The #Blacklivesmatter movement may have had its first political prisoner to die in police custody in the form of Sandra Bland. Bland was driving from her home in Illinois to a job interview in Texas when she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. According to news reports, Bland was yanked out of her car by the officer and violently slammed to the ground. Texas Department of Public Safety later said the officer who pulled Bland over violated traffic stop procedure and department courtesy policy.
The incident was captured on a camera phone by a bystander and Bland was recorded complaining about her treatment. She said the officer slammed her head on the ground during the altercation and she was having troubling hearing. Bland was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. Three days later she was found dead in her cell. Police claim she hanged herself with a trash bag and the local coroner ruled her death a suicide.
Several news outlets are now covering the Bland case, which has finally become a national story. Bland’s family is adamant she would never have killed herself and have requested an independent autopsy, according to NBC News.
“Family members and friends insist Bland was looking forward to a new job at her former school [Prairie View A&M University] and that she gave no indication she was in such an emotional state that she would kill herself,” said NBC News. “Cannon Lambert, the attorney hired by Bland’s family, says some relatives believe she was killed and the family wants more information from an investigation.” The case is also being investigated by the Texas Rangers and the FBI.
What makes the case all the more troubling is Bland was an activist in the #Blacklivesmatter movement, who had spoken against police brutality. She often used social media and videos posted online to document her activism.
“Black lives matter. They matter. In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed,” she said in an eerily prescient video.
There are several other troubling aspects to the case. Brand was arrested in area that has a reputation for harassing Black people. According to The Daily Kos, Glenn Smith, the sheriff of Waller County where Bland was arrested, was fired from a previous job for documented cases of racism. The Guardian reported that Black residents say Waller County is known for it’s racism and abusive policing of Black residents. Although the area is about 25 percent Black, most of the officials are white.
“This is the most racist county in the state of Texas which is probably one of the most racist states in the country,” said DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge.
Charleston sparked controversy when he ordered a Black-owned funeral home to handle the burial of an unidentified white woman. Cemeteries in Waller County are still largely segregated.
In 2004, students at Prairie View A&M University marched in protest after then District Attorney Oliver Kitzman tried to bar them from voting, claiming they needed to vote in their home districts. Kitzman was overruled by the Supreme Court. The New York Times said the move was an attempt by white residents to quell the voting power of the 9,000-member Prairie View student body. However, The New York Times reported Black students still had a hard time voting in the 2006 elections and many of them were turned away from the polls, despite being registered to vote. Judge Charleston said registration cards were later found discarded in county offices.
Black Twitter has responded to Bland’s suspicious death with the #ifidieinpolicecustody hashtag. Members of Black Twitter used the hashtag to instruct people what to do if they died under mysterious circumstances. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote, “Look under my fingernails. The skin of the person who killed me will be there.”
USA Today reported the hashtag had been used more than 16,000 times in the past seven days, according to data from Topsy, a social media analytic firm.