‘Change the hearts of people’

For the family of Sandra Bland, it is still unthinkable that a simple traffic stop would lead to her death.

Bland, a black 28-year-old, was in Texas for a job interview when she was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failing to use a turn signal to change lanes. What followed was an escalation that led to Bland being arrested and jailed over a weekend.

Three days later, she was dead of an apparent suicide. She should still be alive, said Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister.

“I’m hurt more than anything because this was something that was really avoidable,” she said.

Cooper shared her sister’s tragic story in a presentation Tuesday at Franklin College. As part of the school’s Courageous Conversation series, she meticulously detailed Bland’s life, her passions and the circumstances surrounding her death.

Understanding the truth behind what happened to her sister, and in cases all across the country where people of color have suffered injuries and death, is the only way society is going to be able to improve, Cooper said.

“The entire world should be in an uproar about this, not just those who are directly impacted by these issues,” she said. “What we have to get into the mindset of as Americans is, before we can change any legislative laws, we have to change the hearts of people.”

The presentation was organized by Franklin College’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion. Part of the motivation behind the program was helping students get at the heart of racial and social justice issues dominating the news, said Terri Roberts, the school’s director of diversity and inclusion.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding that goes on. I think people see hashtags and catch-phrases, and side with whatever sounds right,” she said. “They don’t really understand what’s really behind those things: that there’s actual people and actual incidents that happened. It’s important to bring these to life.”

Cooper’s discussion achieved that from the start.

Bland was a 28-year-old Chicago native and one of five sisters. She was beautiful, intelligent and not apologetic of her opinions, Cooper said.

She loved sports and was a talented trombone player. Social justice was one of her passions, Cooper said. She had started a video blog, which she updated with commentary from her life and about injustices that she saw in the world around her.

The goal was to “unite, not incite,” but she was still going to call out racism any time she saw it, Bland said in her videos.

Bland was stopped by Trooper Brian Encinia on July 10 for failing to use her turn signal to change lanes. Video from the trooper’s dashboard camera showed Encinia approach her car, questioning where she was going and what she was doing in Texas.

Audio from the dashboard camera shows Bland going from confusion to annoyance to disbelief at the situation, until finally Encinia orders her out of the car. When Bland refused, he opened her door and tried to drag her out.

The trooper arrested Bland after he said she became combative and assaulted him. Video would later disprove that.

On July 13, Bland was found hanged in her jail cell by a trash bag. The county coroner ruled it a suicide, but her family argued she never should have been in jail to begin with. They also dispute the cause of death, and the seemingly never-ending errors and oversights that led to her death, Cooper said.

The case was held up by family and social justice activists as another example of excessive police force and racial bias in arrests.

A Texas grand jury declined to indict any parties in her death, though Encinia was indicted in January for lying about the details behind Bland’s arrest.

Seven months after her death, Bland’s family has not received her clothing, her cellphone or any of her belongings collected at the jail. They haven’t seen an official police report about the traffic stop.

The family has still not seen evidence of the trash bag used in her supposed suicide, Cooper said.

“It’s almost like it doesn’t exist,” Cooper said.

Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August. Cooper and her family want justice in Bland’s death, and for those who wronged her to be punished. But they also want to ensure that the work she did in her life continues to bring equality issues to the forefront.

To do that, they have to ensure all people see the duress that many people of color live under, Cooper said.

“It’s challenging to admit that we do not live in a post-racial society,” she said. “There are still people who are minorities, who are experiencing adverse treatment.”

Cooper also challenged people to get involved in social issues.

To those in attendance, the message resonated. Freshman Adrian Mills had come to the event to know more about the Bland situation.

“It was a good talk. She went into detail about what happened, and I know more about what happened now,” he said. “I felt like it was good coming out to support it.”

Junior Jess Seabolt planned to find more opportunities to raise awareness for social justice issues.

“She said that one of her goals was to inspire, and I think she’s definitely inspired me,” Seabolt said. “I’m going to go up and ask her a couple questions about what I can do as a young person to help combat things that are happening in today’s age.”

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.