Last Friday, a black woman was returning home from a job interview in Waller County, Texas, when she was stopped by police after failing to properly signal a lane change. Two days later, she was dead in a jail cell, and Black Twitter wants to know why.
According to police, Sandra Bland was taken into custody and charged with “assault of a public servant.” No video of the initial contact has yet surfaced, but a video taken by a bystander during the arrest shows Bland shouting that the officer had slammed her head into the ground, and that she could not hear. (WARNING: The following video contains profanity.)
The arrest of #SandraBland was recorded. I hear her saying the officer slammed her head on the ground. pic.twitter.com/BypLQuQjM4— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) July 16, 2015
Police state that Bland was given breakfast at 7 a.m. Monday, and that she asked about making a phone call about an hour later. By 9 a.m., she was dead. According to a release published on Facebook by the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, Bland was “found in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation.” But at a news conference, Bland’s family said that the thought of her committing suicide by hanging was “unfathomable.” Their attorney, Cannon Lambert, said the family suspects that she was killed.
To many members of the community that self-identifies as Black Twitter, this sounds too much like the death of Freddie Gray, whose death after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody sparked mass protests in Baltimore in April. A police document obtained by the Washington Post claimed that Gray “was intentionally trying to injure himself.” But his death was later judged a homicide by a medical examiner, and the six officers involved have been brought up on criminal charges.
The last year has seen a sharp rise in online activism. The events in Ferguson, Mo., last August were first broadcast through grainy Instagram snapshots and quick tweets by local civilians, long before major media outlets had reporters on the ground. Social media, in particular Black Twitter, played a large part in bringing attention to Brown’s death.
But this time, the activist portion of Black Twitter is counting one of its own among the growing list of young black men and women who have died after a police encounter. Sandra Bland was outspoken about social justice and racism on her Facebook page, and produced a series of videos called Sandy Speaks. In one, which she released three months before her arrest, she explained her support for Black Lives Matter, a movement started by three black women that has since become a rallying cry in recent protests for social justice. (WARNING: The following video contains profanity.)
Until Amerikkka can show me otherwise #BlackLivesMatter #SandySpeaksPosted by Sandra Bland on 2015¿4¿8¿
#SandraBland is now trending on Twitter, edging out the Emmys as a topic of interest among tweeters. This may be partially fueled by the revelation that Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who made the original announcement about Bland’s death, was fired from his previous post as chief of police of Hempstead, Texas. Smith was ousted in 2008 on a vote of no confidence, amidst accusations of racism. A mistaken drug raid and reports of police making black males strip in public during a search (the latter of which Smith denied) were factors in his termination. Neither the Hempstead Police Department nor Hempstead city officials were willing to comment about Smith’s firing on the phone.
Waller County has also been home to racial controversy in the past. In 2004, a district attorney resigned after being accused of attempting to prevent students from Prairie View A&M University, where 96% of students are black, from voting in local elections. Both Sandra Bland and Sheriff Smith are alums of Prairie View.
All the facts are not yet out on Bland’s death. The Texas Rangers have been called in to investigate, and the Texas Department of Public Safety has asked the FBI to get involved. More details are sure to surface over the next few days.
But Black Twitter, and other activist social communities, are watching. And they will make it hard for the rest of the world to look away. In fact, they are the reason that the world is now aware of the case.
Follow me @dexdigi on Twitter for more on online communities and culture.