I AM tired of writing about slain black people, particularly when
those responsible are police officers, the very people obligated to serve and
protect them. I am exhausted. I experience this specific exhaustion with
alarming frequency. I am all too aware that I have the luxury of such
One of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that
dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools of
justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but
rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent
Sandra Bland, 28 years old, was pulled over earlier this month in Waller County,
Tex., by a state trooper, Brian T. Encinia. She was pulled over for a routine
traffic stop. She shouldn’t have been pulled over but she was driving while
black, and the reality is that black women and men are pulled over every day for
this infraction brought about by the color of their skin.
We know a lot about Ms. Bland now. She was in the prime of her life, about to
start a new job at Prairie View A&M University. She had posted on Facebook
earlier this year that she was experiencing depression. She was passionate about
civil rights and advocacy. According to an autopsy report, she committed suicide
in her jail cell after three days. What I find particularly painful is that her
bail was $5,000. Certainly, that is a lot of money, but if the public had known,
we could have helped her family raise the funds to get her out.
As a black woman, I feel this tragedy through the marrow of my bones. We all
should, regardless of the identities we inhabit.
Recently, my brother and I were talking on the phone as he drove to work. He is
the chief executive of a publicly traded company. He was dressed for work,
driving a BMW. He was using a hands-free system. These particulars shouldn’t
matter but they do in a world where we have to constantly mourn the loss of
black lives and memorialize them with hashtags. In this same world, we remind
politicians and those who believe otherwise that black lives matter while
suffocated by evidence to the contrary.
During the course of our conversation, he was pulled over by an officer who said
he looked like an escapee from Pelican Bay State Prison in California. It was a
strange story for any number of reasons. My brother told me he would call me
right back. In the minutes I waited, my chest tightened. I worried. I stared at
my phone. When he called back, no more than seven or eight minutes had passed.
He joked: “I thought it was my time. I thought ‘this is it.’ ” He went on with
his day because this is a quotidian experience for black people who dare to
Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and
insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone in
the handless dock. I check and double check and triple check these details
because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am
following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I
am following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the
color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a
lack of humanity. There is nothing I can do to protect myself, but I am
comforted by the illusion of safety.
As a larger, very tall woman, I am sometimes mistaken for a man. I don’t want to
be “accidentally” killed for being a black man. I hate that such a thought even
crosses my mind. This is the reality of living in this black body. This is my
reality of black womanhood, living in a world where I am stripped of my
femininity and humanity because of my unruly black body.
There is a code of conduct in emergency situations — women and children first.
The most vulnerable among us should be rescued before all others. In reality,
this code of conduct is white women and children first. Black women, black
children, they are not afforded the luxury of vulnerability. We have been shown
this time and again. We remember McKinney, Tex., and a police officer, David
Casebolt, holding a young black girl to the ground. We say the names of the
fallen. Tamir Rice. Renisha McBride. Natasha McKenna. Tanisha Anderson. Rekia
Boyd. We say their names until our throats run dry and there are still more
names to add to the list.
During the ill-fated traffic stop, most of which was caught on camera, Mr.
Encinia asked Ms. Bland why she was irritated and she told him. She answered the
question she was asked. Her voice was steady, confident. Mr. Encinia didn’t like
her tone, as if she should be joyful about a traffic stop. He told Ms. Bland to
put her cigarette out and she refused. The situation escalated. Mr. Encinia
threatened to light her up with his Taser. Ms. Bland was forced to leave her
car. She continued to protest. She was placed in handcuffs. She was treated
horribly. She was treated as less than human. She protested her treatment. She
knew and stated her rights but it did not matter. Her black life and her black
body did not matter.
Because Sandra Bland was driving while black, because she was not subservient in
the manner this trooper preferred, a routine traffic stop became a death
sentence. Even if Ms. Bland did commit suicide, there is an entire system of
injustice whose fingerprints left bruises on her throat.
In his impassioned new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is
heritage.” I would take this bold claim a step further. It is also traditional
to try and destroy the black spirit. I don’t want to believe our spirits can be
broken. Nonetheless, increasingly, as a black woman in America, I do not feel
alive. I feel like I am not yet dead.
Roxane Gay is the author of “An Untamed State”
and “Bad Feminist” and a
contributing opinion writer.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 25, 2015,
on page A21 of the
New York edition with the headline:
On the Death of Sandra Bland.
HEMPSTEAD, Tex. — A county prosecutor in Texas said Thursday that
an autopsy of Sandra Bland, who died in a jail cell here nearly two weeks ago
after a minor traffic stop, concluded that her injuries were consistent with
suicide, not homicide, a finding that underscored growing doubts that the jail
did enough to monitor her.
