Thursday, July 23, 2015

Something Smells Very Rotten In Waller County, TX

Today, we have a Blow-By-Blow dissection of the Sandra Bland arrest and incarceration in the Waller County (TX) jail. In the face of the following questions about the affair (in italics for emphasis), the folks with the Department of Public Safety (the Texas state police) and the Waller County Jail have some serious 'splainin' to do. The ulitmate lesson of Watergate applies to this mess in Waller County: the coverup is as bad (or worse) than the crime itself. Best case is that the Waller County Jail is run by replicas of Barney Fife. Worst case is that they are trying to coverup a lynching. In the end, though, Sandra Bland is dead in tragic circumstances and she deserves justice. If this is a (fair * balanced) demand for justice in Waller County, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Questions About The Sandra Bland Case
By Charles M. Blow

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I have so many questions about the case in which Sandra Bland was arrested in a small Texas town and died in police custody. These are questions that ought to be easy to answer, questions that I suspect many others may share. Here are just some of my areas of inquiry.

1. On the video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of Bland’s traffic stop, the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, tells her that the reason for her stop is that she “failed to signal a lane change.” The officer returns to his car, then approaches Bland’s vehicle a second time. He remarks to Bland, “You seem very irritated.” Bland responds, “I am. I really am.” She continues, “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little bit irritated.”

Was Bland simply trying to move out of the way of a police vehicle?

The video shows the officer’s car accelerating behind Bland’s and passing a sign indicating a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. How fast was the officer closing the distance on Bland before she changed lanes? Was it completely reasonable for her to attempt to move out of his way?

2. The officer, while standing at the closed driver’s side door, asks Bland to extinguish her cigarette. As soon as she refuses, he demands that she exit the vehicle. Was the demand to exit because of the refusal? If so, what statute in Texas — or anywhere in America! — stipulates that a citizen can’t smoke during a traffic stop?

3. According to Encinia’s signed affidavit, Bland was “removed from the car” and “placed in handcuffs for officer safety.” The reason for the arrest is unclear to me. At one point, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning until now you’re going to jail.” So, what was the arrest for at that point? Failure to comply? Later in the video, Encinia says, “You’re going to jail for resisting arrest.” If that was the reason, why wasn’t Bland charged with resisting arrest? The affidavit reads, “Bland was placed under arrest for Assault on Public Servant.”

Encinia’s instructions to Bland are a jumble of confusion. After she is handcuffed, he points for her to “come read” the “warning” ticket, then immediately pulls back on her arm, preventing her from moving in the direction that he pointed, now demanding that she “stay right here.” He then commands Bland to “stop moving,” although, as she points out, “You keep moving me!” What was she supposed to do?

4. According to Encinia’s affidavit, at some point after being handcuffed, “Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin.” On the dashcam video, a commotion happens out of view of the camera, with Bland complaining that she is being hurt — “You’re about to break my wrist!” and “You knocked my head in the ground; I got epilepsy!” Encinia and another officer insist that Bland stop moving. Encinia can be heard to say, “You are yanking around! When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!” (Neither the dashcam video nor a video taken by a bystander shows a discernible kick.)

When Encinia re-enters the frame of the dashcam, he explains to a female officer: “She started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground.” The female officer points to Encinia’s leg as she says: “Yeah, and there you got it right there.”

Encinia says, “One thing for sure, it’s on video.” Only, it isn’t. Why exactly was Bland walked out of the frame of view of the dashcam for the arrest procedure?

5. The initial video posted by Texas authorities also has a number of visual glitches — vanishing cars, looping sequences — but no apparent audio glitches.

The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, tweeted: “I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut. Read/watch. Why?” She included a link to a post pointing out the discrepancies in the video.

According to NBC News:

“Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, blamed a ‘technical issue during posting.’ He said that the department was working to correct the video.”

What kinds of “technical difficulties” were these? Why wouldn’t the audio also have glitches? (Authorities have now released a new, slightly shorter video.)

6. Texas authorities say that, while in the Waller County jail cell, Bland used a trash bag from a trash can in the cell to hang herself. Is it standard procedure to have trash cans with trash bags in jail cells? Is the can secured to the floor? If not, couldn’t it be used by an inmate to hurt herself, or other inmates or jail staff?

According to a report on Wednesday by The Houston Chronicle:

“Bland disclosed on a form at the jail that she previously had attempted suicide over that past year, although she also indicated she was not feeling suicidal at the time of her arrest, according to officials who attended the Tuesday meeting with local and state leaders investigating the case.” Shouldn’t they have known it was a suicide risk?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out [PDF] that suicide is the No. 1 cause of non-illness-related deaths in local jails (although blacks are least likely to commit those suicides), and between 2000 and 2011 about half of those suicides “occurred within the first week of admission.”

Why weren’t more precautions taken, like, oh, I don’t know, removing any suicide risks from the cell?

