As Sandra Bland Is Laid to Rest in Chicago, the #BlackLivesMatter Movement Finds Itself Under Surveillance by Homeland Security

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Sandra Bland funeral. Photo credit: Jim Young/Reuters
Sandra Bland funeral. Photo credit: Jim Young/Reuters

The Black Lives Matter movement found itself at a pivotal moment as Sandra Bland was laid to rest in Chicago, and peaceful activists were met with violence at a national conference held by the movement in Cleveland.

Hundreds attended the funeral of Sandra Bland on Saturday at the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle, Ill.  Bland, 28, was found dead in a Waller County, Texas jail cell on July 13, 2015 after a state trooper pulled her over for a routine traffic stop.  As Charles Blow of the New York Times reported in his column, while most funerals are somber occasions, “Sandy’s was simultaneously celebratory and defiant.”

“Bland’s casket was white,” Blow reported. “Many in the family wore white. The pastor wore a white ministerial robe. This was not to be a dark day.  The joyous music of the choir seemed to vibrate everything in the building.”

Blow observed that even during moments of sadness, a spirit of resiliency prevailed.

“There were whimpers and tears, to be sure, but there was also laughter and praise,” he reported. “As the church’s pastor, James F. Miller, put it, ‘This is not a moment of defeat; this is a moment of victory. We’re not funeralizing a martyr or a victim; we’re celebrating a hero!’ The crowd erupted.”

The funeral of Sandra Bland came amidst continued skepticism and debate over the cause of her death.  Although local officials ruled her death a suicide by asphyxiation, her family and many in the Black and activist communities do not accept this conclusion, as the circumstances surrounding her death remain murky and inconsistencies abound.

The cyber hactivist collective known as Anonymous released a video in which it claims Bland was murdered, that her arrest photo was doctored, and that she was already dead when the photo was taken. The group also called for the arrest of Brian Encina, Bland’s arresting officer.

Last week, Waller County prosecutors held a news conference during which they revealed the preliminary findings of an autopsy report on Sandra Bland.  The officials heavily emphasized that marijuana was found in Bland’s system.

Sharda Sekaran, the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance, found the revelations “completely irrelevant and a distraction,” and part of a pattern of sullying the reputation of Black victims such as Trayvon Martin.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Sekaran asked, “In years to come, when there are corporate-sponsored marijuana team-building retreats and weed luxury cruises through the Caribbean, are we still going to be hearing about marijuana as a strike against a black person’s credibility, character or right to live? Anyone against the war on drugs or who wants marijuana legalized should be smacking their heads and seeing the blatant hypocrisy and racism here.”

Think Progress wrote that Bland is just the latest to become a victim of the “marijuana smear,” as “the alleged marijuana use is raised to discredit someone [who] is no longer able to speak for themselves, and to imply that the marijuana use somehow contributed to their death.”

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis reportedly said in a text message to counsel for the Bland family that “[l]ooking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail.”

Meanwhile, as Cleveland.com reported, thousands of activists from across the country convened for the first-ever #BlackLivesMatter conference in Cleveland. On the minds of participants were the state of race relations, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and systemic oppression and the scourge of police brutality. The movement has broadened in light of a growing crisis of Black people dying at the hands of police and in police custody, including the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, 19, in Ferguson, Mo., and most recently Sandra Bland. Two cases which have rocked Cleveland are that of Tamir Rice, 12, shot to death by police last year for holding a toy gun, and Tanisha Anderson, 37, a woman with schizophrenia who died after police slammed her to the ground.

The conference was held at Cleveland State University.  A protest gathered as police arrested a 14-year old boy for not having a bus ticket, and a police officer applied pepper spray to the peaceful protesters, coating them “like insects” according to one account.

As Philadelphia journalist Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris reported in Houston’s Voice, “Activists claim a Transit cop body slammed a 14 year-old in an attempt to arrest him, but the ‘freedom fighters,’ as they’re described in one news report, stood up and demanded the release of the adolescent.”

Norris added that the officer, “wielded his can of pepper spray nonchalantly in the direction of black activists who had just left a first-of-its kind conference where the focus has been ‘creating a collective mission that matches the intensity, scale, urgency, and promise’ of the current moment, which, for Americans of color in particular, is one that produces a wide-range of emotions, from fear to vulnerability, to rage and sadness.”

As if to echo the FBI surveillance of the civil rights movement and Black liberation organizations in the 1960s, The Intercept has learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since its formation in the protests of Ferguson.

“The reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York.  They also show the department watching over gatherings that seem benign and even mundane. For example, DHS circulated information on a nationwide series of silent vigils and a DHS-funded agency planned to monitor a funk music parade and a walk to end breast cancer in the nation’s capital,” according to George Joseph in the Intercept report.

Joseph also raises the question as to whether DHS, which was formed largely to combat terrorism, has engaged in mission creep as its budget has exceeded $60 billion.

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