For the past two weeks, I have carried Sandra Bland with me everywhere I go. At first, it was a smiling image of her that haunted my thoughts; she is dressed in what looks to be a black blazer and white blouse, one of her baby locs creeping out of place and sitting squarely on her forehead. She’s wearing big earrings, the sort that you get from an African fair. Here, Sandra (I can’t refer to her as “Bland,” we are too intimately connected now) looks like she makes #BlackLivesMatter videos and goes to sorority chapter meetings in serious heels that replace flats at the door and that don’t stick around long after adjournment. She is one of us, one of ours, absolutely.
Then there is the infamous mugshot, subjected to one of the most horrific theories I have encountered in my adult life: What if Sandra was already dead? What if these devils—these unconscionable, uneducated beasts of the South, these proud sons of the purveyors of lynching and Jim Crow segregation—killed this woman, purposefully, or by accident of their abuse, and then propped her body up to stage a photograph? I immediately reject this theory, not because it is ridiculous—because I put absolutely nothing, nothing past police departments and the various institutions that work to ensure their right to destroy black lives without consequence—but because I cannot even bear to think about it.
Yet, this broken, battered image of Sandra is the one my brain defaults to now, despite my efforts to replace it with the one I know to be true. In my head, we are friends. We would have talked about her videos. I would have asked her quite seriously, “Do you want to put your ideas out there for the world like this,” and warned her about the backlash, the sexist, racist trolls who don’t exist online outside of their sworn duty to terrorize outspoken women of color. She would’ve said “Yes.” This I know.
Sandra’s death has touched me in a different way than any of the black men and women who have been taken from us recently. I worked hard to stifle my feelings about Trayvon Martin until, months later, I had a near breakdown in a department store. I went to Ferguson the week after Michael Brown died, but didn’t allow myself to feel a thing until much later; it was the sight of a writer friend sobbing that pushed humanity to the surface. Taneshia Anderson brought rage, throwing things in my house rage. Tamir Rice was, and still is, almost unspeakable.
But Sandra, Sandy, she was a girl like me. Three years my junior, figuring things out, with plans to begin working at the HBCU she graduated from—something many of us black-college grads dream of doing, because they are the rare space in which black lives are consistently centered, affirmed, and protected. Leaving Howard University—a place that didn’t define or explain my blackness fully, but allowed it to flourish in peace— after my own graduation was a decidedly somber occasion, marked by a knowing that I would likely never be ensconced in the protective bosom of All Black Everything again.
Sandra defended our people in her #SandySpeaks videos and she defended herself against a ridiculous arrest from an overly aggressive officer. Watching that dashcam video, which I avoided as long as possible, I recognized that tone of voice—the universal language of “this white man got me fucked up,” that audacious blackness demanding to be treated like a human, like an equal, like someone who isn’t supposed to be dragged and slammed and arrested for having agency. Sandra didn’t resist arrest, she resisted the notion that she was supposed to submit to a cop like he was her overseer or master.
For the first time in my entire black life, I am witnessing a major outcry over a black woman, more outcry than I have seen over an injustice committed towards a sister—ever. Collectively, we didn’t do this for Rekia Boyd, we didn’t do it for seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, or the countless others who didn’t get hashtagged.
So why Sandra? What made this the instance that would finally force people who don’t typically affirm the humanity of black women or challenge police violence—hello, Donald Trump—say, “Okay, this is madness?” Because America has sent a pretty clear message to black women that Tawana Brawley and Crystal Mangum have prevented us from garnering any sort of sympathy that may have been afforded to us.
Perhaps it’s because Sandra was a “good girl” by conventional standards; she was a college-trained young woman with the whole world ahead of her, as we often say when a “good” middle-class person dies. We wouldn’t be talking about her on this scale if she were a single mom of two and working in retail with a GED, nor if she were someone with an extensive criminal history. If that were the case, her name would end up on a #SayHerName poster, the committed activist community would push for answers, and mainstream media wouldn’t be bothered.
Far be it for me to suggest that Sandra, or any other black life that was lost in police custody, died so that the world could wake up. People choose to die for a cause all the time; she didn’t. She’d already established what her contribution to the cause would be: “to go back to Texas and stop all the injustice against Blacks,” according to her mother. Sandra Bland didn’t die in order to shake the world, she died because police departments kill black bodies and kill black souls—regardless if the reports of suicide are true or not.
One wonders, however, if the “it can literally happen to any black person” nature of this tragedy is the one equipped to shift outrage over police violence from the margins to the center. Does this death of a good girl, and the unconscionable way she was treated during her arrest, force the unbothered to pay attention, to say, “Wait, it’s not supposed to be like this?” Can Sandra Bland be a gateway into #BlackLivesMatter praxis for those who may have thought that Darren Wilson feared for his life, or that any sort of gun in the hands of a black male is frightening—sorry, John Crawford, sorry baby-faced angel Tamir Rice—frightening enough to squeeze first and ask questions last?
There’s no joy in watching white folks and black men demand justice for Sandra Bland (white feminists are still M.I.A., but that train is always late, if not absent), nor should there be joy following a senseless loss of life. Yet, for me, there is this strange—satisfaction may be an overstatement—awareness that finally, finally a black girl lost matters to a great deal of people. Why did it take this? Why do the circumstances have to be so extraordinary for people who are not black women to give a damn about us? And that goes not only for generally disconnected whites, tepid white ‘moderates,’ so-called allies, non-black POC and black men alike. Why is it that black women have enough empathy for marginalized groups across country, but, on the whole, there isn’t a damn to be spared when it comes to us?
The accountability we are demanding for all involved in Sandra Bland’s death, the questions we are raising, the outrage we are expressing, this should be the standard for all victims of police violence. She will stay with me forever. The memory of her voice, her mission and her conviction will live in my thoughts and in my writing. Let’s honor Sandra, and the countless women, children, and men lost before her by being just as vigilant every single time. Looking away cannot be an option.
[Image via AP]