In cities across the United States on July 29, the name of Sandra Bland, a woman whose mysterious death in police custody recently made headlines, could be seen bringing light to dark city nights.
The demonstrations were part of a nationwide action to remember Bland and bring attention to her death. Additionally, a petition by the nonprofit activist organization UltraViolet is soon to be delivered to the Department Of Justice and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, seeking a federal investigation into Bland’s death.
“There is going to be a massive petition tomorrow delivered to the Department of Justice demanding an investigation into [Sandra Bland’s] death and accountability for the officers who are responsible,” said Gan Golan, co-founder of the NYC Light Brigade and member of People’s Climate Arts. “And so this action was part of a multi-city action where there are light brigades all across the country going out tonight and spelling out in big lights ‘Say Her Name’ and ‘Sandra Bland’ and other messages like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Unite 4 Justice’ to help amplify this call for justice and accountability.”
Bland was found dead in a Waller County, Texas jail cell on July 13, three days after being arrested by Officer Brian Encinia during a stop for a minor traffic violation. Police claim that Bland hanged herself, but Bland’s family and many activists have expressed doubts that she would commit suicide and suspect a murder and cover-up by police. Bland had just moved back to Texas in order to start a new job on August 3 at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
When dashcam footage of Bland’s arrest was made public, activists also expressed outrage at how Officer Encinia treated Bland during the stop and the subsequent arrest, commanding her to put out her cigarette and pulling her out of her car when she refused to do so. The released footage also included many obvious visual glitches, such as images being repeated and cars randomly disappearing, which led to claims that the video was edited and leading to even more suspicion of the police story.
The case has since put a spotlight on many other suspicious deaths of people, particularly women of color, while in police custody. Bland’s advocacy and involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement has also galvanized many other members of the movement to put more focus on police violence committed against black women. But for most people following the case, the main question remains the same: What happened to Sandra Bland?
“It’s important to come out for Sandra Bland because we have to name specific individuals,” said Athena Soules, co-founder of the NYC Light Brigade. “This is happening everywhere all the time. People of color are being mistreated by the cops, mistreated and murdered. So I believe the more we speak about specific people, the more we demand an investigation, the more progress can be made moving forward.”
But regardless of how Bland died, many activists still see the police as the ones responsible for her death.
“What happened tonight was a really moving vigil to honor the life of Sandra Bland and to call attention to the incredibly egregious and unjust death, and possible murder, of this innocent woman and to demand that there is actually accountability for the police who are responsible for this,” Golan said. “Whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide, they are absolutely responsible for what happened to her.”
After the NYC Light Brigade and dozens of supporters gathered near the arch in Washington Square Park on Wednesday night, they held up Bland’s name and chanted “Say her name! Sandra Bland” and “Black lives matter!” Tourists and onlookers also crowded around and took pictures and discussed Bland’s case and the recent shooting of Sam DuBose by police in Cincinnati. New York City police monitored the vigil from a distance as people held up the letters of Bland’s name for as long as they could while speakers expressed their anger and sorrow over what happened to Bland. Whenever one person’s arms started getting weak, other supporters were always willing to step in and help hold up Bland’s name.
“As I like to say, it’s solidarity through light,” Souls said. “When people hold these letters, it shows that people are behind the messages. It’s not just a banner being hung. It’s people holding their arms high, getting tired because they believe in what they’re out here for.”