On July 13, 2015, when news broke of Sandra Bland’s death, Waller County officials reported her death as a suicide, prompting her friends and family to respond with disbelief. Prairie View alumni in Houston began tweeting the hashtag #WhatHappenedToSandraBland giving birth to a movement. This came to the attention of several Prairie View alum, who had gone to Prairie View with Sandra Bland and were part of a spoken word poetry focused arts and justice movement called The Shout.
By July 15, the outcry had become pervasive, prompting some members of The Shout to drive to the Waller County Jail that night and light a candle with the words “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” written on it. A jail employee came and blew out the candle, offering them a moment of decision. The decision was made and they relit the candle, and one night became five nights until Sandra Bland’s family could come to take her home. When Sandra’s sisters, Shante and Sharon, arrived, the Curator of The Shout, was led to say, “I’ll do this as long as you need me to” prompting 5 nights to become 5 weeks to become 5 months…
On August 8, when friends of Sandra Bland put together the Sandy Speaks Awareness Picnic, members of the vigil came to assist and the two groups became connected in cooperation and mutual support.
Two days later, on August 10, the day after a large rally at the Waller County Jail, the Sheriff of Waller County told the Shout Curator, who was also a United Methodist clergywoman, to go back to the the Church of Satan, spurring two months of escalating attempts on the part of the Sheriff’s Office to intimidate and displace those holding vigil in front of the Jail. Barricades made of railroad ties soaked in toxic chemicals and tar were placed around the jail, followed by the cutting down of shade trees, and the removal of prayer stones layed by those observing vigil in memory of Sandra Bland. Eventually, the sheriff contracted to have steel barriers replace the initial baracade railroad ties as well as the asphalt parkinglot to replace the functioning gravel lot.
On the 80th day, having survived months of intimidation, those holding vigil took it to the next level and drove from the Waller County Jail to the Department of Public Safety in Austin, Texas to bring attention to the fact that Officer Brian Encinia, Bland's arresting officer, remains on the payroll.
Since that time the vigil has been flexible, strategic and effective in daily communication about the status and focus of the case. Vigil is maintained on Mondays at DPS in Austin, as well as at other locations determined to be strategic, such as the Waller County Courthouse during the meeting of the Grand Jury, and the Federal Courthouse in Houston, TX during meetings regarding the Civil Trial. Vigil updates are posted daily to @HannahABonner on Twitter and Instagram.