Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was driving through Prairie View, Texas, on July 10, 2015, when a state trooper pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change. Bland refused to put out her cigarette, according to the cop's dash-cam video which later went viral, and some yelling ensued. The routine traffic stop culminated with Officer Brian Encinia arresting Bland. Three days later, Bland was founding hanging in her jail cell.
A Texas grand jury failed to indict any of those involved in Bland's traffic stop or death. Describing the arrest, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said Bland was "very combative," adding, "it was not a model traffic stop . . . and it was not a model person that was stopped on a traffic stop."
Activists around the country have embraced Bland's cause, saying she was guilty of "driving while black"—and her death should never have happened.
This week, Sandra Bland's sister, Sharon Cooper, is coming to Baltimore's Red Emma's to speak about her sister—and her own journey further into activism. Cooper, who will talk about her sister's death and the larger systemic issues surrounding it, prefers to describe her sister as "unapologetically confident" rather than "very combative." It's just one way in which Cooper intends to help us know who Bland was—not just a hashtag or symbol of police violence.
Another way of understanding Bland, in her own words, is through the videos she posted to Facebook as part of a series called "Sandy Speaks." There, she grapples with racism in America, police brutality, and other concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. In one April 2015 video, she says, "being a black person in America is very, very hard." She goes on to challenge the "all lives matter" rhetoric built up in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. "Show me in American history where all lives have mattered," she says. Portentously, she adds: "We have seen as of late, you can stand there, surrender to the cops and still be killed." The videos are, among other things, poignant, sincere, funny (in the very first one announcing the series she playfully apologizes for how her hair looks), confused, and contradictory—as they should be when wrestling with issues as complex as race in America. They are transmissions that, along with her sister Sharon Cooper's words, give us a better sense of Sandra Bland, the person.
City Paper spoke to Cooper over the phone about how her sister's death has moved her further into the world of activism, Bland's social media activism, what constitutes activism, and what she hopes to discuss at Red Emma's this weekend.
City Paper: I want to start with your sister's death in police custody. Do you feel like you know what happened or what you think happened?
Sharon Cooper: I don't. I don't know what happened but I do tell people that in less than 72 hours—because she was not in custody for even 72 hours—she went in alive and full of life and she certainly didn't come out that way. That is probably the most challenging thing that I've had to deal with from an active grieving perspective. I mean, we're coming up on about six and a half months since her death, and we still don't have answers. There has been a lack of transparency with the Waller County officials and the Texas Rangers that are involved. There are things that we've asked for from the very beginning and even six and a half months in, we still don't have. We still want evidentiary proof that supports and substantiates what has been communicated to us. It's challenging and frustrating to not have that but it's also fuel for my fire to speak out. Not just on behalf of my family but other families that have been impacted by these situations where they don't have just very basic information that they're seeking to be able to reach resolution and come to some closure and move into a new normal of their lives.
CP: It also seems as though these events happening to people are in part, a way of, to use a rather loaded word, "radicalizing" family members. I know you're aware of the West Family here in Baltimore. Tawanda Jones and others gather each Wednesday to remember Tyrone West. West died in police custody in July of 2013. Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, is another. I know that you were politically engaged before your sister's death but how would you characterize how her death has changed you, politically?
SC: I have always been somebody who is in tune with what's going on from a societal and justice standpoint. And what I tell people is that I used to be very vocal about it within the confines of my group, my inner circles, but Sandy's death has put me in a position to be more outspoken. It has heightened my level of awareness because the tragedy has impacted me personally. This particular situation has charged me to really do something. And doing something of course, when I'm given the platform, is standing up and raising my hand and speaking up from a more personal perspective and also encouraging those people who have either been through a tragedy similar to this or those who haven't necessarily been through a tragedy and encouraging them to activate the activist within them and become a social advocate before something terrible or something that is headline-grabbing reaches their door. Because you don't have to go through something personally to be a voice for a person who can't do it for themselves.
CP: Your sister was an activist herself. Her "Sandy Speaks" videos, which spread after her death, illustrated this clearly. How would you characterize your sister's activism?
SC: I often refer to Sandy's activism as unapologetically confident. What I like is that she took an issue that had been bothering her for quite some time and she decided to create a space on social media to address those issues specifically. There is one video where she says her style and her way of being outspoken, "Sandy Speaks," is not for everybody right now and that is OK. And to me that is amazing. It may have not been for everybody at that time but those videos are called upon so much in reference to her and it has been her way to speak beyond the grave.
CP: Did you come from a family that was particularly politically engaged?
SC: I think being a part of a minority community—and by minority I mean being a woman and I mean being a woman of color and growing up in a working-class family—you don't have the option not to be aware. You grow up in the struggle and that's always a part of you. My family is a group of individuals that through our involvement in church—and just being part of a church means you are part of a larger community—have always volunteered. Whether it be at a food kitchen or volunteered to speak up on behalf of others, I began to realize that we've been involved in the church and became activists and socially involved in the community through that. But you often don't realize the extent of that activism until you do something on a larger scale.
CP: There have been a few attempts by local politicians to assist the West family but not many. I was wondering if you've received any support from those in office.
SC: There has been a huge outpouring of support. This case is complex because even though it happened in Texas, Sandy wasn't fully a resident of Texas, she just moved down there literally the day prior to her stop. So there has been a significant amount of involvement and encouragement from officials here in Illinois because she resided there and there has been significant involvement from people in Congress. One person that I will certainly mention is Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, representative of the 18th District of Texas where [Bland's death] occurred. From the very outset there was outreach to our family and it has been ongoing. Sheila Jackson Lee published her second call to action to the DOJ, her call, coupled with a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus for an independent DOJ investigation into the circumstances surrounding Sandy's death. So there has definitely been an uptick and consistent interest from officials that are here in Illinois because our family is based here. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the people who are on the ground in Texas who are part of that community and Houstonians who are part of that community who stand there for our family because we are not physically there.
CP: I've also heard you say that you want to not only discuss the issues directly tied to your sister's death, such as police brutality. I've heard similar concerns from activists in Baltimore who want to make sure Freddie Gray isn't the sole representative of their activism or even the cause.
SC: There's definitely a parallel in terms of what happened to Freddie Gray and what happened to Sandy and others—these fatal encounters they've had with law enforcement. But it's larger than that and it's about becoming an active participant in your community. I know that police brutality and contentious run-ins with law enforcement are at the forefront right now, but there are a litany of other issues that are going on throughout our communities. It goes far beyond the law-enforcement component. And I also encourage people to be intellectually vocal. And what I mean by that is of course, I'm coming to Red Emma's [to] speak to the community but I want people to feel empowered and ask questions based on personal experiences they've had and I also want for people to be focused on solutions. We have to figure out collectively how we can address these issues.