Legacies of Limited Justice and the Sandra Bland Case

Sandra Bland's family has filed a wrongful death suit, but the Department of Justice should conduct an independent investigation into Bland's death and an independent prosecutor should handle the case
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September 15, 2015 marks the 52nd anniversary of the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14 and Cynthia Wesley, 14. They lost their lives when a white supremacist, Robert Chambliss, planted a bomb in their church in Birmingham, Al. Chambliss would not face justice until over a decade later when he was convicted of murder in the late 1970s.

The verdict seemed to represent a turning point--a white man had been convicted of a crime against blacks. But Chambliss's reputed accomplices, at least three other white men, escaped punishment entirely. This kind of outcome ultimately sustained the status quo. Blacks were to be satisfied with a measure of justice because the legal system would never subject whites to the full extent of the law on behalf of African Americans.

Yet one cannot help but notice that these days even partial justice is unobtainable. It seemed like things couldn't get any worse after the failure to indict the officers responsible for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but now we don't even have the veneer of unbiased investigations, just ask the grieving family of Sandra Bland. As if her tragic death stemming from an improper lane change that led to a violent arrest and subsequent hanging in a Texas jail cell isn't sickening enough, justice seems poised to fail again.

Initially ruled a suicide, Bland's death is now being handled "just as it would be in a murder investigation" by local authorities, the Texas Rangers to be precise--though accounts have noted "with the supervision of the FBI." Having a local agency involved is already problematic, but the Texas Rangers in particular seem least likely to take down one of their own on behalf of a black woman.

If this seems like an unfair rush to judgment, keep in mind that this outfit has a long history of anti-black and anti-Mexican violence, and it operated as an instrument of white supremacist control before and after the Civil War. Also, consider that the Texas Department of Public Safety promotes its Confederate history proudly on its website, noting: "Texas Rangers and former members enlisted in 'Terry's Texas Rangers,' and made an enviable record in the Confederate Army." The same website refers to Reconstruction as "The darkest period in the history" of the Rangers. This period marks one of the few times before the Civil Rights Movement, when freed blacks actually enjoyed some of the benefits of citizenship.

Moreover, given the recent deadly, racist violence emanating from those who hold Confederate legacies dear, such as self-confessed murderer Dylann Storm Roof (who cowardly gunned down nine African Americans in a South Carolina church), it stands to reason that the Texas Rangers are probably not up to the task.

The dubious investigation underway aside, the local prosecutor is equally flawed. Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has already publicly described the victim as "very combative" and not a "model person." A harsh characterization of the deceased, though he had little comment on Trooper Brian T. Encinia who, in addition to conducting what appears to be a false arrest, threatened Bland saying, "I will light you up" while pointing a stun gun in her face.

At last report Trooper Encinia was placed on administrative leave "for violating police procedures," but even this is in keeping with the protocol for excusing police brutality. The same pattern of events occurred in the Brown and Garner cases: police suspensions, internal investigations, and local prosecutors--all to end with both grand juries failing to indict.

Sandra Bland's family has filed a wrongful death suit, but the Department of Justice should conduct an independent investigation into Bland's death and an independent prosecutor should handle the case. Even then, just obtaining an indictment is not enough, Trooper Encinia and all other officers involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

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