WALLER COUNTY, Texas – Months ago, civil rights activist Sandra Bland took to social media to lament the deaths of African-Americans in the custody of police. Now she’s one of them.
As many as one hundred protesters gathered in the sweltering heat Friday afternoon in the parking lot outside the jail where the 28-year-old Chicago native was found dead in her cell Monday, just days after she was arrested by police following a routine traffic stop. A growing legion of supporters is calling for answers after authorities ruled her death a suicide by hanging, a conclusion her family has called “unfathomable.” Led by members of the New Black Panther Party, the demonstrators rallied in front of the jail before marching several blocks to Waller City Hall, chanting “no justice, no peace!”
Bland was arrested on Friday, July 10, in Waller County, and taken into custody on a charge of assaulting a public servant, officials say.
As a result of Bland’s death, Waller County Jail, where Bland died, was de-certified Thursday, less than one week following Bland’s arrest, after the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a “notice of non-compliance,” citing two issues: staff training and observation of inmates.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said at a Friday afternoon press conference that Bland’s dead body was not discovered for up to 90 minutes. Under the commission’s guidelines, every inmate should be checked on hourly.
Previously, Waller County Jail had been cited for violations on three occasions: In 2012 for an inmate suicide, in 2014 for an inmate escape, and in 2015 for another inmate suicide.
A cell phone video purporting to capture Bland’s encounter with the police shows a woman identified as Bland by her family being held down on the ground by two officers as she complains that they’re hurting her. Although the video, which has not been verified by NBC News, does not show what happened before her arrest, authorities say Bland became argumentative and uncooperative.
“Hey! You just slammed my head to the ground!” the woman yells in the video. “All of this for a traffic signal!” she continues, telling the passerby filming, “Thank you for recording! Thank you!”
On Friday afternoon, Mathis denied media reports claiming that Bland was dragged out of the police vehicle through the window, calling that account “absolutely false.” Mathis did note, however, that the fact that Bland was alone in her cell was “fairly unusual,” adding that she may have been the only female inmate at the jail.
Bland’s family, for their part, says they find it hard to believe she took her own life just three days later. Bland was returning to Texas to take a new job with her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, and her loved ones say she was excited to begin a new chapter in her life.
“When you think through the circumstances that have been shared with us to this point, it is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our minds around the Sandy that we knew for this to be characteristic of her,” Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister, said Thursday.
From “cloud nine” to suicide
Rhys Caraway, 24, from Houston, was one of the first protesters to show up at the jail following Bland’s death. And he said he planned to camp out tonight, if the insects or the police don’t drive him away.
“You could just tell that what happened wasn’t right,” Caraway said. “Nobody gets a new job and then goes from being on cloud nine to killing yourself.”
Rev. Hannah Bonner, 32, also from Houston, joined Caraway on his trek from an hour away to look for answers in Bland’s death.
“We want to do more than just tweet about it,” she said. “We believe she would have been here for us, so we’re going to be here for her.”
“We won’t be satisfied until we get answers,” Caraway chimed in.
Bland’s family is on their way to Texas from Chicago to meet with Texas Rangers, who are investigating the incident. But supporters already suspect foul play in Bland’s death, which comes amid a groundswell of activism in response to the deaths of dozens of unarmed black men and women during encounters with police.
Texas authorities have suggested mental illness played a role in Bland’s death, with Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis pointing to a video surfaced on social media in which Bland purportedly diagnoses herself with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I have never dealt with a suicide that didn’t have at least one family member or one close friend that always had a conspiracy and was never satisfied with what happened,” Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said Thursday in response to the heightened scrutiny surrounding Bland’s death.
Sen. Royce West, a prominent Texas state senator and one of two African-American members of the Texas Senate, called the death “suspicious” in a letter sent to the Department of Public Safety, and has asked for any video of Bland’s arrest to be released.
Daniel Nobles, 36, of Pearland, Texas, was the first protester to arrive Friday morning. He sat down with a folding chair, a sandwich bag filed with trail mix, and a sign that said, “Cameras in every cell! Why no EMT? She was hurt. All lives matter.”
Nobles, a white, Baptist conservative who has often participated in tea party protests, said Bland’s death has haunted him since he first heard about it earlier in the week. Since her death, he said he’s been unable to shake a Bible verse, Ezekiel 33, from his head. “It’s about the watchman. It’s about how when you see something of this nature, you have to speak up,” he said.
“There are some values that all Americans hold and that law enforcement is supposed to protect,” Nobles added. “When that line is crossed, we all have to stand up and say something.”
Nobles said he expects some of his conservative friends to join “Black Lives Matter” protests at the jail on Friday, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to demand answers. “We disagree on some issues, but this rises to the level that we should all be able to come together,” he said. “When you leave a family with so many questions, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“All lives matter”
Bland, who frequently filled her Facebook page with observations about race in America, said in a recent post, “Being a black person in America is very, very hard. Show me in American history where all lives matter.”
Nicholas Tolbert, 23, an engineering student at nearby Prairie View A&M University, the historically black college where Bland was also a student, was drawn to the jail where she died because of Bland’s spirit. He said he didn’t know her personally, but he could feel her energy from the many videos that she posted to YouTube speaking on the condition of blacks in America.
“I heard her voice and I knew I had to come out for her,” said Tolbert, standing in a streak of shade beside the county jail.
“My generation, we don’t feel like marching anymore. We’re tired of all that. But I just wanted to come out and make sure everyone was safe,” he said.
A couple hours after the march from the jail to city hall, the wave of protesters dissipated. Many of those who remained said the thin showing was likely the result of A&M students being away on summer break.
“If the locals sustain the energy until the students get back, I’m sure we can keep the movement going,” Tolbert said. “But honestly, this is a pretty dead town. Not that many conscious people around here. It’ll be different when the students come back.”
Erik Ortiz and Kathryn Robinson contributed reporting.