The timing of this is tragically appropriate.
With confident, and sometimes vulnerable, lyrics, a group of poets and singers Sunday afternoon commemorated the life of [Sandra] Bland, who had been found dead in her Waller County Jail cell three days after her arrest. Authorities ruled the 28-year-old’s death a suicide. More than 75 people assembled over two hours to honor the young woman whose name in the year since had become familiar in households across Texas and the nation, repeated by those in the Black Lives Matter movement as another example of an individual they believed needlessly died following an encounter with law enforcement.
Bland’s name was joined last week by two more, Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police last Tuesday in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, who was shot by an officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota on Wednesday.
Then, too, a lone sniper attacked in Dallas, fatally shooting five police officers, and injuring seven others.
Speakers remembering Bland sought to digest all of that.
Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist clergy member who helped lead the event, asked everyone to turn and face the nearby brick gates of Prairie View A&M, representations of safety, education and progress, she said.
They were also the gates Bland – who had recently returned to the city and her alma mater to take a job – had driven through when a state trooper “came up fast behind her,” Bonner said.
“And she got over to get out of his way,” Bonner continued. “And he ended up pulling her over right here in this spot. She asserted her rights and he did not respect them, and this week we are seeing through the death of Alton Sterling, through the death of Philando, through the death of these officers in Dallas, and the citizens … we are seeing that the lack of police accountability in this nation is a danger to black lives, but it’s also becoming a danger to other officers. Because when officers are not held accountable for their actions it puts everybody – including other officers – at risk.”
The Bland case sparked calls for bail reform and brought issues of jail suicide and indigent defense into the headlines.
Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who is sitting for re-election in November, issued a citizen’s review of his office, as well.
Released in April, the report recommended a new jail, body cameras for officers, medical and mental health screening for all inmates, stress management training for deputies and a ban on demeaning language directed at inmates.
See here for more on the review report, and here for prior blogging on Sandra Bland. To the extent that reforms have been carried out in Waller County, it’s all to the good, but we need more of that everywhere in the state. No one should be in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bond, and no one should be hauled off to jail for being mouthy at a traffic stop. We know what we can do to make things better. We just have to do them. The Lege has a chance to do that in 2017. I can’t say I have much faith, but they’ll be the only game in town. Be prepared to let your legislators know what you want them to do to achieve justice for all.