Answering the Social Justice Call of Sandra Bland
This post is part of our online forum in honor of Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence.
On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland was reportedly found hanging in Waller County jail, three days after state trooper Brian Encinia physically and verbally assaulted her during a routine traffic stop. He subsequently arrested her on a trumped-up charge of assaulting a public servant.1 Despite public condemnation, relentless activism, and her family’s lawsuit, county prosecutors never brought charges in connection with Bland’s death.2 Undeniably, the medical examiner’s autopsy report conflicted with jail staff accounts and time stamped surveillance video footage recorded at the facility. The haptic distortion (handling and mishandling) of Bland was encoded in structural state violence that materially and virtually orders/reorders the Black female body.
To substantiate their suicide argument, the county’s legal defense repeatedly represented her in court documents and to media outlets as emotionally fragile. Invoking language perfected in psychological warfare strategy utilized by federal and local law enforcement to discredit, manipulate, and control social justice activists, especially during the Cold War and Civil Rights/Black Power eras, the state argued that Bland grew distraught over the inability to bail herself out. To prove mental instability, county officials referenced two March 2015 “Sandy Speaks” vlogs in which she discussed coping with self-diagnosed depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). According to the jail intake screening form, she admitted to previous suicide attempts after “the loss of a baby,” a possible link to her earlier videos.
Bland’s courageous testimony about grappling with the sometimes overwhelming and paralyzing anxiety fundamental to the human condition should not be so easily identified as a sign of potential future suicide and cynically swept away. Rather, by publicly disclosing her depression/PTSD and inviting open dialogue on the matter, she declared—like Toni Cade Bambara’s female protagonist, Velma, in Salt Eaters, in response to healer, Minnie Ransom’s questions (“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well”…“Can you afford to be whole?”): “Health is my right.” To be clear, here, I am in no way (as Bland cautioned against) attempting to “turn a blind eye” to the mental health epidemic. However, if we consider that in the context of western colonialism anxiety associated with blackness, as demonstrated in the work of Frantz Fanon alone, already regulates every aspect of the racialized/colonized subject—down to how breath/breathing functions—it becomes apparent that lack of self-awareness emerges as a much more insidious form of self-delusion.
As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, the “strategy—of accepting the incommensurable and the senseless without question—has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but it has a special role to play in late capitalism.” A guiding question of Fisher’s project is to ask, what would happen if all mental disorders were treated as a political category rather than pushing mental illness to the furthest regions of human interiority while maintaining the ‘natural’ appearance of capitalist reality? An undoing of the anthropocentric flattening of the world for restorative social ecology might adopt Christina Sharpe’s non-hierarchical approach to Black studies, turning away from disciplinary modes of thought for the precarity of “wake work.” This non-disciplinary consciousness-turning involves something akin to Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ attention to breath as ontoepistemological rupture (unsettling presumptions about blackness and sex/gender identity) in Hortense Spiller’s theorization of the unprotected/‘ungendered’ Black female flesh, as well as through the Black Female Breathing Chorus. Gumbs challenges us to think about how our involuntary participation in breath/breathing maintains the quotidian status quo and perpetuates violence against Black women and other vulnerable bodies. Emotional and intuitive numbness to different modes of knowledge praxes—how a “…growing heart/ain’t flesh and muscle like it could be”—succumbs to the “crawling part of everyday,” and fails to challenge the Real ‘reality’-(ies) of neoliberal capitalism. Gumbs and Sharpe’s turning away from ideological knowledge claims encourages a critical politics of immanence; a Black female embodiment turned toward the debilitated “black life lived in/as proximity to knowledge of death.”
