Seven years have passed since the fateful day Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas. On July 13, she was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. In this selection from Ten Lives, Ten Demands: Life-And-Death Stories, and a Black Activist’s Blueprint for Racial Justice, Solomon Jones honors and gives a portrait of the full life she had in front of her. The United States must write the eradication of racial profiling into law if it’s serious about racial justice.
The first time I heard Geneva Reed-Veal speak of her late daughter, she did so with the passion of a preacher. Her voice rose and fell with righteous indignation and when she paused, I was anxious to hear more.
Sandra Bland’s mother is a force to be reckoned with, and when I interviewed her for my radio program in 2016, she told me that her daughter was too. Sandra had shown as much while asserting her rights during her traffic stop arrest, and even through the pain of recalling what it was like to see that, Geneva made room for pride:
As a mom I will tell you, to watch that tape, ’cause I saw the tape the same time everybody else did; I was so proud of her in that moment, because she was letting that officer know, “No sir, no, no no—I know my rights. You’re not just gonna pull me up out of this car, but I’m gonna get out, because I will wait to see you in court.” And as she got out, she was still taping. So, when you talk about a mother viewing her radical daughter who said, “No, I’m not taking this,” . . . [I felt] very proud of her. . . . And I will be championing for Sandy all of the rest of my days. The world will never forget.
Indeed, we will not, because Sandra’s mother is a truth teller. There are no euphemisms. No feeble attempts to soft-pedal her beliefs. What happened to her daughter is simple, in her view. Authorities in Waller, Texas, lied about Sandra’s arrest, lied about monitoring her in detention, and lied about how Sandra died.
Clearly, someone was going to pay a price for that, and if anyone could tilt the scales of justice in her daughter’s favor, it was Geneva Reed-Veal. First, though, we would have to know the Sandra who lived before the hashtag. We would have to see beyond the chaos that defined her final days.
At twenty-eight, Sandra was searching for her purpose. A supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement who posted videos on police brutality and racial strife, Sandra wanted to fix what was wrong in the world. Much like other Black content creators who dare to speak up for Black lives, she was relentlessly trolled by racists. One person asked her if she was trying to use race to incite people rather than unite them. She posted a video in response.
“Honestly, I feel that my goal is to racially unite,” Sandra said in the video, which she filmed in her car in April 2015. “In the process of doing that, some people will be racially incited, [or] upset.”
Those who found her videos upsetting had the option not to watch, she said. But for white people who wanted to “get past” America’s history of racism, Sandra had a simple answer. First, they would have to acknowledge the hard truths of America’s racist past. Then they would have to admit that racism and white privilege persists in the present. She used policing as an example, and said that white people have a different relationship with police officers than Blacks do. For whites, she said, “the police don’t even suspect you of doing anything wrong, and that’s just how it is.”
Like so many of us, Sandra had seen the reality of race and policing in America. Drivers of color, and Black people in particular, were racially profiled by white officers who disproportionately stopped them for traffic infractions in attempts to investigate other crimes. Then there were the videos—those terrible and violent viral snippets of Black people being killed by white police officers.
One such video emerged just days before Sandra called for racial unity. In it, Walter Scott was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager in South Carolina. The year before, a teen named Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times by Officer Jason Van Dyke in Sandra’s hometown of Chicago. That same year, Tamir Rice was shot in Cleveland, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Eric Garner was choked in New York, and Ezell Ford was shot three times, once in the back, in Los Angeles.
Sandra was living through all of it in real time, and as she sought to find ways to make a difference in the lives of Black victims of brutality and discrimination, she was also trying to find a personal sense of purpose. That’s what she talked to her mother about during a trip to visit relatives in Tennessee. At least one of her goals was beginning to come into focus for her, and she shared it with her mother when they returned to Chicago.
“Mom, my purpose—I know what my purpose is,” Geneva recalled her daughter saying. “My purpose is to go back to the South and stop all the injustices against Blacks in the South.”
For Sandra, that meant returning to her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, and taking a job as a student ambassador. She had already talked about it a lot, Geneva said, so when the school called on a Tuesday and asked her to interview for the job, Sandra stepped out on faith, packed everything she owned into her car, and drove to Texas.
By Thursday, after doing the interview, Sandra got the job, her mother said. She was well on her way to fulfilling the purpose they’d talked about. Then on Friday, Sandra called her mother and told her she was leaving the school to drive to Walmart.
“She said, ‘Mom I’ll call you back when I get out of Walmart,’” Geneva said. “Well, of course that call never came because Sandy was pulled over at about 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. She was minding her own business. Officer Brian Encinia profiles her . . . U-turns the car, speeds up on her. So, she’s thinking, ‘Okay, this guy is in a hurry.’ She gets over without using her traffic signal. I do it all the time. There are a million people across the world who do it all the time. And she had no idea he was going to be pulling her over.”
The Demand: Eradicate the national scourge of racial profiling by creating a federal Sandra Bland Act. Borrowing from the original intent of the Texas legislation, this new federal law must ban pretext or “investigative” stops based on race. It must create a national database that traces racial and ethnic disparities in police stops. Moreover, it must create protections that keep the indigent from being jailed for minor traffic violations, and it must create a national standard for the protections afforded to inmates in local jails.
About the Author
Solomon Jones is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and morning host for WURD radio in Philadelphia. He is also a host for Classix 107.9 and a blogger for NPR affiliate WHYY. Jones is an Essence best-selling author who has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, Nightline, and CNN. In 2019, Jones formed the Rally for Justice Coalition with a multitude of civil rights organizations. The coalition’s efforts resulted in the firing of over a dozen Philadelphia police officers who espoused racist rhetoric online. Connect with him on Twitter @solomonjones1 or at solomonjones.com.