On July 10, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was on her way from Chicago to Texas to begin a new job when she was pulled over by Waller County, Texas, officers for changing lanes without signaling. It is unclear what happened between then and when officers held her to the ground and handcuffed her. Police said she had assaulted an officer. In footage of the arrest, Bland says, "You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can't even hear."
Three days later, Bland was found unresponsive due to what the Waller County Sheriff's office called "self-inflicted asphyxiation." The Waller County district attorney said it appeared Bland hung herself with a trash bad. But her family does not believe she committed suicide. Her death prompted the hashtags #SandraBland and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. They began to trend on Twitter this week, putting pressure on the media and the government to investigate her death.
"When I saw that video, had they not told me the outcome, I would have assumed it. Nobody would have ever seen her again," said Yvette McGregory of Mt. Airy, who used the hashtag in her post on Twitter.
The day after Bland was found dead, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, a young black woman, reportedly hung herself while in police custody in an Alabama jail.
For black tweeters, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody has become a way to control their own stories at a time when many have accused the media of putting young dead black boys -- Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown -- on trial instead of their shooters.
Bland's unfortunate death comes at a time in the #BlackLivesMatter movement when many black women are calling for more visibility, support and inclusion in the police brutality conversation. In May, #SayHerName rallies were conducted across the country to bring awareness to the death iof unarmed black women and girls. Bland, like the women who took part in the protests, often spoke out against police brutality and posted Facebook videos in a series she called "Sandy Speaks."
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody began last night, on the birthday of iconic black journalist, suffragist and anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells.
Many saw themselves in Bland. "I felt really sick; it hit me because she's a black woman and also she's an activist speaking out on what's going on and so am I," said Megan Malachi of Mt. Airy.
"It limits the ability of black of people to be fully human," said Malachi. "You don't have to be perfect to not be shot down by cops."
Similar to #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a hashtag that trended after the death of Michael Brown, Malachi says "[#IfIDieInPoliceCustody] represents not just [death], but how you'll be painted in the media when you die."
Malachi says, "It's a critique or respectability politics in the black middle class."
Brie Powell, 22, senior, political science major at Drexel agrees. She tweeted:
"The issue is not that you look like a criminal because you're wearing jeans and a hoodie," said Powell. "The issue is that you look like a criminal because you're black."
But more than anything, in a time of seemingly perpetual grief and frustration for the black community, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody reveals both vulnerability and resilience.
Tweets ranged from calling for people to march in the streets in the event of their death to relaying last wishes to their children. It was as though black tweeters publicly took out insurance policies on justice.
Twenty six-year-old Cameron Robinson, from North Philadelphia. tweeted:
"I want them to know that just like any other community, our survival depends on the respect and admiration we have for one another," he said. "Our community is full of intelligence, talent, and purpose."
McGregory, who has a had a Twitter account for three years, says it wasn't until this year after the shooting of Mike Brown that she became active, as a means of learning more. She says as someone who was present during the civil right movement, she's seen "violence against black people most of my life."
Before going to bed on January 14, Bland recorded a video. She talked about change, media coverage, activism and when to discuss police interaction with your kids, but even in frustration, she smiled often.
Her voice is firm and hopeful as she says, "It's time to do something."