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Vigils to mark 1-year anniversary of Sandra Bland death

Sandra Bland was found dead in the Waller County Jail last summer. | AP file photo

Vigils and ceremonies are planned to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman from Naperville who died in a Texas jail cell after a traffic stop.

A vigil is planned Wednesday evening at Federal Plaza in the Loop to mark the anniversary of Bland’s death. And the suburban Chicago church where Bland grew up plans candle-lighting ceremonies Sunday.

Bland died a year ago Wednesday. A Texas state trooper had pulled her over three days earlier outside Houston as she drove to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Bland was pulled over for an illegal lane change, but her encounter with a Texas state trooper quickly grew heated. In dashboard camera video that became yet another flashpoint in the national controversy over racial bias by police, Trooper Brian Encinia shouts at Bland for refusing to get out of the car or put out her cigarette and threatens at one point to jolt her with his Taser.

Encinia later was fired.

Bland was taken to the Waller County jail in Hempstead, Texas, where she was found hanging from a cell partition. A medical examiner ruled it a suicide. Dashcam video of her arrest and the circumstances of her death provoked national outrage.

Bland’s death 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.

Bland’s family has filed a 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.

On Sunday, DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle, Bland’s childhood church, plans candle-lighting ceremonies at morning services.

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is scheduled to speak at the church Aug. 13 and the church plans a trip to Prairie View, Texas, Nov. 9-12. There, church members plan a peaceful prayer meeting outside the jail where Bland died. They also plan to tour Prairie View A&M University, Bland’s alma mater, and celebrate services with Hope AME Church in Prairie View, which has hosted rallies and prayer gatherings in Bland’s memory.

DuPage AME Church also plans its Sandra A. Bland Diversity Institute on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. The Rev. James Miller, pastor of the church, said the ceremonies are designed to comfort Bland’s family and congregants who knew her.

The anniversary comes the week after five Dallas police officers were killed by a sniper during a protest over recent killings of black men by police. Miller said it’s clear from the current landscape in the U.S. that social inequities exist.

“The African-American community cannot be the only ones talking about civil rights and equity,” Miller said. “It’s when white people start talking about it that real action can take place.”