cover photo of a cartoon depicting the stark differences in police treatment of Freddie Gray and Dylann Roof. Her profile picture states “Now legalize being Black in America.” Bland’s twitter account follows suit.
During her arrest, she was vocal about knowing her rights and some speculated that she threatened legal action. Sandra Bland was not only well-educated, but her mom recounts in a recent conversation that Bland said “Momma, now I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas. My purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South.”
Notice any similarities?
A week and a half before Sandra Bland was arrested, I was sitting on the passenger side of our Jeep in a small Michigan town with a police officer at my window asking for my identification. On the second leg of our Midwest trip, we started experiencing car trouble. Our transmission was struggling, so after attempting to let the car cool off for a little while, Mr. S decided to take state highways. This allowed us to drive slower and not put as much pressure on the car, but it also meant driving through areas of Michigan that do not have many people of color.
Moments before we were stopped, Mr. S. said “was that a confederate flag, what the hell?” I sat next to him silently hoping that we would make it back to a main highway before having to stop again. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, the car began to stall and smoke in a residential area and we pulled over.
When the officer asked for my ID, I immediately cursed in my head because my wallet was in the backseat with Sesame. Every Black person knows you should keep your wallet where it is easily accessible, so you don’t give the police a reason to shoot you out of fear that you may have a weapon. Mr. S actually puts his wallet in the overhead visor, so he doesn’t have reach in his back pocket. I told the officer where my wallet was and began talking to Sesame telling him that every thing was okay and to keep watching Octonauts on his iPad. Despite the fact that I knew we were both innocent of any wrong doing, I also knew that didn’t matter in the moment. We were a Black family in a town that I’m sure doesn’t boast a robust minority population. (I looked it up later and their African American population was 2.9% according to their 2010 census.)
As the officers checked our identification, we both began calling our parents, so they’d know what was going on and I kept trying not to cry out of both fear and exhaustion. The officers asked us a few more questions and then followed us about a block to a parking lot, so we could wait for help. While I felt relief that everything went “smoothly,” I knew this wasn’t a town that we needed to be stranded in after sundown and so did Mr. S. We never said anything, but we both looked at each other with worry in our eyes and then took turns distracting Sesame.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had an unsettling experience with the police during a road trip, but this is the first encounter since the heightened fear due to current events. We breathed a sigh of relief when we were finally back on the road to Chicago and held each other a little tighter that night. During the second part of our trip, we did not really talk about the emotions we felt that day, instead we focused on enjoying our time with family. But then we came home on July 14th, the day after Bland was found dead in her cell, and it all came rushing back. In the days following, we watched the news in horror and once again reflected on our experience, but we still never said the words out loud. We never said “that could’ve been you, Danielle.”
In the same way that the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Tamir Brown, and John Crawford III left me worried for my husband, son, dad, brothers, nephews, uncles, and cousins; the death of Sandra Bland has shaken me when it comes to my own safety and that of every woman I love. As I work on obtaining my drivers license, the anxiety I feel about other motorists hitting me has now extended to worry about being pulled over by the police for traffic violations. I’ll be a new driver and I know that I’ll make mistakes because no one is perfect, but will that mistake and my knowledge of my rights lead to my death? Will the officers google me and find out that I am vocal about the need for police reform and accountability. The venom I’ve seen in the comments online is unsettling. The number of times I’ve seen it implied that Sandra Bland would still be alive if she had “known her place” terrifies me.
But like the activists who came before me, I know I cannot allow fear to silence me. So, I will continue to point out white privilege, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other inequality until things change. I will continue to hold our government officials accountable for their actions. Being silent will not change anything.
In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
#IAmSandraBland #BlackLivesMatter #SandySpeaks
P.S. If I die in police custody, know that I did not kill myself.