Family questions death of black woman in Texas jail cell

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The All-Night Images/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / July 16, 2015 / Al Jazeera America

The family of a young black woman who was arrested in Texas on July 10 after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation and found dead in her jail cell three days later, has questioned the circumstances of her death.

Sandra Bland, 28, was found dead of apparent self-inflicted asphyxiation in a jail cell in Waller County, about 60 miles northwest of Houston, Waller County sheriff’s deputies told Chicago television station WLS on Monday. She had been arrested for allegedly kicking an officer who stopped her over an alleged traffic violation, but her family said she gave no indication that she was upset to the point of killing herself.

“Based on the Sandy that I knew, that’s unfathomable to me,” Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, said on Thursday at a news conference in Chicago.

Bland had just moved to Texas from Illinois to start working at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater and a historically black college an hour’s drive from Houston.

Bland’s friend Cheryl Nanton told WLS that she suspected foul play. “I believe that we are all 100 percent in the belief that she did not do harm to herself,” Nanton said.

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told the Chicago Tribune he had no information indicating Bland’s death was not a suicide.

“If I receive information that there’s something nefarious going on or foul play, we will certainly get to the bottom of that,” Mathis said. “I understand there’s some disbelief among some friends and family that she would do this to herself. That’s why it’s very important that the Texas Rangers be allowed to conduct a thorough investigation.”

The hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland trended on Twitter after the news of Bland’s death, with many users questioning the circumstances of her death.

Facebook users commented on Bland’s profile page about what they called U.S. law enforcement’s systemic injustice against blacks.

Bland’s death comes amid increasing scrutiny across the nation over police treatment of African Americans following the deaths of unarmed African Americans by police, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. None of the officers involved in those cases have been charged.

On her Facebook page, Bland had posted a series of videos calling on black Americans to address racism and injustice.

The fact that Bland was pulled over in Waller County for failing to signal a lane change is indicative of the same racial issues faced by many black Americans, black news website The Root reported.

Police are 31 percent more likely to pull over a black driver than a white driver, the latest Justice Department data from 2011 showed. African Americans are also more likely to be pulled over for vehicle defects or records checks, the data revealed.

Texas Department of Public Safety trooper and spokesman Erik Burse told the Chicago Tribune that Bland was outside of her car and about to be issued a written warning when she allegedly kicked the officer and was then arrested.

A video of her arrest showed a state trooper kneeling on top of Bland, who was face down on the ground. Bland can be heard saying that the trooper slammed her head into the ground and that she could not hear.

She also complained that she could not feel her arm, and told her sister Shante Needham during a phone call from jail on Saturday that she believed her arm was broken.

“She was very aggravated. She seemed to be in pain,” Needham said, holding back tears. “I told her I would work on getting her out.”

Bland reportedly told Needham during the call that she did not know why she had been arrested.

With wire services

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