7. Houston’s Channel 2 aired “exclusive video from inside the Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead.” In the video, a trash can — a very large one — is clearly visible. But, strangely, it appears to have a trash bag in it. If Bland used the trash bag to hang herself, where did the one in the can come from? Did they replace it? Why would the jail staff do that?

8. NBC News’ John Yang also toured the cell, and in his video he says that “things are really the same as it was that morning” when officers found Bland’s body, including food (“Dinner Untouched” was the language used in title of the video on and a Bible on the bed opened to Psalms. (That Bible appears to be closed in the Channel 2 video. Who opened it between the two videos?).

And what page is the Bible opened to in the NBC video? It is open to Psalm 119 and at the top of the page are verses 109-110: “Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.” Eerie. Or, convenient.

Also in the Channel 2 video, there are orange shoes on the floor by the bed. In the NBC video, they are gone. Who moved them? Why? Where are they?

Yang says of the trash bag in the can: “Around her neck, they say, was a trash bag, an extra trash bag from this receptacle.” So what gives here? “Extra trash bag”? Was there more than one trash bag in the cell or had that one been replaced?

(It is also worth noting that the video shows what appears to be a rope holding a shower curtain.)

Isn’t this an active investigation? Shouldn’t that cell be treated like a crime scene? Why are reporters allowed to wander through it? Who all has been in it?

Maybe there are innocent and convincing answers to all these questions, and others. I hope so. People need things to make sense. When there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads. Ω

[Charles M. Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 as a graphics editor and quickly became the paper's graphics director, a position he held for nine years. In that role, he led The Times to a best of show award from the Society of News Design for the Times's information graphics coverage of 9/11, the first time the award had been given for graphics coverage. He also led the paper to its first two best in show awards from the Malofiej International Infographics Summit for work that included coverage of the Iraq war. Charles Blow went on to become the paper's Design Director for News before leaving in 2006 to become the Art Director of National Geographic Magazine. Before coming to The Times, Blow had been a graphic artist at The Detroit News. Blow graduated magna cum laude from Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he received a BA.(mass communication).]

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This Just In: Do Black Lives Matter In Waller County, TX?

Another clank is heard in the dark pit of "black lives don't matter" and this time, the incident occurred in place with a dark history of race relations: Waller County, TX. An African American woman was jailed after a routine traffic stop (failure to signal a lane change) and three days later was found dead in a Waller County jail cell. The initial finding was suicide, but the video of the initial traffic stop has caused the relatives and friends of Sandra Blank to question the finding and raise the question whether black lives matter in Waller County, TX. If this is a (fair & balanced) question of abuse of police power, so be it.

PS: This blogger owes a H/T to the memory of Professor George R. Woolfolk who showed this blogger a great deal of professional courtesy when the blogger was a visitor to the Prairie View A&M University campus decades ago.

[x The Atlantic]
Sandra Bland And The Long History Of Racism In Waller County, TX
By David A. Graham

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Waller County, Texas, has had a complicated racial history since the days when it was a part of Mexico. At one of its first settlements, Bernardo Plantation, about 100 slaves grew cotton on a large farm on the banks of the Brazos. Yet in the years before Texas fought Mexico for its independence, the area became a magnet for free blacks from elsewhere in the South who sought a welcoming home.

The messy, confusing double legacy of that history has persisted to the present, most recently embodied in the death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail cell. Bland, a 28-year-old from Chicago, was on a road trip to start a new job at her alma mater, historically-black Prairie View A&M University, when she was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a turn [sic — lane change]. Somehow, that apparently routine stop escalated and ended with Bland with an arm injury, under arrest for assaulting an officer. She was found dead in her cell three days later, on July 13, of what police say was suicide by asphyxiation. Her family disputes that account, saying she had no inclination to suicide and was upbeat about her new job.

We’ll need more information to understand what happened to Bland. As Radley Balko notes, jailhouse suicide is disturbingly common. Regardless of the circumstances of Bland’s death, however, a routine stop for failing to use a blinker should not end in several days of imprisonment and death. That has brought a natural focus on Waller County and the figures involved.

After Walter Scott was shot and killed by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer, advocates noted that traffic stops are often a pretext for searching or questioning citizens of color. Scott, who was pulled over for having a taillight out, was wanted for failing to pay child support, and it’s speculated that led him to run away. He was shot in the back as he ran. In North Charleston, police made traffic stops involving African Americans far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. That isn’t the case in Waller County. Statewide, stops and citations for black people in Texas are actually lower [PDF] than their share of the overall population, and the same holds true for stops by the Waller County sheriff and police in the towns of Hempstead and Prairie View.

But this might be one of the few areas where there isn’t evidence of racially disparate outcomes in Waller County, a place with a grim history of discrimination and tension—“racism from the cradle to the grave,” as DeWayne Charleston, a former county judge, put it to The Guardian.

