It’s been one year since Eric Garner yelled “I can’t breathe” as officers tackled him and one put him in an illegal, deadly chokehold.
And in that time, dozens of police shootings — from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott — and the brutalization of unarmed black people have made more headlines. Racism and inequality continue to suffocate us. On Monday, Sandra Bland, 28, was found dead in her jail cell.
I didn’t know her. But we had a few things in common. She was a member of my sisterhood, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. She was a fan of Maroon 5 and counted Kurt Carr’s “God Blocked It” as a favorite comfort song. And like me, she spoke passionately about race in America, hoping that by talking about it we could somehow come together.
But how did a routine traffic stop lead to her incarceration and death? A week ago in Prairie View, Texas, a town known for racial divide, police pulled her over, saying she didn’t signal a lane change. They say she was combative. But a bystander’s video only shows her questioning why the two officers handled her so forcefully. One of the cops told the witness to stop filming.
“You just slammed my head into the ground,” Sandy can be heard shouting.
Maybe police will release official dash cam video and reveal the full story. Transparency, in these times, is mandatory.
Three days after her arrest, she was dead.
“It appears she had used a trash bag to hang herself from a partition in the ceiling, which was used to give inmates privacy,” Elton Mathis, Waller County district attorney, said Thursday.
A trash bag? That’s hard to believe. Especially with friends and family back in Illinois saying she was looking forward to making bail and starting her new job in Prairie View. It’s hard to believe because this past year has overflowed with unwarranted deaths at the hands of police. I know not every officer is bad, but we must admit that this problem has grown far beyond a few isolated incidents. There is a systemic breakdown.
The FBI is investigating. Hopefully, we’ll get to the truth.
Months ago in a Facebook video, “Sandy Speaks,” she admitted struggling with depression. Posts since then have been lively. Family members and friends said she was not suicidal. She was making plans for the future.
Even if she did commit suicide, so did Kalief Browder — who in 2010, at 16, was arrested and sent to Rikers Island jail and for three years never went to trial. He spent at least two years in solitary confinement. He suffered abuse at the hands of officers and inmates. When the case was finally dismissed and he was released, Kalief was traumatized by flashbacks. In June, he hanged himself.
That doesn’t rid the police, the prosecutors and the system of wrongdoing. The Justice Department eviscerated Ferguson police for racial tension and discriminatory practices. The officers might not have rioted, but their behavior incited it.
So what happened between Sandy Bland’s failure to turn on a signal as she switched lanes and a weekend in jail that led to her death? History shows we must ask the question.
“I want you guys to know that I am a human,” Sandy said in March, staring into the camera, speaking to her Facebook friends about her sadness and the importance of loving others and keeping the faith.
We could all go a lot further in coming together if we could recognize that — the humanity in one another. Perhaps that’s a start in our effort to breathe again.