WALLER COUNTY, Texas— The chants that filled the streets here Friday were reminiscent of so many others that have echoed from coast to coast this past year. There were protesters yelling into bullhorns, and banners, signs and posters all denouncing the death of another African-American in police custody.
Just months earlier, Sandra Bland was one of a countless number of activists who took to social media to vent and lament over a long list of high-profile killings. Last week, she joined that list.
Just days after state troopers arrested Bland following a routine traffic stop in which she allegedly kicked one of the troopers, Bland was found dead in her jail cell on Monday at the Waller County Jail.
The County Sherriff’s Office says Bland hanged herself with a plastic trash bag in her cell. Her family and a growing legion of supporters say the police account of her death doesn’t make sense. Bland was just 28 and had moved back to the area from Chicago to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M.
“You could just tell that what happened wasn’t right,” said Rhys Caraway, 24, who drove from Houston to join the protests sparked in the wake of Bland’s death. “Nobody gets a new job and then goes from being on cloud nine to killing yourself.”
As local and state law enforcement officials, as well as the FBI investigate the circumstances surrounding Bland’s death, the pieces are already beginning to fall. The state department of law enforcement has placed one of the troopers involved in Bland’s arrest on desk duty pending an ongoing investigation into the stop. Video has surfaced that offers a glimpse into what happened not long after troopers pulled Bland over for apparently changing lanes without signaling.
The video, recorded by a witness and unverified by NBC, shows a woman identified as Bland laying face down on the ground with an officer with his knees in her back. “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!”
Also as a result of Bland’s death, Waller County Jail was de-certified Thursday, with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issuing 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 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.
The Waller County Jail is now among just seven other county jails out of 244 in the state of Texas in non-compliance. The county jail will now have 30 days to develop a plan to bring it into compliance, a plan that will be reviewed by the commission which will decide to renew or deny certification.
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.
Mathis said he will take the case to a grand jury. The earliest that could happen, he said, would be in August.
Bland’s family will fly from Chicago to Waller County to meet with Texas Rangers on Monday. In the meantime, local residents said they would continue pushing for transparency, answers and ultimately, the truth.
"We believe she would have been here for us,” said the Rev. Hannah Bonner, “so we’re going to be here for her.”
Quanell X, the leader of the New Black Panther Party in Houston, said he want’s that and a thorough and independent investigation into Bland’s death. “We’re going to push the FBI to conduct their own autopsy,” X said.