HEMPSTEAD — Crowded in the shade of the Waller County jail, roughly a dozen people kept vigil Friday afternoon for Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman who died in the jail days after arriving in the area to start a new job. Some sat in folding chairs, passing chilled water bottles in the 97-degree heat.
“This can’t just be something people tweet about. This woman is more than a hashtag,” said the Rev. Hannah Bonner, of St. John’s Church in downtown Houston. “There has to be some visible sign of honoring this woman’s life.”
Bland was pulled over July 10 in Prairie View by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper — identified as Brian Encinia by the DPS — for an improper lane change and arrested on a charge of assault on a public servant. She was taken to the Waller County jail, where she was found dead three days later, hanged from a partition in her cell with a trash bag used as a ligature.
Multiple investigations are underway, and Waller County officials have vowed they will hide nothing from Bland's family and the public.
Since Bland’s death, social media has erupted with questions about the events surrounding her death, using hashtags including #JusticeForSandy and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. In Waller County, people turned out in person to protest, many of them students from Bland's alma mater, Prairie View A&M.
Bland graduated from the school's College of Agriculture in 2009, and was about to start a temporary job at its Cooperative Extension Program.
Hundreds were estimated to have participated in a march students organized from the county jail to the courthouse Friday afternoon. Most had left by late in the afternoon, but roughly a dozen people, including Bonner, remained outside the jail, continuing a vigil that began Tuesday.
Bonner said she decided to help organize the vigil after hearing Bland’s story from members of her congregation who knew the 28-year-old.
“When it was brought to my attention by people who were close to her … it just felt like this is a tragedy, this is unacceptable,” she said. “It’s very clear to me that there was some foul play that took place here.”
That Bland could be pulled over for an improper lane change and die three days later in jail struck many of them as unfathomable.
“Something doesn’t sound right,” said Rhys Caraway, a Houston Community College student who has been participating in the vigil in shifts since Tuesday. “I read an article that said this was her dream job at her alma mater. You don’t go from cloud nine to zero in three days.”
Bland’s death is also being mourned at Prairie View A&M itself. Roughly 8,300 students, nearly 85 percent of whom are black, attend the historically black university each year, but most do not live on the campus to take classes over the summer. The campus was largely empty Friday afternoon, and much of the conversation about Bland’s death among students is taking place over social media, students said.
“Right now it’s really scattered,” said Carrington Johnson, a student senator who will be a sophomore in the fall. “But if you hang around, you’ll see that we’re a family.”
Many of the students walking around on campus Friday were incoming freshmen participating in summer programs or visiting the school for orientation.
Tayla Ranson, a Houston native who will be a freshman this fall, said she has been following the news on social networking sites Twitter and Tumblr. Bland’s death worries her, especially because she will be driving in the area when she is a student.
“The place where she got pulled over is close to here,” said Ranson, who visited campus Friday for orientation. “That could have been any one of us.”
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.