Each person who has had their life cut short by presumed and sometimes visibly unjustified police actions has been showered with empathy and activism in today’s robust movement against injustice.
Many of the people on the virtual and actual frontlines of this crusade see friends, family members or even themselves in the past tense lives of the people frozen in hashtags.
But Bland’s story is especially tough to take.
Just last week, Bland was a vibrant 28-year-old who was moving to Texas to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Like a lot of African-American millennials, Bland was active on social media. She had been labeling her Facebook videos with #SandySpeaks to talk about a number of issues, including race relations, police brutality and Black Lives Matter. She was an activist.
In a series of events that has not been fully revealed, Bland went from being pulled over on July 10 in Waller County, TX, allegedly for a minor traffic violation to being violently manhandled by the arresting officers to being found dead in a jail cell three days later.
County officials have ruled her death a suicide. She allegedly took her own life by hanging herself with a plastic bag, but friends and family don’t believe it. Officials also say that Bland assaulted a police officer. No details or evidence of that has yet been presented as an investigation of the incident progresses.
A bystander used a camera phone to capture a portion of Bland’s interaction with the arresting officers. Bland can be heard thanking the person for recording as she is led away in handcuffs. The video does not show Bland assaulting anyone but rather begging to know why she has been assaulted.
The narrative that county officials are using is not sitting well with much of the public, especially that portion of the public that is so much like Bland. They don’t understand why a woman who was to start a new job in a matter of days would assault a police officer during a traffic stop and then commit suicide in a jail cell three days later even as her sister was working on getting the $500 needed to bail her out.
The Black Lives Matter movement is no stranger to death, especially suspicious ones — death was the impetus of the charge after all. But to go from creating a hashtag to being one has proven to be a particularly unsettling prospect for activists.
This bleak and personal take on mortality prompted the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody to go viral. This somber online vault of post-mortem wishes and directions came on the heels of the death of Kindra Darnell Chapman, an 18-year-old Alabama resident who, like Bland, was found dead in a jail cell after an arrest, and her death was ruled a suicide. Chapman allegedly hanged herself. Now more than ever, activists are aware of the need to shape their own narratives even if that means doing so in advance of a tragedy they hope does not befall them.
Bland and Chapman’s deaths bring more attention to the #SayHerName movement, which was created due to the sparse media attention being given to black women victims of police violence even though black women are prominent forces in the Black Lives Matter cause. The phrase Black Lives Matter was developed by three black women.
At the time of publication, over 80,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding that the Department of Justice conduct an official autopsy and investigation. Waller County officials and even the sheriff himself have had controversies involving race in the past. That, coupled with the dubious details surrounding Bland’s death, have some people questioning if Waller County is capable of conducting a fair and impartial investigation.
All of these events transpired around the time of year that mars one year since the death of Eric Garner, a man who said “I can’t breathe” as members of the NYPD administered an illegal chokehold on him that resulted in his death. A citizen with a camera phone captured Garner’s last moments.
Moreover, July 16 was Ida B. Wells’ 153rd birthday. Wells was a journalist and ardent crusader against injustice who created platforms to fight for women’s rights and to document and distribute data about the lynching of black people. Before the world had the word “intersectionality,” the world had Ida B. Wells.
As the legacies and spirits of Garner and Wells hover in the media and in the minds of the public and more information emerges about the deaths of Bland and Chapman, it is fitting to end with words from one of Bland’s #SandySpeaks videos:
This telephone, this camera I’m holding in my hand right now is quite powerful. Social media is powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really truly make it happen.