The history is especially painful because Waller County was for a time a beacon of black progress. During Reconstruction, an office of the Freedmen’s Bureau opened in the county seat of Hempstead, and federal troops—including, for a time, some commanded by George Custer—occupied to keep the peace. Not coincidentally, the Ku Klux Klan also set up shop. Nonetheless, Hempstead became a locus of black political activity and hosted the Republican Party’s statewide convention in 1875. In 1876, the predecessor of Prairie View A&M was established, and in the 1880 Census, the county was majority black.

But the last two decades of the century saw an influx of white immigrants from Eastern Europe, and that dilution of the black vote, along with the end of Reconstruction, reduced blacks to a minority and slashed their political power. After a 1903 law established “white primaries,” African Americans were effectively shut out of politics—such that in a county with some 8,000 black voters, only 144 Republican votes were cast in 1912, according to The Handbook of Texas. Waller County, as Leah Binkovitz notes, had among the highest numbers of lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950, according to a comprehensive report by the Equal Justice Initiative [PDF].

This may seem like distant history, but it set something of a pattern for the county’s race relations through to the present—and as the events of the last year have made clear, a place’s history is often an effective predictor of how it treats its black residents, from St. Louis County to Cuyahoga County. In fact, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Waller County has continued to be a source of contention.

In 2004, students at Prairie View A&M fought and won a battle over their right to vote in the county. District Attorney Oliver Kitzman claimed the students were ineligible to vote in Waller County and could only cast ballots in their home counties, despite clear Supreme Court precedent showing they were allowed to register. Kitzman threatened to prosecute any student who voted. It wasn’t his first clash with black residents, who accused the district attorney of deploying a range of intimidation tactics. Kitzman denied any racism, and told The Los Angeles Times that any racial issues in the county could be solved “if we took several of the players and sent them to Los Angeles.”

The students, with the support of conservative Republican state Attorney General [now Governor] Greg Abbott, triumphed in the battle. Kitzman resigned his post, a moment local black leaders compared to the Emancipation Proclamation. But four years later, PVAMU students again found themselves fighting for their fight to vote. A judge ruled against Waller County, and demanded that county officials justify every rejected voter registration to the U.S. Department of Justice for four years. The county has seen a variety of other accusations of voting irregularities in recent years.

In the early 2000s, Hempstead was embroiled in a dispute over cemeteries in town, which had historically been divided between white and black. Black residents complained that the city had devoted much lesser resources to black burial grounds. In the midst of litigation, the white mayor of Hempstead offended the city’s African-American residents by refusing to attend a parade to mark Juneteenth, the day of emancipation of slaves in Texas. The lawsuit was ultimately settled, with Hempstead agreeing to spend more on upkeep of the black cemeteries.

The interment question wasn’t entirely settled: In 2007, DeWayne Charleston, the judge, ordered a black funeral home to bury the body of an unknown white woman found dead in the county. (Charleston was later removed from the bench for accepting bribes.) Officials balked, as the Associated Press reported

When activists started raising questions about the county's hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home to handle arrangements—adhering to what community activists say is a long-standing tradition of cemetery segregation in the county .… Had the unidentified woman been buried in a black cemetery, she would have been the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in the county.

In 2007, the chief of police in Hempstead, Glenn Smith, was accused of racism and police brutality during an arrest. Council members opted to suspend Smith for two weeks, a sanction that disappointed civil-rights leaders in town. The following year, amid more allegations of police misconduct, Smith was fired. He promptly ran for county sheriff and won, and is now charged with investigating Bland’s death in the jail he oversees. At a news conference about Bland’s death, Smith vowed, “Black lives matter to Glenn Smith.”

It may not come as a surprise if Waller County’s African American residents don’t buy that. And they may not feel any better about the prosecutor who would handle any case. Elton Mathis, who holds Kitzman’s old job, has also been accused of pursuing racially disparate prosecutions. Last June, a black clergyman alleged that Mathis has threatened him over such accusations.

Almost as soon as Bland died, her family and many black Americans assumed the worst. They were skeptical of official explanations and pessimistic about the odds of a thorough and fair investigation. A popular hashtag, #IfIDieInCustody, became a forum to express that skepticism and the fear of being disappeared into a jail—or, like Freddie Gray, a police wagon—and emerging dead or near death, with no explanation and little evidence to explain what happened beyond the official account. To those Americans more accustomed to trusting the judicial system to deliver fair outcomes, this outpouring may come across as baffling at best—and as a hasty, unwise leap to conclusions at worst, short-circuiting the due process of the justice system. But the local history explains those deep wells of skepticism. Waller County has given African Americans more than a century’s worth of evidence that it is not in the habit of protecting their interests. Ω

[David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers U.S. politics and global news. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and The Wall Street Journal. Graham received a BA (history) from Duke University and he also served as editor of The Duke Chronicle.]

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