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There Are More Sandra Blands In America Than You Know About

Photo: Courtesy of Mia Fermindoza.
#SayHerName activists hold a vigil to remember the Black female victims of police violence nationwide on May 20.
Update: Neither sheriff's officials nor officers at the jail where Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell will face felony charges, a grand jury decided on Monday. The jury will return next month to determine whether the trooper who arrested Bland during a traffic stop should face such charges. Bland was arrested on July 10. Her body was found hanging in her cell three days later. Bland's family has rejected a medical examiner's ruling that her death was a suicide.

This story was originally published on July 29, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

The death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland while in police custody in Texas has caused a firestorm on social media, with activists across the country joining Bland's family to demand a Department of Justice investigation into the circumstances surrounding her alleged suicide on July 13.

What began as a routine traffic stop for failing to use a turn signal ended with Bland's arrest for allegedly assaulting an officer; police dash-cam footage later emerged showing Officer Brian Encinia arresting her roughly. But in video released on Wednesday by Waller County, TX, officials, Bland appears to be calm and cooperative as she is booked into the county jail and has her mugshot taken. Three days later, Bland's body was found hanging in her cell.

An autopsy conducted by the Harris County, TX, medical examiner on July 14 found trace amounts of marijuana in Bland's system and ruled her death a suicide. But her family insists that Bland did not take her own life, and are demanding an independent federal investigation.

"I'm the mom and I’m telling you that baby did not take herself out," Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, told mourners at her funeral on July 25, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Although hers is perhaps a rare case that made headlines, Sandra Bland is by no means alone — there are other Black women who have suffered abuse at the hands of law enforcement. But the vast majority of Black female victims of police violence die and fade away without us ever knowing their names, a chilling new report by the African American Policy Forum at Columbia University Law School finds.

I'm the mom and I’m telling you that baby did not take herself out.

Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland
And their stories, detailed in the report and shared under the banner of the #SayHerName campaign, are equally heartbreaking and disturbing.

There was Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old grandmother who was shot by New York City police in 1984 after she refused to open the door to be served an eviction notice.

There was Kayla Moore, a Black transgender woman, who was suffocated to death in 2013 by Berkeley, CA, police who were attempting to serve a warrant for a man with the same name Kayla had before she transitioned.

There was Miriam Carey, shot in the back three times after she sped away from a White House checkpoint in 2013 with her one-year-old child in the car.

There was Michelle Cusseaux, shot to death in her Phoenix home by police in 2014 while they were attempting to take her to a mental-health facility.

There was Mya Hall, shot to death by National Security Agency police after she took a wrong turn and crashed into the security gate and a police cruiser, weeks before Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore this year.

And these cases perhaps represent only a fraction of Black female victims of police violence, Rachel Anspach, a writer and researcher at the African American Policy Forum, told Refinery29.
"It's pretty widely accepted that we really just don't know how many Black women have been killed by police in the past couple of decades," Anspach says. "The challenge is that the government is not creating a comprehensive data set, and so that means we depend on media coverage to have access to these stories. But it's a catch-22, because the media isn't covering Black female victims' stories. So if one is talking about them, we have no way of knowing about them."

Although people now know the names of some of the Black men who have died at the hands of police — Eric Garner in Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among many others — less media attention has been paid to Black female victims of police violence and misconduct.
"We don't hear more about the stories of Black women, in my opinion, because women aren't as valuable in our society, regardless of race," activist Feminista Jones told Refinery29. "The mainstream media doesn't care about Black women. Most people don't, so why would the media? The media covers the stories that will garner the most interest, and the abuse of Black women is barely a blip on anyone's radar."

Even less media attention has been paid to the sexual abuse women of color suffer at the hands of police, Anspach says. But a 2014 study published by researchers at Bowling Green University found that sexual abuse by officers was alarmingly common, including "serious forms of sex-related crime" against victims typically under the age of 18.
"Survivors are highly unlikely to come forward and report it, because their abusers are the police, so how likely are they to report what is happening to them?" Anspach says.

Jones says both racism and sexism make Black women particularly vulnerable to this type of police abuse.

"Many of the ways in which Black women experience state violence is of a sexually assaulting or exploitative manner, and that's hard for many to accept as reality. There is a very specific misogyny in play because the assumption is that Black women are most vulnerable because Black men are powerless to protect us against police — again because of racism," Jones says.
James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, attributes their very identity as Black women as a primary factor in their victimization by cops.

"What makes Black women more vulnerable to police violence is the fact that they represent the most vulnerable sector of the U.S. population in general. When you look at poverty rates, access to healthcare, and other metrics, Black women are suffering in American society. So it translates to the police-brutality realm as well, and they become the most vulnerable in that situation," Peterson says.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Black women are also more likely to be stopped by police in general, the African American Policy Forum report found. Of all of the women stopped by police in New York City in 2013, more than half were Black, despite the fact that Black people make up 27% of the population overall.
But Anspach says that Bland's case, along with the work of #SayHerName activists, has finally elevated the issue of police abuse against women of color in the public consciousness.

"What happened to Sandra Bland came at a time when people were trying to elevate women's stories of police violence," Anspach says. "The video of what happened to her is so shocking that anyone who sees it would be in shock. She actually was just trying to get out of the way, and somehow ended up dead a few days later."
Peterson said the only way to truly address the abuse of Black women in police custody is to follow the lead of Black female activists, as well as movements like #SayHerName.

"Unfortunately, historically, the Black anti-racism movements have all been male-centric, and that is one of the consequences of having male-centric leadership and a male-centric approach to telling the history of activism in the United States," Peterson says. "We can sit here and name singular, rhetorical Black leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, but when we look at the real history, there are women involved in all of the movements that push for civil rights and social justice."