Sandra Bland, alive and well, before visiting Waller County, Texas
I live in a house with six black girls and women. I have four daughters, ranging from the ages of 2 to 15 years old. My wife, Rai, is my high school sweetheart and we’ve been inseparable since 1995. My 60-year-old mother-in-law, a Pentecostal minister, lives with us as well. Outside of our only son, most of our house, and most of my life, revolves around loving, caring, learning from, providing for, and protecting these six black women. They are everything to me.
I made a mistake though.
I drastically underestimated the very real and present threat police present to black women in America. As a journalist, as a leader, and as a husband and father, I've gone to great lengths to communicate the disproportionate threat of brutality that black men face at the hands of law enforcement. If you live in my house, the names Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice—each unarmed black boys and men who were killed in fatal encounters with police—are deeply familiar, almost like slain family members. We talk about their cases and the pain facing their families at our dinner table. Last week I would've told you this with a sense of pride. Now, though, not so much.
About a week ago, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Chicago had just accepted a new job at Prairie View A&M University, about an hour outside of Houston, Texas, where she earned her bachelor's degree in agriculture. Leaving the campus on the afternoon of Friday, June 10, everything about her world would soon come crumbling down.
Officer Brian Encinia, a white officer with five years of experience for the Texas State Police, can be seen on recently released dashcam footage roaring full speed behind Bland to catch up to her slow-driving Hyundai. As many of us have been trained to do, she moved her car, as courtesy, to the right lane to allow the speeding officer to pass her by. We don't just see this, Bland herself, on this same footage, can be heard later communicating to the officer that she indeed changed lanes because she noticed his fast-approaching patrol car behind her. The officer, though, saw a technicality. In getting over to the next lane for him, Bland failed to use her turn signal. He put on his flashing lights, Bland pulled over, and we now know that she lived only three more days. This encounter was the beginning of her end.
This is where my mistake comes into play. Black families often speak of "the talk" we have to have with our sons about just how dangerous a simple encounter with police can quickly become. I've never had that talk with my girls. To be perfectly honest, I didn't think it was necessary. I was wrong. It is painfully and urgently necessary. Officer Brian Encinia, who has been suspended from active duty by the Texas Department of Public Safety for multiple violations of state policies during his arrest of Sandra Bland, has made it such that I will now have "the talk" with my girls as well.
In the video, Officer Encinia notices that Bland is visibly frustrated for being pulled over. In what first appeared to be a courtesy, but soon showed itself to be a ruse, he asked her the cause of her frustrations. It otherwise appears she had no intentions of communicating her feelings to the officer. Almost as soon as she begins to express herself, Officer Encinia, overstepping his authority in a show of power, asks Bland to put out her cigarette.
Bland, though, knows her rights, and communicates to the officer that she is fully and completely allowed to smoke in her car. She was right. It was downhill from there. Officer Encinia first asks, then demands that Sandra Bland get out of her car. He then forcefully attempts to make her get out of the car. She refuses. On 14 different occasions, Bland asks Officer Encinia what she was being arrested for, but he gives no answers. He then pulls out his Taser and tells Bland, "I'll light you up," if she doesn't get out of the car. This is another abuse of his power.
Soon Bland is thrown to the ground by the officer, and in a citizen-filmed video, we hear her complaining that she can’t hear and that she can't feel her arms. Arrested for assaulting an officer, which did not appear on any either video we have from the day, Bland would communicate to the bail bondsman that she feared for her life in the jail and wanted to get out immediately.
On Monday, July 13, on the day she was scheduled to be released, Bland left the jail, dead. Officials claim she committed suicide, but nobody who knows her believes this conclusion. Even in the video of her arrest, she spoke about looking forward to her day in court. It'll never come.
Sadly, Sandra Bland isn't alone among unarmed black women who've died after fatal encounters with police. Natasha McKenna died in Virginia, Tanisha Anderson died in Cleveland, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Shereese Francis in Queens, New York, Yvette Smith in Texas. All of these black women, and dozens more, were unarmed and died brutal deaths. Suicide wasn't even an option. They were all killed.
I've hit a turning point in how I view the safety of the black women in my family and black women all across the country as it pertains to their interactions with police. The threat is very real. I'm heartbroken that it took the death of Sandra Bland for me to see it that way.