Black Activist’s Death in Texas Jail Similar to 2012 Suicide

Last week Sandra Bland drove to Texas from Naperville, Illinois, for a job interview. By Monday morning, after being arrested in an encounter with the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, she was dead.

Sandra Bland

Last week Sandra Bland drove to Texas from Naperville, Illinois, for a job interview. After arriving on Friday, she posted a series of photos on her Facebook account under the title, “The Official Welcome Back.”

The official welcome back took a deadly turn, however, as the 28-year-old Bland was dead by Monday morning after an encounter with the Waller County Sheriff’s Office. Bland was apparently pulled over for changing lanes without a signal; she was arrested and charged with assault of a public servant.

On July 14, the sheriff’s office posted a statement that said, in part: “On Monday, July 13th, at approximately 09:00 am, a female inmate [Sandra Bland] was found in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

According to the press release, attempts by authorities to perform CPR on Bland were unsuccessful. The office further claimed that Bland was booked in county jail after she assaulted a police officer during a traffic stop on Friday.

“Jailers saw Bland at 7 a.m. Monday when they gave her breakfast and again at 8 a.m. when they spoke with her over the jail intercom,” Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith told ABC 7 Chicago. “Smith says she was found dead an hour later,” the station reported.

Smith was suspended in 2007, when he was chief of the Hempstead Police Department, after allegations of racism were leveled against him and several other white officers. “The predominantly black Hempstead City Council voted to suspend Smith for two weeks without pay after viewing videotapes and hearing allegations of racism from local residents against him and the other four officers,” reported the Houston Chronicle’s Helen Eriksen. The city council also placed Smith on probation for six months and ordered him to take anger management classes. The Daily Kos reported that Smith was fired in 2008. Dana Lewis, a spokesperson for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on the 2007 allegations of racial bias.

A portion of Bland’s arrest was captured on video and posted to YouTube late last night. In the video, a sheriff’s deputy can be seen restraining a handcuffed Bland, who is on the ground. He appears to have his knees on her back. “Y’all real strong,” Bland shouts sarcastically during the minute-and-a-half clip.

One of the arresting officers eventually notices the unidentified bystander taking the video and approaches, saying, “You need to leave.” Bland can be heard yelling at the officers: “I can’t feel my arms . . . you slammed my head into the ground. Do you even care about that?”

“I can’t even hear,” she shouts. “All this for a traffic signal.”

She then thanks the bystander for recording her arrest. Bland herself posted a video earlier this year in which she remarked, “This thing I’m holding in my hand, this telephone, this camera . . . is quite powerful.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Bland was in Texas for a job interview at her alma mater, Texas’ Prairie View A&M University. The Chicago newspaper reported that she had gotten the job and was preparing to start sometime later this month. 

The Texas Rangers, who have taken over the investigation into Bland’s death, declined to comment on the case.

Bland’s demise is similar to the 2012 death of another Waller County Jail inmate named James Harper Howell IV. The Houston Chronicle reported at the time that Howell, like Bland, was arrested for assaulting a police officer.

“On the day he was found hanging,” the paper reported, “he had been sitting in the day room by himself watching television. Jailers had routinely checked on him. He spoke with jailers and gave no indication he would engage in suicidal behavior.” In Howell’s mugshot, he can be seen with what appear to be bruises to his face. That death, which was ruled a suicide, was also investigated by the Texas Rangers.

Meanwhile, Bland’s family and friends reject the theory that she committed suicide. Alana Taylor, one of Bland’s sisters, told the black Greek life news site Watch The Yard that “Suicide would be the LAST thing on her mind as she was on the brink of starting a new chapter of life: a new job, a strong cause to fight for and a thick network of support.” 

Indeed, Bland’s Facebook profile indicates she was an outspoken critic of police violence and brutality. Her Facebook cover photo is a cartoon drawing that shows a handcuffed black man, bloodied and beaten, in the back of a police cruiser seated next to white supremacist Dylann Roof, who is eating a hamburger. And her profile picture is one sentence: “Now Legalize Being Black in America.”

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