Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Raining on the Hard Conversations

Heat lightening gave way to a hard rain falling, just as I got home, the soothing sounds of rain just what I needed.

Mac and I had both brought umbrellas (the newsworthy part of that being that she'd remembered hers for a change) when we walked over to the ICA for this month's installment of their film series. And what a compelling choice it was: "Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland."

Unlike last month when we'd foolishly shown up without tickets (lesson learned), we not only had ours but also an extra one (because of someone's illness) which we donated back to the cause before going inside to claim second row seats.

The attendant at the door had told us early arrivals to sit at the far ends of the rows, but no one listened. As the couple next to me pointed out, "Why should we take the bad seats when we were the ones here on time?" I couldn't have said it better myself.

The screening was especially poignant because yesterday was the third anniversary of Bland's arrest after a minor traffic stop and tragically, Friday is the three year anniversary of when she was found hanging from a plastic trash bag noose (curiously without a single fingerprint on it) in her Waller County, Texas jail cell. A death labeled suicide.

Although I'm not one to watch police shooting videos, because Sandra Bland had not been shot, I'd actually seen some of the dash-cam footage from her traffic stop online back when it happened. But the documentary included far more of that footage than I'd seen before and almost all of it was highly disturbing, including how the cop deliberately moved Sandra out of the camera's range once he began assaulting her.

The counterpoint to the violence was all the clips we saw of "Sandy Speaks," a video series she'd done to share her thoughts online about race relations (unite, not incite), policing and the need for blacks and whites to have more friends of other races, a series that highlighted her activism goals but also her desire for all people to get along.

Given that it had happened in Texas, it was all I could do to watch the scenes where local law enforcement and the district attorney's office - good ol' boys, all of them -  tried to place all blame on Sandra and eventually, her family.

As always when leaning into the difficult conversations about race, Mac and I were left feeling emotionally exhausted when the lights came up. "I should've known to bring tissues," she told me. Honestly, there aren't enough tissues to absorb the tears of what happened to this determined 28-year old who was just driving to the grocery store.

After the film ended, the entire room took a moment o say Sandra Bland's name out loud before a few moments of silence to honor her.

Afrikana Film Festival creative director Enjoli had seen the film at the Tribeca Film Festival and managed to arrange an exclusive screening tonight ahead of its Fall theater release and presentation on HBO. But I'd have to say that the real coup was in bringing so many of the people shown in the film to the post-screening discussion.

Bland's mother and two of her sisters were there, along with the family's lawyer and the film's writer/director. It was moving to hear the people we'd just seen on camera talking about Sandra, the questions still unanswered about the case and their hopes for her legacy.

Director David Heilbroner wasn't the least bit shy about stating that whether she committed suicide or not, her death was a lynching based on the state of race relations and policing in this country. Sadly, there's a lot of truth in that assertion.

Had I been pulled over for failing to signal, I'd be willing to bet the farm I wouldn't be slapped, threatened, tasered, yanked from the car or knelt on top of by a cop, much less dragged off to jail.

That's some galling white privilege right there.

During the Q & A period, some people used their moment with a microphone to ask questions that couldn't be answered and belabor points already made, while others echoed their fears about something similar happening to them or their loved ones. Everyone seemed to agree that major retraining of police officers in de-escalation is essential.

But the most important thing was that we were a roomful of black and white Richmonders having a meaningful conversation about race disparity and how each of us needs to work on our own small solution to that, regardless of what others may be doing.

If Sandra Bland's legacy becomes uniting rather than inciting, maybe her death won't be in vain. Saying her name so she isn't forgotten feels like the first step.

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