Sandra Bland was twenty-eight years old, young, with a bright smile and an even brighter future. She was headed to Texas to begin a new job at her alma mater, Texas Prairie View A&M, working in student outreach. On July 10th, she was arrested. On July 13th, she was found dead in a jail cell.
Bland was allegedly arrested for "improper use of turn signals" and later "assault on a public servant." She was found hung in her jail cell an hour before her family came to pay her bail.
There is a video of the arrest. She is lying on the floor with policemen on top of her, pinning her to the ground. She is asking why they are being so rough. She is crying out, "You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear!"
That question, "Do you not even care about that?" stings with incredulity, shock, disbelief. It echoes the cries of others. It parallels Martese Johnson's words, "I go to UVA!". It reverberates with seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin's last words, "What are you following me for?" It rings with twenty-three-year-old Amadou Diallo's heartbreaking last message to his mother: "Mom, I'm going to college." It becomes impossible to fathom with twenty-two-year-old John Crawford, on the phone with his mother as police shot him: "It's not real."
It is real. It is real, and it is disgusting, and we allow it to perpetuate. We overlook the escalation of violence against Black bodies, of systemic oppression against Black people in this country. We allow our textbooks to be rewritten. We convince ourselves that "racism no longer exists" because we have two Black Senators (out of the total hundred in Congress), a Black president, and a precious few Black Supreme Court Justices. We shake our heads in passive disgust at the actions of those who engage in cultural appropriation, such as Kendall Jenner, Iggy Azalea, and countless others in the fashion industry but continue to consume the products of these figures. We don't look twice when the kid walking behind us on the street jokingly uses the "N" word with his friends. We ignore the subject of slavery on a day-to-day basis at places like UVA, where only three years ago 67 unmarked graves were found next to the University's historic cemetery - the graves of slaves and possibly post-emancipation men and women. We attempt to justify the actions of the founding fathers we revere: Jefferson disliked slavery, Hamilton condemned it verbally behind closed doors. We consider these actions radical enough in a time where the economy was rooted in the work of slaves. We sat by and watched as protesters greeted our president with confederate flags last Thursday morning in Oklahoma, where he went to deliver a speech at a high school on economic opportunity, particularly for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. When our Black friends begin working together in BSAs on colleges and in the NAACP, we either nod our heads in silent approval or shy away from these "Black" spaces, deeming them to be unwelcoming to allies.
I say "we" because in our passive disapproval of wrong in this country, in the absence of our voices, the system continues. I say "we" because in order to fight the system of mass incarceration and violence on Black bodies, we must fight the racism rooted in every aspect of American life. Taking on the monster that is the product of American imperialism requires a level of commitment, of speaking up, that we, as allies, have failed to produce.
To return to the story of Sandra Bland, we have to ask ourselves, why did this happen? We as a community should be asking: why was she forced out of her car and arrested for missing a turn signal, something we all commonly do? Was this woman such a threat that she had to be torn from her vehicle and slammed to the ground? This leads us to another question: Why were two strong white men sitting on top of a black woman, slamming her face to the ground to the point of hearing loss? Does this not ring of misogyny? This is nothing short of white male hatred and violence against black women, and this should be called out for what it is. Feminists everywhere should be in outrage.
Finally, why would Bland commit suicide when she had just begun a new job and her family was coming to retrieve her? What could have changed her attitude from a hopeful new worker in student outreach to someone desperate enough to end her own life? Why would the jail workers not have followed safety measures to ensure that no self-harm would be possible?
Eric Garner said, "I can't breathe." Bland said, "I can't hear." How many more have to be choked, thrown to the ground, and brutalized before we unmute ourselves and demand firm justice?
Malcolm X once said, "I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against."
We must demand truth. We must demand justice. We must go beyond simply speaking about these issues, and push for a change in our institutions.
Legal action is not enough. Affirmative Action is not enough. The Civil Rights Acts were not enough, and will never be enough. We must work to combat the framework of oppression built into America's society through awareness, through using our voices, through banding together and becoming active in our demands for justice, tolerance, and equality. We need to give urgency to the rights of Black people.
We need to remember Sandra Bland - twenty-eight years old, with bright eyes and an even brighter smile, and a future full of promise.