When then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during the 2016 pre-season, he said:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”[iii]
After the game, in the dressing room, Kaepernick listed the names of black people who have died in police custody over the past few years.
“I can’t see another Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner,” he said. “At what point do we take a stand and, as a people, say this isn’t right? You [the police] have a badge and you’re supposed to be protecting us, not murdering us.”[iv]
Texas state trooper Brian Encinia stopped Sandra Bland for switching lanes without giving a signal. He initially wrote a traffic violation warning, and walked back to her car. He asked her to put out her cigarette; Bland, saying that she was in her own car, asked why. Encinia’s answer was to order her out of the car. While there was no apparent reason for it, it was a lawful order. Bland repeatedly refused to comply, saying the officer had no reason for the order. Encinea threatened her with a taser, and she got out.
To this point, the exchange was recorded on Encinea’s dashcam. Here, however, the two moved outside its range, during which time Encinea said Bland kicked him. He arrested her on a charge of assault. Bail was set at $5000 (which would have required 10%, or $500, for pre-trail release.) Bland called a man she was staying with; he ignored her calls. She contacted a bondsman, but he failed to secure the $500. The family said that it had been attempting to raise the money; whether Bland had been informed or not is unclear. Three days into her incarceration, Bland was found dead, “in a semi-standing position”[v] hanging in her cell.
An autopsy found she died through asphyxiation. For someone who had been in jail for only three days, she also had “a remarkably high concentration of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol,]” the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis – clearly suggesting that, during her incarceration, Bland had access to marijuana. The effects of cannabis include “negative experiences, such as anxiousness, panic, self-consciousness and paranoid thoughts.”[vi]
Bland’s death was investigated by Texas authorities and the FBI, which found violations of procedure – jail staff did not check on Bland every hour,[vii] and staff had not received at least two hours of mental health training.[viii] But there was no alternative explanation for her death. The local authority, Waller County, denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to make administrative changes in the jail, and settled with Bland’s family for $1.9 million.
Encinia was later placed on administrative leave for failing to follow proper traffic stop procedures. In describing his explanation for his arrest of Bland, he was found to have committed perjury, and was fired.[ix]
– Primary Source: The account and footnotes of “Death of Sandra Bland,” Wikipedia.
Bland’s death was ruled a suicide by hanging, an act that Bland’s friends and family found unlikely, saying that she was in “good spirits” before her death and was upbeat about the job she was about to begin at Prairie View A&M University. On the other hand, she had, for want of a $500 bond, been in jail for 3 days. She did not know when she would be released. She did not know if she would be convicted of assaulting Encinia. Rightly or wrongly, she may have had no confidence in the justice of Waller County. She did not know what effect all this might have on her new job. And the man she was staying with, the one she turned to, ignored her calls.
Things may have seemed to be going her way, and then, in an instant, for virtually nothing, they vanished. She was, apparently, a defiant woman. She did not accept what she saw as injustices easily. Under the influence of THC, she may have seen her self-inflicted death as an act of defiance.
In any case, “Jailhouse suicides are disturbingly frequent and often hard to explain.”[x] And here, suicide seems to be the only answer. For it to have been anything else, another person would have had to have unlocked the cell door and entered. But there was a motion sensor camera in front of her cell, and no such entry was recorded.
[i] Letter to Charles M. Thurston (August 10, 1794)
[ii] Unedited, the passage reads: “it is not difficult by concealment of some facts and the exaggeration of others, where there is an influence, to bias a well-meaning mind, although we allow truth will ultimately prevail where pains are taken to bring-it to light.”
[viii] “The jail standards commission, in a review after Ms. Bland’s death, faulted the jail for not complying with state policy requiring a minimum of two hours of mental health training and for not looking in on Ms. Bland every hour.