By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / July 17, 2015
More than 100 people staged a protest Friday outside the county jail in Hempstead, Texas, where Sandra Bland, a black woman from Naperville, Illinois, was found dead one week ago after being arrested after an altercation with police.
Officials have called the death a suicide. But protesters led by Quanell X — leader of the Houston New Black Panther Party — disputed that, shouting “No justice, no peace!” and “We demand answers!”
Bland, 28, was arrested during a July 10 traffic stop in Prairieville, Texas, after allegedly kicking the officer who pulled her over. A witness said the policeman dragged her from her car and then roughly detained her. In a video showing the arrest, she can be heard saying the officer had slammed her head into the ground.
After reports surfaced that Bland had talked about being depressed before her death, LaVaughn Mosley, a close friend of Bland’s, said that was a “self-diagnosis” and should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Mosely said that in a phone call to him after the arrest, Bland had sounded upbeat despite the ordeal.
“It just makes no sense,” Mosely said. “Sandy was a soldier; she wasn’t fazed about it.”
Bland, an Illinois native, had driven to Texas to interview for a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M. She received the job and returned the next day to fill out paperwork, excited about her new opportunity, Mosely said.
After finishing the paperwork and leaving the college, Bland was pulled over by police. Authorities said she “became argumentative and uncooperative” and kicked an officer.
In January, Bland began posting a series of videos to social media under the title “Sandy Speaks.” In them, she criticized police mistreatment of blacks and racial injustice in general.
“Being a black person in America is very, very hard,” Bland wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Her death comes amid increased national scrutiny over police treatment of minorities, following a series of police killings of unarmed black men and women.
Opal Tometi, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, pointed to past incidents in which law enforcement have covered up deaths of black men and women in their custody. One striking example, he said, is that of Victor White III, of New Iberia, Louisiana, who allegedly shot and killed himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car.
“I suspect there is a cover-up here; there doesn’t seem to be clear evidence that points to any reason why she would do that to herself,” Tometi said.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, who is investigating the Bland case, has said surveillance video outside Bland’s cell did not appear to show anyone entering before her death. He said she used a trash bag to hang herself from a privacy partition in the ceiling.
But critics have raised questions about possible bias by Mathis. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mathis sent threatening texts to a local clergyman who had asked for data on prosecution rates by ethnicity in Waller County.
After the clergyman requested the information on “selective prosecution,” Mathis allegedly texted back, “You are too stupid to know what that word means,” the Chronicle reported.
Rights activists on Friday said they will continue to work for answers in Bland’s death.
“We still have a system that is killing black men and black women every single day across the country, and so justice has not been served,” Tometi said.
With wire services