The official autopsy report in the death of Sandra Bland is in and the results are pretty interesting. This week, a medical examiner ruled Sandra Bland’s death as a suicide, detailing marks on her arms and wrists consistent with prior attempts at self-harm. The report was met with skepticism from Bland’s family and civil rights advocates who still question the circumstances behind the death of the Illinois woman in a Waller County, Texas jail cell.
After spending three days in a jail cell for allegedly assaulting a police officer and failing to use a turn signal before changing lanes, the 28-year old African-American woman was found dead in her jail cell on July 13.
But let’s back up a bit because failing to use a blinker isn’t a jailable offense. It’s a great basis for a traffic ticket, but no reason to be placed in police custody. The arresting officer Brian Encinia argued, however, that Bland assaulted him. That claim loses ground fast when you actually look at the video from his dashboard camera. I won’t take you through the details now, but it’s worth checking out all the things that went wrong during Bland’s traffic stop.
Whether or not Bland ended her own life, it doesn’t answer crucial questions about why she was jailed in the first place—and whether Waller County state troopers gave her the mental health care she deserved while she was in their custody. So far, Encinia isn’t facing any criminal charges, but he has been suspended pending the outcome of a full investigation, according to Texas authorities.
Now that the autopsy results are in, questions over Bland’s mental state are cropping up. Jail documents reportedly filled out by Bland offer conflicting accounts of Bland’s mental state while in custody: A handwritten set of papers says that Bland told authorities she had a history of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but she was never put on suicide watch or given special accommodations to handle her reported mental conditions.
A separate, computerized form shows no such history. A recent CNN report quotes Alexandria Pyle, who was housed in a cell near Bland: “She wasn’t eating and when I did talk to her, she was just crying and crying and all I could say was they could not hold you forever.”
Theresa Day, the minister at the Chicago church Bland attended as a child, told CNN New Day that her family and friends wholeheartedly reject the idea that Bland was suicidal: “How could someone go from a place of being excited about the future to now wanting to take their own life? We, as a family and a community who love Sandra Bland, do not accept… this narrative that the Texas authorities are putting in the media that she had suicidal tendencies.”
Even if she committed suicide while in police custody, Bland’s death still matters—and it’s still an injustice.
But suicidal or not, Bland shouldn’t be blamed for her death. Making Bland responsible for her own death is just another form of victim blaming. It’s just as sleazy as saying that other victims of police brutality somehow “asked for it” because they were “no angels.”
Too often, we look for perfect victims to place at the center of social causes. If an unarmed young man is gunned down by police, in order to deserve our sympathy, he must be faultless: no prior convictions, no school suspensions, no outstanding warrants, and no marijuana in his system. If a woman suffers a brutal assault, she must be modestly dressed, polite, virginal, and without a hint of sexuality in order to deserve our support.
In Bland’s case, members of the media watched the police video and questioned whether it was wise for Bland to exercise her rights in the encounter with Encinia (as though constitutional rights can somehow be erased when you’re angry or irritated). And now, we’re seeing another harmful narrative, that Bland was somehow “too strong” to commit suicide, as if being socially aware, strong-minded, and outspoken can inoculate you from mental health issues—as if that’s even the point.
The maddening part about Sandra Bland’s story is that we may never know whether she slipped back into a depression deep enough for her to feel that suicide would be justified. And it’s not for us to judge whether she believed her troubles were big enough or painful enough to justify taking her own life. For those working to end police brutality and protect black Americans’ right to simply live, the way forward is still clear: Sandra Bland’s death doesn’t have to be a homicide to be a call to action.
Rather than trying to patch together a window into Bland’s mental state, we should question why the Texas authorities who jailed Sandra Bland failed so miserably in protecting her. Should we stop being angry over Bland’s death if she committed suicide? No. Either way, her blood is still on the hands of her jailers.
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Tiffany Thomas is a writer, multi-tasker, and wine drinker. You can find her in the good part of Alabama, but she’s really from Baltimore—or North Carolina.
Photo via Chris Yarzab/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)