LISLE, Illinois – Sandra Bland was remembered as a sister, friend, her mother’s “baby” and, in the words of her pastor, a hero, during her funeral here on Saturday.
Bland was laid to rest at her home church of DuPage African Methodist Episcopal, as nagging questions about her death in a Texas jail cell, and the arrest that preceded it, continue. Bland was found dead in her cell in a Waller County, Texas, jail three days after she was arrested during a traffic stop in Hempstead, Texas. Authorities have ruled her death a suicide by hanging. The case is under investigation.
“We’re not funeralizing a martyr or a victim, we’re celebrating a hero,” said DuPage AME’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James F. Miller, who called Bland “a strong black woman. And I think the authorities in Waller County are gonna find out: you can disrespect a strong black woman, but you’re gonna pay for that.”
The church was filled to capacity with mourners. White-gloved ushers showed the overflow crowd into the sanctuary, and as it filled, mourners flowed into the basement fellowship hall, the vestibule, the upstairs chapel and an overflow room. Hundreds of people filed in, past the white, open casket, surrounded by floral wreaths, as the black-clad choir filled every space on either side of the dais, singing songs that ranged from rousing to plaintive. As they sang “You’re important to me, I need you to survive,” a trio of teenage girls in the vestibule held one another and wept.
More than two dozen members of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority – of which Bland was a member – marched into the sanctuary as the service began, wearing white: the color worn by Bland’s family and by many who attended the closed service, or decked out in signature blue and gold. They included members of the national leadership. Bland had joined the sorority in college, and two of her line sisters participated in the service, tearfully remembering the young woman who one sister called her “backbone,” and the glue that held the chapter together.
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Elton Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, and Warren Diepraam, the assistant district attorney in charge of the forensics in the investigation into the 28-year-old woman’s death, said Thursday there is no evidence to suggest Bland was murdered inside the Waller County Jail, where she was found hanging on the morning of July 13. Authorities on Friday released autopsy results for Bland. Both the traffic stop and Bland’s death remain under investigation. Mathis has said no evidence of criminal behavior has been uncovered in the investigation so far.
Bland’s funeral drew Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Bill Foster, who came to pay their respects to the family, and to announce that they sent joint letters to Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a “fair and thorough federal investigation” into Bland’s death.
Durbin drew rousing applause as he pointed out that on the drive from Chicago to Lisle, his car passed many vehicles that were changing lanes without signaling, the minor offense for which Bland was pulled over in Texas.
Foster, who is white, lamented that more than half a century after his own father helped write the enforcement rules for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “we still have to fight these battles.” He said Bland could have been his own 28-year-old daughter.
Bland’s death sparked a fresh round of outrage and activity for the Black Lives Matter movement, along with new hashtags: #JusticeForSandraBland and #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, where African-Americans poured out pain and anger in plaintive messages to friends and family warning that such deaths should not be allowed to be brushed aside as suicide or accidental.
Bland’s family has resisted accepting the official account of her death. Bland was in Texas to start a new job at her alma mater, and her family insists she was looking forward to a new start.
“We know that she didn’t commit suicide,” said Rev. Theresa Dear, an assistant pastor at DuPage AME who has known the family for 20 years. “She was killed, and it’s just so hurtful.”
Dear expressed concern over inconsistencies in the information released by authorities, including a dashcam video of Bland’s arrest that appeared to include edits. The Texas Department of Public Safety blamed the irregularities on a “technical issue during posting.”
Dear said Bland was part of an “extremely close family and community here in Lisle,” and she said Bland had a bright future ahead of her.
“Most importantly, she was a fighter, and a civil rights activist,” said Dear, who is also a national board member of the NAACP. “Civil rights people and social justice people don’t just lay down and take their lives. In other words, Sandy was me 20 years ago.”
Indeed, Bland launched a Facebook video series, Sandy Speaks, earlier this year. Online, people have been sharing the videos, including two recordings in which Bland focuses on the issue of police brutality.
Bland’s family and her supporters have also strongly objected to authorities’ focus on the finding of marijuana in her system, saying the disclosures are meant to smear the young woman in death. And Dear decried the fact that the Waller County district attorney released photos from the autopsy during a Thursday press conference before releasing them to the family.
“I had to see those photos on the Internet,” she said. “And if you look at the video of her arrest, Sandy was trying to record the incident on her cell phone, and to this day, they have not released her phone to the family. What are they trying to hide?”
Warren County Assistant District Attorney Warren DiPraam has said that the phone is currently in the possession of the Texas Rangers, who are among multiple agencies, including the FBI, that are investigating Bland’s death.
“We’re never gonna be able to convince everybody about what happened,” Diepraam admitted during a Thursday press conference discussing the official autopsy, which found the cause of Bland’s death to be suicide by hanging. “But we’re gonna rely on the science.”
Bland’s mother, Geneva Read Veal, talked about her last road trip with her daughter just three weeks ago, saying her daughter told her she had finally found her purpose and it was to go back to Texas, where she attended college and to “fight to end injustice against blacks down south.”
“I’m the mom,” a feisty Read Veal said. “And that baby did not kill herself.” Veal vowed to rest for two more days and then to pick up the fight on Monday. “I’m gonna find out what happened to my baby,” she said.
“I gave birth to five babies,” she said. “And this pain hurts more than having any of them.”