Gliding into a booth at a downtown restaurant, Sandra Bland’s mother juts a hand forward, not to shake, but to show her red, white and blue “I voted. Did you?” wristband.
“Never before did this little bracelet mean so much,” says Geneva Reed-Veal, 53, an anonymous resident of the Near West Side until July 2015, when her daughter Sandy was found hanged in a Texas jail cell.
“It’s only a piece of paper,” Reed-Veal says of the bracelet. “But it’s a piece of paper that says I believe in my daughter enough — and those that have fallen and are no longer here — that I needed to go and early vote. I’m keeping this on until Nov. 9,” the day after the election.
Her daughter — Sandra Bland, 28, of Naperville — was in Texas for a job interview when she was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. The traffic stop quickly escalated; police dashcam video shows trooper Brian Encinia drawing his stun gun and Bland laying on the ground screaming. Her well-publicized hanging three days later was ruled a suicide.
Encinia, who was subsequently fired and indicted for perjury, awaits trial.
Reed-Veal last month settled her federal wrongful-death lawsuit against Encinia, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County for $1.9 million. The settlement also included agreements to institute policing and jail reforms in Texas.
With that behind her, Reed-Veal is looking forward to the next leg of her journey — one that will soon involve her uprooting from Chicago.
Strangely enough, that move is loosely tied to her relationship with the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton.
It was at Sweet Maple Cafe on Taylor Street where Clinton met last November with Reed-Veal and a dozen mothers who’d lost children from police incidents, or violence. The guests included the mothers of national figures including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Dontre Hamilton. From Chicago, the mothers of Blair Holt and Hadiya Pendleton were there.
“A half-hour turned into two hours. There was no press. She knew everybody’s stories, took her own notes,” Reed-Veal says. “I’m living in a community where one political rep is over here, another rep there, yet no one from your community came and knocked on your door. Hillary endorsed us before we endorsed her.”
Reed-Veal was among three “Mothers of the Movement” asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention in July, further elevating her profile. And while at the DNC, she met the pastor of Cathedral of Praise Church in Philadelphia and fell in love with the ministry. She will soon join the ministry and establish the Sandra Bland Foundation there.
“It’s my purpose now. I’m looking to partner with other groups to provide supportive services for moms going through this type of loss,” she says. “We want to be there to catch them before they hit rock bottom, offer grief counselors, psychiatrists, funeral homes, forensics experts.
She’s excited about the new opportunity, but it pains her to leave Chicago.
Born and raised on the Near West Side, Reed-Veal moved with her five children to DuPage County in 1995, returning to Chicago in 2007 after her kids were grown. She runs a real estate business, and is a part-time minister and member of the finance committee at The Word Works Church.
She’ll never forget the July 13, 2015, call about her daughter’s death that drew a swarm of family and friends to her block. “I had about 80 people at my house; all up and down Warren Boulevard, people standing outside,” she says.
“The kind of pain you experience is a brokenness you’re unable to explain to anybody. You may never get back to who you were before. But you can get back to who God has created you to be after,” says Reed-Veal, sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with her daughter’s name and others who have died under arrest or police custody. Rubber bracelets display even more names on her other wrist.
Traveling the country pushing policing reform, the grandmother can reel off minutia of infamous and little-known cases of unarmed black suspects killed in recent years — deaths that sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement and a nationwide reexamination of police practices.
“Huffington Post reports 816 in-custody deaths in the year since Sandy’s death,” she says. “If your loved one goes into the prison on two legs, they shouldn’t have to be wheeled out. When nobody’s saying something’s wrong with that, we’re too quiet. The new movement is #ShutUpForWhat?”
Reed-Veal hopes her foundation can help others placed in unfortunate situations involving the police from “going through what I did.
“I would have loved to have someone call me and say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do.'” she says. “I would have loved a group of folks handpicked by someone who cared because she’s been there, to walk me through.
“Some might say what happened to Sandy is a tragedy,” Bland’s mother concludes. “I say it’s a testimony.”