I’m in the midst of a long annual drive from New Jersey to Louisiana to spend time with my family for the Christmas holiday. When I pulled over to bunk for the evening on Monday, I found my social media newsfeed filled with two stories – the choice of a Waller County grand jury to not indict any officers in connection with the arrest or death of Sandra Bland last July and this week’s explosive R. Kelly interview at Huffington Post Live.
I take these long drives every year, not because they are the most efficient way home. In a life as busy as mine, efficiency is what I usually crave. But this drive, undertaken over several days in which I eat at some of my favorite places and visit friends, going and coming, is an annual ritual act of self-care. I know I will be met on either side of the trip as I check in, with mounting evidence of the structural lack of care that shapes Black women’s lives. Snatching a damn to give about my own Black life from the jaws of a system that would rather eat us all alive is as political an act as it is a personal one.
As I ride, I flip back and forth between the most ratchet of hip-hop music, r&b oldies, and contemporary gospel. I always tell myself that I should listen to books on tape or enrich my thinking through the many podcasts that I’m always planning to catch up on. I never quite make it past Jesus or the Twerk tape.
I wonder what Sandra Bland listened to on her long drive down from Chicago to Texas. A Christian woman, she probably praised to Jesus for finally bringing her through and out on the other side to a good job. Any Black girl who has experienced God making a way knows what it means to get a good holy shout on when she’s on her way to her promise.
We all saw Sandra Bland’s penultimate moments, being bullied and violated for failure to signal a lane change. She told the officer that she thought his flashing lights meant he needed her to get out of the way quickly. Before threatening to “light her up” with his taser, he never really gave a reason for pulling her over. It is probable that he didn’t have one, other than the making of revenue from another unsuspecting Black person, in a state that does not have income tax.
Last year, the procession of non-indictments in Ferguson for Michael Brown’s killer and in Staten Island for Eric Garner’s killer wrenched the collective breath we had been holding from our chests. Un-exhaled. Our dreams were smothered on a New York street corner with Eric Garner begging to live.
My Black women friends made sure to post about the Sandra Bland non-indictment, but the response and the outrage seems palpably quieter. The chest cavity of racism is designed to restrict these large beating hearts of ours.
Meanwhile, during my drive, a homeboy texts me to say that R. Kelly has said “fuck you” to anyone who is critical of his past history of sexual assault against underage Black girls. On Twitter and Facebook, Kelly is getting the dragging he has deserved at least since the early 2000s when we saw someone who looked just like him on a sex tape urinating on a 14-year-old girl. He, like Bill Cosby, doesn’t deserve a career. Perhaps 2015 will be the year that goes down in history as one in which Black communities slayed their raping patriarchs and abusive older brothers.
When Sandra Bland died a few months ago, we all said, “We know she didn’t commit suicide.” Black women don’t hang themselves just a few miles away from fulfilling their dreams. But a few weeks ago, I had a brief chat with one of the young Black women activists who has been taking over the streets and getting arrested in the name of justice. She spoke to me of the stress of her first arrest, of the feelings of disempowerment at having the state be in control of your body, of the feelings of disorientation and lack of concept of time in a jail cell, of the feelings of hopelessness such conditions induce.
I believe that Sandra Bland died from structural lack of care and active malice by those charged with her protection. Maybe no one smothered the life out of her as they did to Eric Garner. But the state stole something from her. Hope. Possibility. Safety. Maybe even her life.
We don’t know because transparency is not a word that attaches to our current system of justice. Like Chicago, the Waller County Sheriff’s Department has refused to be open or forthcoming about their practices. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, we have no idea what happened to Sandra Bland. And if Waller County has their way, we never will.
The coverup in Chicago should teach us that no police department in America is worthy of trust, or of the benefit of the doubt. Sandra Bland’s death is just one more worm at the rotten core of the theology of one bad apple. It is a theology and not merely an ideology because Americans have been taught to treat the state like a god, to equate its many acts of evil against Americans of color with the greater good of a plan that none of us asked to be a part of.
It is amazing how much U.S. politics sound like the white supremacist God of American evangelicalism. It is amazing how comfortable we are nailing innocent bodies to the cross of the unjust American imperialist justice system.
Like Sandra Bland, I am a Christian. But my Christianity demands a critical dissent from the kinds of state violence that killed Sandra and led to the Crucifixion of the God I choose to worship. On a recent Sunday, I posted to my personal Facebook page that what I love about the Christmas season is the opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ life. Evangelical Christianity is far too concerned with dragging Jesus to the Cross, nailing him there for a violent and spectacular death at the hands of the state and reveling in how our redemption comes from this act of violence.
This is the Christian narrative. But to the extent that African-American Christians like Sandra Bland and I subscribe to this narrative, we must dissent from its inevitability. Jesus was nailed to a Cross so others wouldn’t have to be. This is what the preacher says each Sunday.
Yet we sit by and watch Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald be nailed to the fiery cross of state power. We stand at the cross in protest, confronting the inevitability of it all.
So back on my drive, I exhale, attempt to find equilibrium, attempt to (badly) sing my way through all the emotional residue of state violence, on my way to joy.
In this season, where we have been confronted with so much death, I charged my Christian friends to think about how we should live. I asked them to spend time celebrating Jesus’ revolutionary, radical, healing, gorgeous life. Perhaps if we learn to really appreciate Black lives, we wouldn’t see Black death at the hands of the state as an inevitably. Perhaps one cross would be enough.
Sandra Bland didn’t make it. But she lived. She fought. For a new chapter. For possibility. For dreams. And in her name, so should we.