Ms. Bland had told two jail intake workers on July 10 that she had tried last
year to kill herself after losing a baby and told at least one of them that she
had experienced bouts of depression. Yet they did not place her on a suicide
watch or summon a mental health expert to evaluate her, steps national experts
say should be standard practice. Nor did they follow other mandatory procedures
aimed at protecting inmates at risk, state inspectors said last week.
Ms. Bland, a 28-year-old African-American who was moving to Hempstead from the
Chicago area for a job at a local college, was found hanged from a plastic trash
can liner in her cell on July 13. She was supposed to start her new job, at
Prairie View A&M University, which was her alma mater, two days later.
On Thursday, the chairman of the State Senate committee that oversees Texas
corrections said that the jail where she died, in Waller County outside Houston,
had mishandled her case, and that state rules governing potentially suicidal
inmates needed to be overhauled.
“When we lock somebody up, we have a responsibility to take care of them,” said
Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and the longest-serving member of the
Republican-dominated State Senate. “What I’ll be seeking is a review of jail
standards, much more than we’ve ever done before. I personally believe it is
At a news conference, Warren Diepraam, Waller County’s first assistant district
attorney, said that the autopsy showed that the condition of Ms. Bland’s head,
neck and hands lacked any of the telltale signs of a violent struggle, and that
the markings around her neck were consistent with suicide.
“I have not seen any evidence that this is a homicide,” Mr. Diepraam said. He
added that there were some abrasions on her back that might have occurred during
the arrest, and abrasions on her wrists consistent with being handcuffed.
Preliminary testing showed marijuana in her system, but he said the results of a
more accurate test were still pending.
Prosecutors said they were releasing information from the autopsy, conducted by
the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, because the case
has drawn national attention and, in part, to dampen suspicions.
“We’re trying to be open in this investigation,” the Waller County district
attorney, Elton Mathis, said at the news conference.
Friends of Ms. Bland and her suburban Chicago family have said they had no
indication that she had sought to take her life, saying that she was ecstatic
about her new job at the college. Her family has indicated that it will seek an
independent autopsy to corroborate the findings of the one conducted by Texas
Ms. Bland’s death came three days after a traffic stop for changing lanes
without signaling mushroomed into a furious confrontation with a white Texas
state trooper who threatened her with a stun gun, then handcuffed and arrested
her. State public safety officials have said that the trooper, Brian T. Encinia,
30, violated police procedures in the confrontation, and he has been moved to a
desk job while state and federal inquiries are underway.
Her death, like those of a number of other African-Americans who died after
encounters with police officers, has set off a national outcry as well as deep
suspicion among some critics, including her family, of the Texas authorities who
are investigating it.
A screening form for “suicide and medical and mental impairments” completed when
officials admitted Ms. Bland to the jail on July 10 indicates that she said she
had tried to kill herself last year with pills after losing a child, had battled
depression and was feeling depressed at the time she was entering the jail. But
a second questionnaire prepared hours later says that Ms. Bland had not ever
been depressed and was not feeling depressed at that moment, though it does note
her attempted suicide.
Explaining the discrepancy, Mr. Mathis said, “They’re telling me they asked her
those questions two different times, that she gave different answers the second
The intake forms also said that Ms. Bland was taking an antiseizure medication,
Keppra, for epilepsy. The drug comes with a warning label approved by the Food
and Drug Administration that includes a long list of possible side effects,
including depression, aggressive behavior and thoughts of suicide. It was
unclear whether she had access to the drug while in jail.
During a news conference illustrated with photographs of Ms. Bland’s corpse, Mr.
Diepraam said her body carried abrasions on the back and lacerations on the
wrists that could have been suffered during her arrest, or later by handcuffs.
But there was no sign of serious injuries, he said, and no cuts or bruises that
might suggest she had fought in her jail cell to keep someone from killing her.
Examiners also found scars and scabs from about 30 cuts on Ms. Bland’s left
forearm, which they said had probably occurred two to four weeks ago.
Prosecutors declined to say definitively what caused them, but “in multiple
instances I have seen, those injuries, they are consistent with self-inflicted
wounds,” Mr. Diepraam said.
An initial toxicology test also indicated that Ms. Bland had recently smoked or
eaten marijuana, Mr. Diepraam said. He noted that because traces of marijuana
leave the body quickly, she had to have consumed it not long before she died,
and he said it could have been used in the jail.
Inmates near Ms. Bland’s cell did not smell marijuana smoke, and the cell
contained no evidence of the drug, he said. He raised the possibility that she
could have ingested it right before the traffic stop to avoid being arrested for
drug possession. Explaining why the information was relevant, he said, “It is a
mood-altering substance and a mood amplifier.”
More extensive drug tests may shed more light on that question later, he said.
