The line to get into Sandra Bland’s funeral, held Sat. July 25 at DuPage African American Episcopal (AME) Church in Lisle, spanned the length of the church’s roughly block-long parking lot. Not far from the church, on a grassy knoll abutting a busy roadway, a coterie of camera crews angled for shots of the 28-year-old’s white casket being slowly carried into the sanctuary from the hearse.
Some people in the line wore t-shirts boasting the slogan “Unite, Not Incite” and “#SandySpeaks,” the Facebook hashtag that Bland started in January to bring awareness to the issues of race and justice symbolized by the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
The roughly two-hour service was part memorial, part civil rights rally and part canonization for a woman who, cryptically enough, in death became the kind of martyr she devoted the last stage of her life publicizing through social media.
The mourners filled the sanctuary’s more than 1,000 seats, in addition to the overflow areas in the facility’s chapel and basement, where they watched the service through video feed. Among them were complete strangers like Evelyn (she preferred not to give her last name), who treated Bland’s funeral as a pilgrimage of sorts.
“I came here because I’ve been through the same situation,” she said. “I called the police during a family dispute and when they showed up to my home, they were trying to get into an argument with me; and I’m the person who called with the complaint. I didn’t experience any kind of courtesy.
“So when I saw the video [of Bland’s arrest], I knew what she was going through. She fully complied with the officer, but he got upset because he couldn’t find anything. This type of thing is pervasive. It’s unfortunate. As human beings, we should all be treated with respect […] Maybe it was her hair. I don’t know. But that officer had to find a reason to harass her and it escalated to what it went to.”
Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, also lined up to pay his respects. Acree knows Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, a minister at The Word Works Church on the West Side.
“We have a big platform right now. This young lady’s death has put the spotlight on systemic racism across the board in America. Anybody who saw that dashboard video can see we have another instance of police aggression that was instigated by racial profiling. Sandra Bland died in a cell she never should’ve been in in the first place,” Acree said.
The circumstances of Bland’s death are now infamous. The police dash cam of the July 10 confrontation between Bland and Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, 30, has been uploaded to YouTube many times, with those videos garnering millions of views among them.
After Encinia pulls Bland over for allegedly failing to signal while changing lanes, he walks to the car to retrieve her license and, moments later, returns to issue a warning ticket. That’s when the video exchange begins. Officer Encinia, noticing Bland’s apparent irritation, says, “OK, ma’am. Are you okay?”
Bland responds, “I’m waiting on you, this is your job,” before explaining to Encinia why she’s irritated.
“I was getting out of the way, you were speeding up, dialing me. So, I move over and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated. But that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so I am irritated.”
The confrontation escalates from there, with Encinia forcing Bland out of the car by threatening her with his Taser (“I will light you up!”) and tackling her to the ground. Bland yells that she has epilepsy and Encinia responds, “Good!”
Bland was transported to the Waller County Jail. She was charged with assaulting an officer. Her bond was set at $5,000. Three days later, on July 13, Bland was found dead in her jail cell from what authorities have ruled a suicide. According to autopsy reports, Bland hung herself by tying a white trash bag into a slip knot around her neck–a finding Bland’s family vigorously disputes.
Bland’s case has provoked a maelstrom of national dialogue about everything from police and civilian relations to racism in law enforcement to gender relations.
“The authorities in Waller County are going to discover something that I learned and each of us learned at our mother’s knee. You can disrespect a strong black woman if you want, but you’re going to pay for that,” said Rev. James Miller, the pastor of DuPage AME, where Bland had been a member for nearly 20 years.
Miller urged those in attendance to go online and “shutdown the justice department website” with demands for a federal investigation into Bland’s death.
“If one person is held to the law, all persons should be held to the law,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-11th) ramped up the demands for a federal investigation when both announced that they were sending a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch demanding a “full, complete, unbiased” investigation into Bland’s death.
Durbin said, as he was traveling on the expressway from Chicago to the DuPage County church, “there were many people changing lanes in traffic and there were many not using their signal and their lives continue.”
The service — which ironically occurred on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s 1955 death at the hands of a white Mississippi mob — was also an opportunity for Bland’s family and friends to humanize a woman whose famous passing some worried might obscure the details of her having lived.
“We’re not funeralizing a martyr or victim — we’re celebrating a hero,” said Miller.
Bland’s Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sisters recalled a woman “who understood the concept of order” — even serving as sergeant-at-arms in her local chapter. She was on the dean’s list at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. Many of them, dressed in the sorority’s characteristic royal blue and gold colors, stood throughout the sanctuary and the overflow areas as members of the sorority’s international leadership team read a resolution.
“We, the women of Sigma, acknowledge that we will say her name,” one soror read. “In this movement, in this space, in the climate of this world — her life mattered.”
Reed-Veal insisted that her daughter, despite the autopsy report, did not commit suicide. She also voiced frustration with how Waller County officials have handled her daughter’s death.
She said during a trip to Tennessee three weeks ago, she and Bland, who had been at odds for some time, forgave each other. The music of gospel recording artist Fred Hammond, which was sang throughout Bland’s service, came constantly through the car’s speaker system.
“To have had that last week with her […] we cleaned up everything,” Reed-Veal said. But she noted that the conversation seemed far from a farewell at the time; rather, it felt like a preface to something greater.
“She said, ‘Mama, I’m ready to go back to Texas and stop all the injustice against blacks in the South,'” Reed-Veal recalled, adding that the new job her daughter had taken at her Texas alma mater entailed the school paying for her to pursue a master’s degree.
“That baby did not take herself out of here,” Reed-Veal said, before expressing her frustration with Waller County law enforcement officials.
“The folk told me that they were going to [have this ready and they were going to do that] — a lie! Her personal belongings are still not with her mama,” she said.
Reed-Veal’s defiance and resolve struck a chord among the mourners, with many standing the entire time she spoke.
“This means war!” she said, before preemptively swatting down any attempts to mistake her marshal metaphor as a provocation.
“Don’t go to [Trooper Encinia’s] house, because the man has a family,” she said. “Don’t make his family collateral damage for what he did.”
Reed-Veal said her war is “a spiritual” one and that she wants to fight it the right way; not through chaos and disorder, she noted, but through disciplined and prayerful persistence.
“One thing I know about Geneva is when she’s locked in, she’s a pit bull,” said Bishop Jeffrie Davis, the pastor of the West Side church where Reed-Veal is a minister.
“I want to know what happened to my baby and I’m going to find out what happened to my baby,” Reed-Veal said.