"If I die in police custody": Why Sandra Bland's death is just the latest evidence that Black America is under attack

No one should end up dead after a routine police stop, but Sandra Bland did. This country has much to answer for

Published July 22, 2015 4:45PM (EDT)

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

No one should end up dead after receiving a citation for failure to properly signal a lane change. However, this is exactly what has happened to 28-year-old Sandra Bland, a resident of Illinois who was pulled over in Waller County, Texas, two Fridays ago, where she was traveling to take a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. According to police, after she refused an officer’s instructions to stop smoking a cigarette, she was ordered out of the car, accused of assaulting an officer, and then wrestled to the ground. The video of the arrest only shows an officer’s knees in her back, and her yelling that he had hurt her arm and slammed her head into the ground. She was taken to jail, arraigned, given a $5,000 bond, which she made arrangements with her older sister to pay, and set for release on Monday morning. Instead, she was found dead of an alleged suicide, having supposedly hanged herself with a plastic bag.

I do not believe that Sandra Bland hanged herself just a few hours before her sister was set to come and pay the $500 bail it would have taken to get her out of jail. I do not believe Sandra Bland hanged herself two days before taking her dream job at her alma mater. I do not believe Sandra Bland hanged herself.

No one with good sense believes that. And I challenge the sense of anyone who is willing to contort themselves into intellectual knots to make such a ridiculous story seem remotely plausible. This is what media reports about Sandra’s prior traffic tickets and minor previous arrest for smoking marijuana are supposed to make us do. This is what reports about her struggles with depression and PTSD are supposed to make us do. Depression and PTSD should not be conflated with being suicidal, and smoking marijuana is legal in a range of states and municipalities now. Moreover, PTSD diagnoses are rising at alarming levels in Black communities, because of continued exposure to poverty and violence.

Just one day after Sandra Bland was found, authorities in Homewood, Alabama, claimed that 18-year-old Kindra Chapman hanged herself in her jail cell not even two hours after being arrested for taking another person's cellphone. On Tuesday morning, several Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested in Homewood, for protesting and demanding answers about Kindra’s suspicious death.

I do not believe the police accounts of these deaths. When story after story emerges of Black people who end up dead, over crimes for which they should never even have had to exit their cars, we should stop giving police the benefit of the doubt. Those of us with Black lives cannot afford such gambles. And the police should not be afforded such luxuries. As Ida B. Wells wrote just over a century ago, “Those who commit the murders, write the reports.” I recognize that in this moment, many folks become hyper-vigilant about “waiting for all the facts before making a judgment.” The fact of the matter is this: Police in Texas and Alabama would have us believe that Black women are committing suicide in the county or city jail for non-capital offenses.

When I was a kid, my cousins, country boys who spent their days fishing, hunting and riding four-wheelers, frequently teased me for having “book smarts, but no common sense.” Regardless, what I know for sure is that Black women don’t kill themselves when they know for sure that someone is on the way to get them out of prison for a minor traffic offense. Though I have a Ph.D., I certainly don’t need one to tell me that.

After the stories of Sandra’s and Kindra’s deaths started circulating, Black women in my Facebook community began posting pre-posthumous notes about what we should assume about them if they were ever to die in police custody. We should know unequivocally, each note made sure to say, that these women had not committed suicide. In my own pre-posthumous declaration, I wrote, “I didn’t commit suicide. I didn’t resist. I didn’t threaten the officer. I didn’t have a weapon. I prolly did ask a few pointed questions though.” On Twitter, Black women and men joined in with #IfIDieInPoliceCustody.

There are certain hashtags that just should not exist in a country that calls itself a democracy. There are certain subordinate clauses that should never grace the lips of a country's citizens or visitors. There are a set of conditions under which no people who understand themselves to be free should ever have to live.

Black masculinity has long been criminalized, maligned and violently impugned. Black women (and children) have always been victims of state-sanctioned violence. But there is still something in this moment about the imagery of two Black women under age 30 hanging in jail cells by the most dubious of circumstances that suggests that law enforcement officers don’t even care anymore about the optics of Black death.

And that should scare all of us.

This is no time for white politicians to stumble over challenges from Black Lives Matter activists to affirm the value of Black life. This is not an “all lives matter” kind of moment. When more than 60,000 people have signed petitions calling for a Justice Department investigation into Sandra Bland’s death, Martin O’Malley cannot make empty gestures about “all lives mattering.” Bernie Sanders should also recognize that his long history of  20th century civil rights activism, which he defensively referenced, actually does not matter if he cannot unequivocally affirm the value of Black lives in the 21st century. That all lives matter is not the question. All lives do matter. This country just seems to forget that point when it comes to Black lives. Both O’Malley and Sanders have since apologized for their inappropriate remarks at last week’s Netroots Nation Conference. After being dragged mercilessly by Twitter, Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We want a nation where young black men and women can live without fear of being falsely arrested, beaten or killed. ‪#BlackLivesMatter.” Having learned from the vehement responses to her opponents for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton declared on Facebook that “Black Lives Matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that.”

It has taken a full-scale movement of vocal protesters willing to disrupt and commandeer public space to get even these minor rhetorical concessions from candidates on the left. That is insulting. It is because of the Movement for Black Lives, which will host a historic convening in Cleveland this weekend, that we even have the resources and visibility to raise hell about the killings of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman. Hopefully this movement will continue to pull these candidates to the left, and force them to fully articulate a racial justice framework. That protesters showed up to vocally change O’Malley and Sanders suggests that those in the Movement are interested in electoral politics, and are willing to use the power of peaceful protest to force their concerns onto the national agenda. The Movement for Black Lives is reminding us of what democracy looks like.

Whatever their offenses, neither of these women should be dead. It is the responsibility of law enforcement to exercise the utmost care to protect those in their custody.  This duty of care and protection seems highly negotiable when Black bodies are in custody, and such thinking must change.

Only time and diligent, honest police work will tell us what happened to Sandra and Kindra. But as a nation we should not accept that failure to hit the turn signal might become a death sentence.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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Police Abuse Police Violence Racism Sandra Bland White Supremacy