Rivaling a Baptist preacher caught up in the spirit, the mother of Sandra Bland has entered into a zone. Geneva Reed-Veal’s voice rises, then falls to a whisper. She erupts in laughter, then chokes back tears.
Her emotions have ranged just as widely ever since the West Side woman got the call last July that changed her life. The news then was that her daughter — the second-youngest of her five children — was dead. She’d been found hanged in a jail cell three days after being pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in Waller County, Texas, while there from Chicago for a job interview at a university.
Bland’s death, ruled a suicide, was one of a number of cases nationwide the past few years in which unarmed black suspects were killed during their arrests or died while in police custody. Their deaths have helped fuel the “Black Lives Matter” movement and also a reexamination of police practices across the United States.
After all the protests and scrutiny, Reed-Veal and her family have been girding themselves for another long haul, this time for what’s sure to be a series of closely watched courtroom dramas.
On Tuesday, Reed-Veal, along with Bland’s oldest sister, will be deposed by attorneys for Brian Encinia, the former Texas state trooper who arrested the 28-year-old Naperville woman on July 10, 2015. The Texas Department of Public Safety fired Encinia in March, saying his actions after pulling Bland over violated department standards.
“You took my baby, but you’re going to question me,” Reed-Veal says of the depositions.
It’s just the beginning of the legal proceedings for Bland’s family. Later will come their wrongful-death lawsuit, which accuses Encinia, the Waller County sheriff’s office, Waller County Jail officials and the state Department of Public Safety of wrongly jailing Bland and failing to take preventive measures, despite warning signs, to guard against suicide.
In March, in a courtroom about 50 miles west of Houston, Encinia pleaded “not guilty” to a misdemeanor charge of perjury. Accused of lying about why he arrested the 28-year-old Bland after pulling her over for failing to signal a lane change, his next hearing is on June 21.
It was difficult to face Encinia in court the first time, at his plea hearing.
“You better know God to go through something like this,” says Reed-Veal, a part-time minister at The Word Works Church in West Humboldt Park who also runs her own real estate business. “When you walk in to a courtroom and everybody’s laughing, when the district attorney is laughing, when on the opposite side everything is funny, when you see all of these U.S. marshals surrounding him like he’s the victim. Your baby’s dead, but he’s able to talk and plead his case.
“And he says he’s not guilty. And I have to sit there as I watch this man smirk at the family. And I have to say, ‘OK, I gotta keep my mind on the master and not on this man.’ So I didn’t look at him again. And I was all right. I didn’t cry.”
Police dashcam video and bystanders’ cellphone videos show Encinia drawing his stun gun and telling Bland, “I will light you up!”
Off-camera, she can be heard screaming that he’s about to break her wrist and that the officer smashed her head into the ground.
In January, a Waller County grand jury decided there was enough evidence to charge Encinia. The grand jurors found that he’d lied in a sworn statement in which he said he arrested Bland — who had driven to Texas on July 8, 2015, for a job interview the following day at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, near Houston — because she kicked him.
If convicted, he could face a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
After Encinia pleaded not guilty, his attorney, Chip Lewis, said the criminal charge against him was the result of a “tempest of emotion fueled by a media frenzy from a very tragic situation.” He said Encinia’s actions were “proper and in no way was a violation of any law in the state of Texas.”
Bland — Sandy to everyone who knew her — was one of five daughters raised by Reed-Veal, who grew up on the Near West Side. A mother since she was a teenager, Reed-Veal didn’t let that keep her from finishing high school on time and then college. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, is remarried and has her business.
When Bland was 9, Reed-Veal moved her children to the DuPage County suburbs, where they attended DuPage African Episcopal Methodist Church in Lisle.
At Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Bland was an honor student and cheerleader, ran track and played the trombone in the school band well enough to earn a music scholarship to Prairie View A&M, where she got her bachelor’s degree in 2009.
She wanted to be a food inspector. But she didn’t find a job in Texas at the height of the recession and returned home in 2012, her mother says.
“After awhile, she began to say, ‘Mom, I don’t know, I just feel there’s something I’m supposed to be doing,’ ” Reed-Veal says. “She started looking at this police brutality stuff. And she’s like, ‘This is some bull—-.’ She began to compile this whole big book. Every time there was a shooting and killing, she went and investigated what happened, who it was, where they lived, how many kids they had, all of it.”
On Christmas Day 2014, the Martin Luther King movie “Selma” was released. After seeing it, Bland said she knew her purpose, and #SandySpeaks was born.
In January 2015, she posted the first of more than two dozen #SandySpeaks video commentaries online, declaring, “It’s time for me to do God’s work.” Commenting on police abuse, race relations and life in general, she’d start out: “Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens!”
After hear death, #SandySpeaks went viral.
The afternoon after Bland’s interview at Prairie View A&M, Bland signed papers formally accepting a job as a student ambassador.
“She has the interview,” the mother says. “She calls me: ‘Ma, I got it!’
“This is Thursday. I’m a praiser, so I shouted for her. I talked to her Friday. She was going to Walmart, supposed to call me back when she gets in from Walmart. As the world knows, she never got in from Walmart.”
She had just left Prairie View when she was pulled over.
Though her family’s wrongful-death suit blames authorities for Bland’s suicide — she was found hanged by a garbage bag tied around her neck — Reed-Veal doesn’t accept the medical examiner’s ruling.
“I still don’t believe my baby hung herself,” Reed-Veal says.
Her daughter left her a voicemail on arriving in Texas.
“I still have the message today: ‘Mommy, I am here,’ ” Reed-Veal says. “She wasn’t depressed. She was excited.”
She played the voicemail last month at the unveiling of a sign renaming the stretch of road in Prairie View, Texas, where her daughter was pulled over as Sandra Bland Parkway.
The public scrutiny after Bland’s death was terrible at first for Reed-Veal. Reports surfaced of her daughter’s past run-ins with the law — for DUI and misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
“As we were planning the funeral, I said ‘Lord, I have served you. I am a minister of your word. And you took my baby.’ I was so angry, mad with the world, with God.
“I hadn’t been out of the bed. Every day, I got the blinds shut, the doors shut. Finally, I said ‘OK, Lord. You would not have allowed this kind of pain without a purpose. Show me, Lord.’ Then, he gave me the peace that the Bible talks about, that surpasses all understanding.”
Over the past year, Reed-Veal has traveled across the country, speaking out against police abuses. She’s stood with Blacks Lives Matter activists and other mothers of loved ones who died after encounters with the police. She has spoken to police boards and members of Congress and campaigned with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Recently, she’s been trying to spread the word about six other women she says she found had died in jails across the nation the same month as her daughter.
“Because Sandy’s story was so international, you didn’t hear about those,” says Reed-Veal, who has T-shirts with the women’s names emblazoned on the front and “Sandra Bland Movement” on the back.
“I have bad days. This morning, I cried on the floor. Even though I know I put her in the ground, I can pull out my purse and show you I carry Sandy’s death certificate and look at it every day to remind me it’s real.
“If you suffer a tragedy, there’s a reason in that thing,” she says. “I’m not shutting up. You’re going to still hear about Sandy. She will still speak through her mama. I’m going to keep talking about her. Her physical body is gone, but Sandy’s still speaking. Still.”