By deciding not to return any indictments in the death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland late Monday night, a Texas grand jury did not just make a decision; it made a declaration.
It declared that Sandra Bland’s life did not matter.
It declared that even though state Trooper Brian Encinia pulled Bland over on July 10, 2015, under the flimsy pretext that she had failed to signal when she switched lanes to move out of his way, her life—which ended with a plastic trash bag tied around her neck in her Waller County jail cell three days later—does not matter in the eyes of this nation’s judicial system.
It declared that even though jurors watched Encinia instigate, agitate and escalate his encounter with Bland—first, by saying that she “seemed very irritated,” then ordering her to put out her cigarette in her car, then forcefully removing her from the car under imminent threat of “lighting her up” with a Taser, before brutalizing her on the side of the road and ultimately arresting her on the charge of resisting arrest—that her life did not matter.
The grand jury decided that even though her intake documents reportedly stated that she had previously been suicidal following a miscarriage, deputies assigned to watch her are in no way responsible for not doing so—because her life did not matter.
Just as there has been no justice for the death of Natasha McKenna, who died in a Virginia jail cell after having a Taser excessively used on her, or for the deaths of too many black women before her and after her, the grand jury decided that Sandra Bland’s rights did not matter.
Just as five of 13 black female victims who accused Daniel Holtzclaw of rape did not receive justice, this jury decided that Sandra Bland’s death, whether by suicide or lynching, was her fault. Just as there were no charges brought against California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew for the roadside beating of Marlene Pinnock, the grand jury decided that Sandra Bland was solely responsible for her fate.
That grand jury looked over all of this evidence and decided that Sandra Bland did not deserve autonomy over her body or the freedom to navigate the world freely in it; and that Encinia, that hostile, violent white man with a badge and a superiority complex, was just doing his job.
In the wake of the announcement, the clanging sound of “no indictment” distinctly familiar in a nation blanketed in black death, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders issued a statement that pointed out the clear institutionalized racism and gendered terror at the root of the grand jury’s decision:
“Sandra Bland should not have died while in police custody. There’s no doubt in my mind that she, like too many African Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman. My thoughts are with her family and her loved ones tonight. We need to reform a very broken criminal-justice system.”
Sanders is absolutely right. She would not be dead. Let’s be clear, though: If Sandra Bland had been white, she never would have been arrested in the first place.
The privileging of white womanhood and the persecution of black womanhood is something that I discussed in the context of the silence surrounding the Holtzclaw case. Just as I was called racist by many then, critics of Sanders—the same ones who scream #AllLivesMatter while remaining firmly ensconced in their privilege—are saying that his statement is racist now. This is to be expected.
In a country that hates black, brown and indigenous people for their freedom, of course, his statement would be declared racist. In a country where “nice” allies feel obligated to make not-all-white-people arguments that attempt to derail conversations and outsource responsibility for the pain inflicted upon communities of color, of course, Sanders is wrong.
And in a nation where difficult conversations about equity are purposely obscured by politically expedient talking points about equality, Sanders’ statement, to many, is terrifying because it points out that white women are prioritized and protected in this country not because they are in any way superior but simply because they are white.
As always, I disagree with the hopeful assertion that the system is broken, just waiting on steady, skilled leadership to fix it. This system is working exactly as it was intended to work, protecting exactly whom it was intended to protect and killing exactly whom it was intended to kill. When people of color receive justice, it is not proof that the system is working; it is evidence that equity is sliding through the cracks and systemic racism is being corroded. This is not semantics but, rather, a critical shift in thinking about and reckoning with how this country functions.
In the tradition of the slave patrols on which policing in the United States was built, Encinia did exactly what others have done before him in the name of justice: set his sights on a free, black woman and decided that she was wanted, dead or alive.
I know this to be true: Had Encinia not pulled Bland over, had he not felt the need to wallow in his power and arrest her for failing to show him what he clearly believed to be proper deference, she would have died one day—as we all will—but it would not have been in a Waller County jail cell on July 13, 2015.
The fact that a grand jury could not even agree on that much shows, once again, how deeply hatred for black women runs through the engorged veins of this country, seeping out at the slightest touch, leaving unwashable stains on America’s soul.