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is headed by the chief medical
examiner, Dr. Luis A. Sanchez, a University of Massachusetts medical school
graduate who joined the staff as a senior deputy in 2001 before becoming the top
medical examiner in 2003. He was previously deputy and acting medical examiner
in Washington and served as a liaison to the United States attorney’s office.
Waller County officials said they asked Harris County to conduct the post-mortem
inquiry because of inadequate medical facilities in Waller County.
Nearly two weeks after her death, it remains unclear why Ms. Bland was allowed
to remain under minimal supervision despite telling her jailers that she was
depressed and had tried to kill herself.
The rules governing inmates with medical and mental problems in Texas’ 245
county jails are basic and, some experts say, inadequate. Jails must give mental
health training to workers who deal with inmates. They must screen new inmates
for signs of mental illness. And they must have a policy for dealing with
suicide risks. Within those broad outlines, individual jails can design their
own procedures as long as they pass muster with regulators.
Ms. Bland was screened for mental illness twice in three hours after being
brought to the jail, documents show. But despite disclosing depression and a
previous suicide attempt during one of those screenings, she was never
designated a risk and marked for closer supervision.
That decision is left to the intake clerks who interview new prisoners —
employees who, under the plan that Waller County submitted to the state, were to
receive two hours a year of training in recognizing and handling mentally ill
inmates. But after Ms. Bland’s death, inspectors for the Texas Commission on
Jail Standards found that Waller County could not prove that its employees had
received the training.
State regulations require that jail employees conduct a face-to-face inspection
of each prisoner no less than every hour. Inmates who are deemed at risk — of
assault, say, or of bizarre behavior — are seen no less than once every 30
minutes, and can even be placed under constant supervision if a doctor orders
In Waller County, state inspectors found, jailers did not even meet the minimum
requirement of a personal inspection once an hour. Inspectors cited the jail for
the same violation in 2012, after another inmate hanged himself in his cell with
State Senator Whitmire said in an interview that the jail had made “a huge
mistake” both by failing to order a suicide watch on Ms. Bland and by leaving a
trash bag that could be used as a noose in the cell.
“If they had not had the trash in there with the plastic liner,” he said, “we
would not be having this conversation.”
Mr. Mathis, the district attorney, noted that Ms. Bland also had a bedsheet. “We
need to take the most precautions possible,” he said. “I do wish she would have
been on a suicide watch. We all do.”
In an interview Wednesday, the Waller County sheriff, R. Glenn Smith, said that
although Ms. Bland had told two intake workers she had attempted suicide last
year — and also told one of them that she was feeling depressed at that moment —
jail workers felt that her behavior was “just normal.”
On Thursday, LaVaughn Mosley, who had known Ms. Bland since college, said he had
been among the last people to talk to her. An aspiring dietitian, Ms. Bland had
driven to Texas from Chicago to interview on July 9 for a job involving a study
of weight at Prairie View A&M.
She got the job that day and was ecstatic. She was to start the next week. But
the next evening, she called Mr. Mosley from the jail and “told me she was going
to press charges,” he said. They traded missed calls over the weekend as her
family struggled to raise money to pay her bail. By Monday, she was dead.
Mr. Mosley said he remained in disbelief. “You don’t drive 16 hours, have the
interview, get the job, get all excited and then kill yourself,” he said.
Correction: July 23, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the charge on which Sandra Bland
was held. It was assaulting a public servant, not resisting arrest.
David Montgomery reported from Hempstead, and Michael Wines from New York.
Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting from Hempstead, Mitch Smith from Chicago
and Gina Kolata from New York.
A version of this article appears in print on July 24, 2015, on page A1 of the
New York edition with the headline: Texas Autopsy Is Said to Point Toward
I have so many questions about the case in which Sandra Bland was
arrested in a small Texas town and died in police custody. These are questions
that ought to be easy to answer, questions that I suspect many others may share.
Here are just some of my areas of inquiry.
1. On the video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of Bland’s
traffic stop, the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, tells her that the reason
for her stop is that she “failed to signal a lane change.” The officer returns
to his car, then approaches Bland’s vehicle a second time. He remarks to Bland,
“You seem very irritated.” Bland responds, “I am. I really am.” She continues,
“I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move
over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little bit irritated.”
Was Bland simply trying to move out of the way of a police vehicle?
The video shows the officer’s car accelerating behind Bland’s and passing a sign
indicating a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. How fast was the officer closing
the distance on Bland before she changed lanes? Was it completely reasonable for
her to attempt to move out of his way?
2. The officer, while standing at the closed driver’s side door, asks Bland to
extinguish her cigarette. As soon as she refuses, he demands that she exit the
vehicle. Was the demand to exit because of the refusal? If so, what statute in
Texas — or anywhere in America! — stipulates that a citizen can’t smoke during a
3. According to Encinia’s signed affidavit, Bland was “removed from the car” and
“placed in handcuffs for officer safety.” The reason for the arrest is unclear
to me. At one point, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning until now you’re
going to jail.” So, what was the arrest for at that point? Failure to comply?
