Activists make regular trips Waller County facility to celebrate Bland’s life and ‘ask the questions in person that her family and friends are asking’
The hourlong drive from Houston to the Waller County jail has become a regular commute for Hannah Bonner.
Since the death of Sandra Bland on 13 July, the United Methodist reverend has kept vigil outside the building almost every day, joined by others who are determined to honour Bland’s life and promote her legacy, long after the national media’s gaze moved elsewhere.
No one could deny that Bland’s death has prompted visible change at the jail. New barriers were erected in front of the building, eliminating the ability to sit or stand by the wall where protesters tended to gather because the overhanging roof made it the best place to find shade.
Bonner sometimes sat in a folding chair and strummed a guitar. Others brought posters, food and water. They used the jail’s restrooms. There were candles and statuettes of angels, and photographs of Bland. Bonner said people sought refuge from the summer sun and 100F temperatures under a tree in the parking lot. Last month, it was cut down.
Now, signs either side of the reflective-glass entry doors insist on “no loitering in the lobby”. The sheriff’s patience appeared to run out after 9 August – the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – when protesters entered and chanted for several minutes until officers forced them outside.
Two days later, Bonner filmed the sheriff, Glenn Smith, telling her : “Why don’t you go back to the church of Satan that you run?” The next day she found temporary barricades had been erected by the wall along with signs saying “no one beyond this point”. Later in the month they were replaced with yellow and brown metal railings. She said the sheriff has taken pictures of her license plate.
A spokesman for the Waller County sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
On 13 August, armed members of the Black Panthers marched outside the jail . Bonner said she heard rumours that she had called in the Panthers – “which is impossible for a white woman to do” – and that the tree was cut down because of fears it might be used by snipers.
But most days are quiet now. On Tuesday, Bonner and Karisha Shaw, a Houston-based school worker, were there in the rain. “Our presence here is to keep the attention on Sandra Bland,” Bonner said. “We don’t really have answers to what happened to Sandra Bland and we might never know, but we do know she should never have been in this jail.”
Bonner said she has made the journey from Houston on all but four or five days since activists started showing up at the jail 50 days ago, emphasising that she is not a protester but part of a “peaceful prayer vigil here to honour Sandra Bland’s life and to ask the questions in person that her family and friends are asking”.
Shaw said she comes because “something did not sit well with me”, adding: “I had no connection to Sandra Bland whatsoever.” Bonner interjected: “Except that you’re a black woman in America.”
Bland was found dead on 13 July. The official account – that she hanged herself in cell 95 using a trash bag, three days after being arrested when a routine traffic stop turned into a confrontation with a state trooper– was hotly disputed . Her family and many on social media found it implausible, though that conclusion was backed up by the autopsy report.
The 28-year-old’s death underlined strained relationships between AfricanAmericans and law enforcement, both in the context of the number of black people killed by police across the country and locally in this rural county with a history of racism.
Bland was moving from Chicago to start a job at the majority-black Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. Flowers are still by the roadside at the spot where she was stopped on University Drive, near the campus.
Last week, the Prairie View city council voted to rename the road Sandra Bland Parkway for at least the next couple of years. A sign near the flowers in front of a balding patch of grass announces the “future home of the proposed Sandra Bland memorial park”.
The renaming was not universally popular. More than 2,400 people have signed an online petition criticising the decision “to memorialize a disruptive, disrespectful, intoxicated female”.
Rightwing media linked tensions over Bland’s death to last Friday’s murder of Darren Goforth, a white deputy in Houston who was shot repeatedly in the back at a gas station for reasons that are unclear.
Shannon Miles, who is charged with the killing, is black. Ron Hickman, the Harris County sheriff, said in a press conference that “rhetoric has gotten out of control”.
Bonner said: “Black Lives Matter is not about hating white people, it’s about loving black people, and if you feel [loving both races is] mutually exclusive, then that’s where the problem in our country lies.”
Legal processes are still pending and information about the fallout from Bland’s death is scarce. Brian Encinia, the trooper involved, was placed on administrative leave after video emerged of him threatening to “light up” Bland with a taser during the traffic stop. A spokesperson for the Texas department of public safety (DPS) said that an investigation into his conduct is “ongoing”. The Waller County district attorney’s office, which said in July that it would present evidence on Encinia’s conduct to a grand jury for possible indictment, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’re very, very disturbed at the fact that they [DPS] still have not terminated that man,” said Cannon Lambert, the Bland family’s attorney. “This situation is very public – transparency is huge. If there’s a reason why you’re keeping him on staff … then you should tell us.”
Last month, Texas lawmakers announced an investigation into jail safety standards and Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against parties including the sheriff’s office, two jailers and Encinia. Lambert said the legal action means officials will have to provide them with information about the case, including details that will allow an independent autopsy to be completed. Bland’s family has called for the US justice department to become involved, though that has not happened so far.
Pledging transparency, Smith, the sheriff, asked Paul Looney, a local attorney, to form a committee to conduct an independent investigation of the sheriff’s office. Looney said that the six-member panel had held several meetings, each person was working several hours a week to gather “impressions, observations and data” and that he is “completely” happy with the level of cooperation from the department.
“We’ve got access to every piece of paper they have, every prisoner, every deputy,” he said. “We’re not going to discuss anything [publicly] until we have a report ready.”
When will Bonner and others feel the time is right to stop coming? “We are looking for where that point is,” she said. “I told her sisters: ‘I’ll do this as long as you need me to’… What keeps me going is her videos, her goofy pictures with her family, her sense of what they’ve lost. I can think she’s freaking hilarious and amazing and I’ll never get to meet her.”
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