Death of Black Woman in Jail Has People Asking, What Happened to Sandra Bland?

Officials in Waller County, Texas, say she hanged herself in her cell on Monday.

(Photo: Sandra Bland/Twitter)

Jul 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It started with a routine traffic stop last Friday afternoon, but on Monday morning, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from the suburbs of Chicago, was found dead in a Texas jail cell. Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said the cause of death was suicide by hanging. Bland was known for her outgoing nature and enthusiasm, so her friends and family aren’t buying that story—and neither are anti–police brutality activists across the nation.

“The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide,” the lawyers for the family wrote in a statement, reported the Chicago Tribune. “The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy’s death.”

Meanwhile, people across the nation have taken to Twitter, using the hashtags #JusticeForSandra and #WhatHappenedtoSandy—and the incident has become another subject of the #SayHerName hashtag, which tracks the unexplained deaths of black women, who don’t seem to get the same attention as black men who die in police custody. A petition asking U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to take over the investigation into Bland’s death has garnered more than 33,000 signatures.

Bland had recently landed a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, and was in the process of relocating to Prairie View, which is about an hour northwest of Houston. Law enforcement said she was pulled over for failing to use her turn signal while changing lanes. An unidentified bystander filmed two male officers arresting her.

In the footage, Bland can be seen face down on the side of the road with at least one of the officers on top of her. She can be heard telling them, I can’t feel my arms! and You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that?” One of the officers then walks toward the person filming and can be heard saying, You need to leave.

Bland was going to be let off with a written warning; however, she was arrested for assault of a public servant after she allegedly kicked one of the officers, according to the sheriff.

“The next thing we (the general public) know for sure is that on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 9 a.m., local police said they found Sandra Bland dead,” reads the petition.

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Bland’s death comes as the protests for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died in April while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, are still fresh in the minds of many Americans. The city burned as people marched for justice and called for an independent investigation into Gray’s death. In May, Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, announced that the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest would face a variety of charges, including second-degree murder, manslaughter, and assault. Gray, said Mosby, committed no crime.

Protesters may have good reason to be suspicious of what theyve been told about Blands death. In 2007, Smith was suspended from his job as chief of police in Hempstead, Texas, owing to documented cases of racism. He was fired from the position in 2008. This also isn’t the first time a person arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer has been found dead in the Waller County Jail. In 2012, James Harper Howell IV was found hanging in his cell. Law enforcement officials said that was a suicide too.

“On the day he was found hanging,” the Houston Chronicle reported, “he had been sitting in the day room by himself watching television. Jailers had routinely checked on him. He spoke with jailers and gave no indication he would engage in suicidal behavior.”

Americans who believe black lives matter and want answers in Bland’s death are beginning to rally in Waller County. Rhys Caraway, a 24-year-old Houston resident, has been camped outside the jail since Wednesday morning with a sign asking, “What Happened to Sandra Bland?”

“I didnt know her, but I know people who know her,” he wrote to TakePart. Caraway was motivated to start his vigil outside the jail because law enforcement officials “need to feel our physical presence here and not just on social media.” Caraway wrote that three or four other people have joined him over the past two days, and a rally at the jail is slated for Friday morning.

It’s likely Bland, who sometimes tweeted her support of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, would have felt proud of Caraway’s activism. Video footage of Bland is making the rounds on Twitter in which she talks about how powerful social media platforms are as an activism tool, and how people don’t have to wait for charismatic leaders. “Start with your own home,” says Bland in the poignant clip. “Start with you.”