Later in the video, Encinia says, “You’re going to jail for resisting arrest.”
If that was the reason, why wasn’t Bland charged with resisting arrest? The
affidavit reads, “Bland was placed under arrest for Assault on Public Servant.”
Encinia’s instructions to Bland are a jumble of confusion. After she is
handcuffed, he points for her to “come read” the “warning” ticket, then
immediately pulls back on her arm, preventing her from moving in the direction
that he pointed, now demanding that she “stay right here.” He then commands
Bland to “stop moving,” although, as she points out, “You keep moving me!” What
was she supposed to do?
4. According to Encinia’s affidavit, at some point after being handcuffed,
“Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the
shin.” On the dashcam video, a commotion happens out of view of the camera, with
Bland complaining that she is being hurt — “You’re about to break my wrist!” and
“You knocked my head in the ground; I got epilepsy!” Encinia and another officer
insist that Bland stop moving. Encinia can be heard to say, “You are yanking
around! When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!” (Neither the
dashcam video nor a video taken by a bystander shows a discernible kick.)
When Encinia re-enters the frame of the dashcam, he explains to a female
officer: “She started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to
the ground.” The female officer points to Encinia’s leg as she says: “Yeah, and
there you got it right there.”
Encinia says, “One thing for sure, it’s on video.” Only, it isn’t. Why exactly
was Bland walked out of the frame of view of the dashcam for the arrest
5. The initial video posted by Texas authorities also has a number of visual
glitches — vanishing cars, looping sequences — but no apparent audio glitches.
The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, tweeted: “I edit footage for a living.
But anyone can see that this official video has been cut. Read/watch. Why?” She
included a link to a post pointing out the discrepancies in the video.
According to NBC News:
“Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, blamed a
‘technical issue during posting.’ He said that the department was working to
correct the video.”
What kinds of “technical difficulties” were these? Why wouldn’t the audio also
have glitches? (Authorities have now released a new, slightly shorter video.)
6. Texas authorities say that, while in the Waller County jail cell, Bland used
a trash bag from a trash can in the cell to hang herself. Is it standard
procedure to have trash cans with trash bags in jail cells? Is the can secured
to the floor? If not, couldn’t it be used by an inmate to hurt herself, or other
inmates or jail staff?
According to a report on Wednesday by The Houston Chronicle:
“Bland disclosed on a form at the jail that she previously had attempted suicide
over that past year, although she also indicated she was not feeling suicidal at
the time of her arrest, according to officials who attended the Tuesday meeting
with local and state leaders investigating the case.” Shouldn’t they have known
it was a suicide risk?
The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that suicide is the No. 1 cause of
non-illness-related deaths in local jails (although blacks are least likely to
commit those suicides), and between 2000 and 2011 about half of those suicides
“occurred within the first week of admission.”
Why weren’t more precautions taken, like, oh, I don’t know, removing any suicide
risks from the cell?
7. Houston’s Channel 2 aired “exclusive video from inside the Waller County jail
cell where Sandra Bland was found dead.” In the video, a trash can — a very
large one — is clearly visible. But, strangely, it appears to have a trash bag
in it. If Bland used the trash bag to hang herself, where did the one in the can
come from? Did they replace it? Why would the jail staff do that?
8. NBC News’ John Yang also toured the cell, and in his video he says that
“things are really the same as it was that morning” when officers found Bland’s
body, including food (“Dinner Untouched” was the language used in title of the
video on NBCNews.com) and a Bible on the bed opened to Psalms. (That Bible
appears to be closed in the Channel 2 video. Who opened it between the two
And what page is the Bible opened to in the NBC video? It is open to Psalm 119
and at the top of the page are verses 109-110: “Though I constantly take my life
in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but
I have not strayed from your precepts.” Eerie. Or, convenient.
Also in the Channel 2 video, there are orange shoes on the floor by the bed. In
the NBC video, they are gone. Who moved them? Why? Where are they?
Yang says of the trash bag in the can: “Around her neck, they say, was a trash
bag, an extra trash bag from this receptacle.” So what gives here? “Extra trash
bag”? Was there more than one trash bag in the cell or had that one been
(It is also worth noting that the video shows what appears to be a rope holding
a shower curtain.)
Isn’t this an active investigation? Shouldn’t that cell be treated like a crime
scene? Why are reporters allowed to wander through it? Who all has been in it?
Maybe there are innocent and convincing answers to all these questions, and
others. I hope so. People need things to make sense. When there are lapses in
logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.