Sandra Bland: A Life that didn’t seem to matter

In life, Sandra Bland didn’t appear to matter, but the tragic circumstance of her death has prompted a keen interest, which leads to the question, “What actually happened to Sandra Bland?”

Sandra was found dead at the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas, on July 17, 2015. She was hanging from a bathroom privacy partition with a plastic, jail-issue garbage bag noose around her neck. Authorities had “full faith” that she committed suicide. They said there was no contrary evidence in the cell or on the person of the 28-year-old African-American woman, a woman who was jailed after an alleged lane change violation.

Some say – suicide or not – the police were responsible for her death. But the blame goes far beyond one police department, one traffic stop, or one person … even one state.  On a global scale, such individual tragedies generally seem to involve the powerless, the downtrodden, direct or indirect victims of seemingly indifferent forces. In the United States, we have our own peculiar blame factors, which in Sandra Bland’s case, seems to add racism to the equation of culpability.

We can reflexively distain the blame game and put victims behind the wall of derision and shame, perhaps a sort of “Trumpian” wall. Though the more privileged among us suffer the same oppressions from the economic overlords, we do not suffer the same racial slings and arrows that our black brothers and sisters experience daily. The question might be:”How would we hold up in such a society of bias?” And remember such racism is nationwide. It is not confined to just the South.

Sandra Bland grew up in Chicago, typically – as in perhaps, most black families – raised by a single mother, Geneva Reed. She went to a largely white high school in DuPage Country, and was said to be a spunky and feisty teenager.

She entered Prairie View A&M University, near Houston, Texas, on a music scholarship. She graduated with a degree in “animal science,” Sandy often saying she wanted to work for the Food and Drug Administration. When she graduated in 2009, there were few jobs for anyone. By the 1980s, conservatism had made great strides in engineering a huge cultural swing, bringing abandonment of regulation, inequality, a polarized society, and unbridled greed, which in turn made Wall Street fraud and swindling possible. All resulted in the Great Recession.

The recession of 2009 left millions in the cold economically. It also smacked down opportunity for newly graduated Sandra Bland. Being black, Sandra was more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white women. Nevertheless, she found work as a low-wage office assistant in neighboring Prairie View.

Driving between Houston and Prairie View, she was deluged with traffic tickets. The recession and GOP ideologues brought draconian cuts in all public funding, federal on down to localities. Cities and municipalities compensated for the cuts with traffic tickets, fines and steep court costs passed on to mostly non-white motorists, disproportionately ticketed over whites. Having no income tax and a low sales tax, Texas still prides itself in low taxes. In effect, the poor make up for it through traffic stops, many times for petty violations like tail lights.

In 2009 Sandy accumulated fines and costs totaling almost $1000, followed by an additional $300 the next year. On top of that there was marijuana possession. Though marijuana use was equal among non-whites and whites, three times as many blacks as whites were being arrested and fined for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Possession resulted in Bland spending 30 days in lockup.

She was back and forth between the Houston area and her home grounds near Chicago several times, looking for meaningful work, but returned to Texas to “sit out” traffic tickets in the Harris County Jail. Each day in jail earned $100 forgiveness for accumulated traffic tickets, something she felt she had to do to renew her license in Illinois.

Her minor drug violations in Texas followed her in Illinois, making it difficult to get quality jobs. Her tax returns in 2013 showed she grossed less than $8000, after four years out of college. To top this off, traffic stops in Naperville, Illinois, for speeding, no insurance, suspended registration and an expired driver’s license helped accumulate fines over $4000. Arrested for non-appearance in court, Sandy was bonded out by her godmother’s husband – Dee Watts and Dee’s husband, Lionel became Sandy’s economic fallback.

In her vicinity of residence, black drivers were up to four and one-half times more likely to be stopped for traffic violations than white drivers and four times more likely to be searched – the Ferguson, MO syndrome in the North.

A childhood friend related how Bland’s professed depression and economic problems led to drinking and more problems with the law. At this time, Bland’s support from her mother was faltering, and her associated church’s idea of help was “casting out depression through prayers.”

Sandra Bland was a troubled and depressed soul when she travelled to Texas for a job. Her godmother, Dee Watts, had just died of cancer and Sandra was somewhat estranged from her own mother. Though denying it to most friends, Bland was depressed, had no insurance to seek help, and was despondent over her godmother’s death.

The traffic stop in Texas for changing lanes most likely spurred an angry verbal response. Finding herself in jail over this storm-trooper-like injustice, no doubt led to more depression and demoralization. A $515 bond must have seemed overwhelming. Calls to her insolvent sister, being sued by her landlord for back rent, and calls to a Texas college friend didn’t bring results, the latter taking days to collect money from friends and acquaintances. Symptoms of a depressive breakdown was described by another prisoner as continual sobbing on the day before she was found dead.

The harshness of life for lower-class Americans, more intolerable for the non-white population due to widespread bias, is spreading to all demographic groups as income inequality grows. Rising deaths among white middle-aged Americans due to suicides and misuse of drugs may signal the stresses brought about by joblessness, low wages, and inequality, even for less-educated whites.

Still discrimination is easier against blacks, continuing the prejudices of tradition and history. The New Jim Crow is a book that highlights harsh laws throughout the US that disproportionately incarcerate, disenfranchise, and punish non-whites.

Unless we as a democratic majority buy into a more empathetic society, which doesn’t punish the powerless with a virtual disengagement from the good American life at every turn of vulnerable misfortune, we may find ourselves descending into the same cruel syndrome of oppression which ensnarled a young woman who thought that education and effort would give her a better life.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.