On July 14, an 18-year-old black woman was found dead in a jail cell in Homewood, Ala. Her name was Kindra Darnell Chapman. She was arrested three hours earlier and charged with stealing a cellphone. Authorities say it was death by asphyxiation, claiming that she hanged herself with a bedsheet.
Last August, five days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., Michelle Cusseaux, 50, was killed by a policeman in Phoenix, Ariz. Officers had been called to her home to take her to a mental health facility; she suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression, according to her mother. Cusseaux resisted one of the officers, allegedly threatening him with a hammer. He shot her dead.
Their lives, and their deaths, went largely unnoticed at the time. But now there is the case of Sandra Bland, who has become the public face of a largely male province: #blacklivesmatter. For more than a year, that Twitter hashtag and the wider media had been focused on the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and other men and boys.
Bland’s arrest on July 10, and her death in a Texas jail cell three days later, changed all that. It elevated black women to the status of black men in protests against police brutality. Several factors figured in how this happened, and why.
Like the video in the Eric Garner chokehold case in New York, the amount of footage in the Bland case helped fuel attention: the police dashboard camera, the violent arrest taped by a bystander, and the question of what might not have been caught on tape. And the main question: What really happened in cell 95, where she was found hanged?
Bland herself had an active role in the social media movement against police brutality, and her posts and videos, still circulating on the internet, continue to resonate.
One 30-second video comes across as part online diary, part rallying cry. She appears to be sitting on a bed, curlers in her hair, talking to her camera phone. “This phone, this phone that I’m holding in my hand, it is quite powerful. Social media is quite powerful. We can do something with this,” she says, then looks directly at the camera. “If we want to change, we can really truly make it happen.”
DeRay McKesson, a frequent online voice and founder of the online newsletter, “This Is the Movement,” said Bland’s voice was crucial in her becoming a focal point for change after her death.
“It humanized her,” McKesson says. “We did not have to worry about the media humanizing her because she humanized herself for us, and we just got to replay it.”
What’s more, Bland’s personal narrative has made her someone that mainstream America can easily relate to. “This was a middle-class woman, someone who was on her way to get her job,” says Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. “It underscored the point that it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘respectable,’ that anyone is a potential victim of this,” she says.
On July 15, Shaun King, a justice writer for the Daily Kos, tweeted, “This is #SandraBland, Interviewed for college job. Got it, Pulled over by police. Traffic violation. Arrested. Dead,” with photos of her.
It was retweeted 16,000 times.
“There are always these false narratives that if you go to college, you get a nice job, police brutality won’t affect you in any way,” King says. “She goes against the stereotype that a lot of people advance.”
Although the general public has been slow to take up the cause of black women as victims of police abuse, that seems to be changing. “There has been a slow drumbeat to say the name of black women who have been killed by the police,” says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, director of the African American Policy Forum at Columbia University. Crenshaw co-wrote the report Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, which documents the stories of dozens of black women who have been killed by police.
The police have killed six unarmed women already in 2015, according to The Guardian, which has been maintaining a database, compared to 50 unarmed black men. But to get a full picture of police violence against black women is difficult because little independent documentation exists. The Say Her Name report relies largely on media accounts. “As long as the media is not covering stories involving women, that’s where the gaps are in the data,” says Andrea Ritchie, an attorney and the report's author.
The anecdotal evidence gathered in the Say Her Name report — the most comprehensive available — asserts that black women are victimized by law enforcement for the same reasons that men are: racial profiling and traffic stops in the name of the war on drugs. There are also gender-specific forms of violence that are much less talked about. These include unlawful searches during enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, excessive force against pregnant women, and police responses to domestic-violence calls.
Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are pervasive, under documented forms of police abuse, Ritchie says. In 2010, the most recent numbers available, sexual misconduct was the second most common allegation against police officers following excessive force, according to the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. And, like other data collected on police violence, this project relied on media reports.
The Say Her Name report was released to coincide with a national day of action in May. In cities around the country, protesters marched to demand justice for black women killed or abused by the police. Less than two months later, Sandra Bland would leave her home in Illinois to drive to the new job at her alma mater near Houston. In the weeks and months before her trip and before the May rally, she had the plight of black women continually on her mind.
In the square reserved for her Facebook picture, she wrote: “Now legalize being Black in America.” And in April, she posted the following to her Instagram account: “AT FIRST THEY USED A NOOSE, NOW ALL THEY DO IS SHOOT #BlackLivesMatter #SandySpeaks.
In the last week or so, the hashtag #SayHerName has been more active again. It is frequently used alongside #SandraBland.
A previous version of this story misidentified Heather Ann Thompson. She is a professor of history at the University of Michigan.