In the three years since Bland’s death, in the wake of escalating mortalities resulting from state sanctioned violence against Black cis– and transgender women, many people have given ample thought to the real possibility that Bland was murdered. If not directly by the hands or handling of some persons at that jail, then most certainly by the overwhelming socioeconomic conditions driving the productive forces of a racist heterosexist transphobic carceral police state. But there have also been criticisms and vehement attacks of Bland, particularly from Black LGBTQ’s. They accuse her of homophobia for remarks made in a March 31st 2015 vlog about the gay wedding cake case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Within the broader context of a discussion pointing to the residual effects of legal chattel-slavery and state sanctioned discrimination—Bland commented that “Being gay is a choice, being Black ain’t.” This was a clumsy and prejudicial attempt to make a distinction between an alienated, racialized identity prefigured in racially codified law (blackness) and a legitimated sexual identity that, at least in the U.S., resides in political proximity (white gayness) to the heteronormative apparatus of law; a broader point that Jasbir Puar and Morgan Bassichis and Dean Spade make.
While social justice movements like #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter have expressed the need for state enforcement of Black cis- and transgender women’s right to “the equal protection of the laws” guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment, the large majority of white populist America (aka Trumpville) continues to turn a blind eye or drown out their anxiety with the emotionally numb, politically manufactured hype of “special rights” rhetoric. Bland’s distinction brings to the fore the complicity of white LGBTQ narcissistic neoliberalism that poet Essex Hemphill and other Black LGBTQ’s in the 1980’s and 90’s exposed through their art and activism, as Black and Latinx peoples were disproportionately dying from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Mortality rates due to the disease have decreased, but rates of infection among young Black and Latinx men and women, and especially among transgender people, continue to be disproportionately high. These disparities in health and wellness only point to a whole host of socioeconomic, educational, and political inequities surrounding Black LGBTQ incarceration, especially among cis- and transgender women.
To dismiss Sandra Bland’s March 31st vlog comment as homophobic centers ideological reasoning to the exclusion of fully engaging those modes of knowing outside sanctioned epistemology—the absent questions (“the unasked question,” to put it in Du Boisian terms). Effacement of Bland, another form of policing Black women as a problem, negates her subjectivity. Any call to hold the dead accountable must also deal with the entombment or enshrinement of a self that is now absent due to loss; in other words, an absent self-presence, a ghost. This call, this hauntology, cannot expect an answer. But, wait….Bland’s use of “smartphone” technology and social media, not as prosthetic knowledge to avoid or escape political praxis—still largely a disembodied public sphere occupied as a white heteronormative patriarchal space of idealized subjectivity—but to “open up a gateway” to dialogue with future generations, might make intense engagement with the precarity of Black life possible: being “ready to do what is needed to do…to change history.” Although Bland identifies this future temporal-space with the name of God, she suggests that religious belief is not necessary for God-consciousness (“I know everybody don’t believe in God, which is fine”).3
In this way, Bland’s gateway of dialogical space-time is not unlike the “constellation”–an assembled entanglement of crystallized time or congealed moment of present–that allows for the disruption of continuum that opens the “gate” of Walter Benjamin’s revolutionary “messianic time” or the “deep insecurity”–the lack of protection from dominant control, an existence of unrest–out of which dream logic emerges to reorder a space, to empty the void of chronological need, and make room for the “yea-nay”/yes-no of Howard Thurman’s “creative survival.”
Hello, Sandy…I hear you.
- By January of 2016, a grand-jury had indicted Encinia on perjury due to his false account of Bland’s arrest, alleging to have forcibly removed her from the car to conduct a safer traffic investigation. He was terminated by the Texas Department of Public Safety on grounds that his actions during the traffic stop with Bland violated department standards. The official letter of termination also cited his grand jury indictment as a contributing factor. However, less than a year later prosecutors dismissed the perjury charge against Encinia in exchange for his agreement to never work in law enforcement again and relinquishment of his Texas law enforcement license. ↩
- In September of 2016, Bland’s family eventually settled a 1.9 million wrongful death lawsuit with Waller County and Texas Department of Public Safety that included a commitment to make several major reforms in how incarcerated persons will be processed and monitored in the future. ↩
- For Bland, “To do God’s work” in “time to stop knowing that that was going to happen” (breaking a cycle of predictive impending destruction) is to claim a praxis of knowing better to do differently, to ameliorate everyday bodily suffering in the ‘here’ and ‘now.’ ↩