Sandra Bland: Suicide or Homicide? Will people find the answer believable?

My friend Paul sent me a message from Tokyo today asking questions about the Texas traffic stop video of Sandra Bland, who was arrested and was later found dead in jail:

 “I want to know, as the driver does, what is she being arrested for? What has she done? What can the cop order her to do — and based on what?

“By Texas law, do you have to ‘step out of the car’?”

All good questions that Paul asks. And certainly there are answers though perhaps not nearly enough for some. Here are some supposed answers assembled by The New York Times. It seems as if some editor told a reporter on a short deadline to have pronto so many inches of print or whatever they measure news with these days. It’s okay. It’s not like plagiarizing a lead. Sorry, inside joke.

The answers in the article are enough for a start in that netherworld called justice where truth often finds itself the prisoner. When one sees the video more times than is good for one’s own mental stability and reads what was said in the video it would seem a tie ball game as to whom is the most surly. Texas State Trooper Brian Encina surely has the advantage though wearing a badge, Taser and firearm.

Having covered one of the early cases involving a police dash-cam video — this too involved a Texas state trooper — my belief is that audio plus video recordings don’t always equal instant truth.

In reality, the widely disseminated video of Sandra Bland’s arrest might stand moot if another video or a witness appears with some concrete evidence of how the prisoner died in custody. In the Perry Mason world this used to occur every day. But life isn’t Perry Mason and perhaps that is why I haven’t seen episodes of this show in three or four decades.

It’s sad to say that this isn’t the first story I have read or heard about in which a black person died under mysterious circumstances in an East Texas jail. I also have written stories about black people, men, who died under suspicious reasons in East Texas county jails.

My first such story was also my first freelance try. I worked on “spec,” meaning no money until the story is finished and approved by the editors, in this instance it was Texas Monthly during the late 1980s that disapproved. I chalked this up to my inexperience. Oh well, my expenses were reimbursed.

This story too was controversial. A black man from Louisiana was jailed and allegedly beaten to death with a “slap stick” by a cop because he was making too much noise. I investigated another claim — this was in an adjacent county to the aforementioned case —  in which a black man had supposedly committed suicide in jail, according to the official reports. As in the Bland case, the family in the case I investigated didn’t believe their loved one took his own life.

Is there a connection here? Is there a longstanding — the cases I investigated as a journalist were in the 1980s and 1990s — epidemic of black people being killed in East Texas jails that reaches into today?

Unfortunately and with a bit of irony, the answer is “yes,” “no” and “no answer” is found in black and white. Cultural differences from as far back as the Antebellum South to today permeate discussions, not to mention the unmentionable. The black perspective is often that white redneck cops are a danger to blacks in general. And, of course, “Brothers don’t kill themselves.” Clarence Page, the black, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, calls such thinking a myth.

It is difficult to find the truth. It is a task made harder with that noise which is the world spinning around and around. If the truth is that Sandra Bland was murdered it will not make anyone happy. The same can be said if it is proven that she did kill herself. But something short of proof seems an even more likely outcome.

And the burden of proof? Why it will likely be a heavy one indeed.