Her voice, like a trumpet
As Hannah Bonner protests an activist’s death, she’s found a deeper sense of justice, love, and faith.
On a narrow concrete terrace leading into the shoebox apartment where Hannah Bonner M.Div. ’08 has lived since moving to Houston two years ago, more than a dozen plastic flowerpots filled with bok choy crowd together like visitors at her door.
There are large pots with tiny stalks squatting in a circle and miniature pots barely big enough to contain the ruffled, shiny leaves. With so much bok choy blooming in this close space, one would think it’s Bonner’s thing. But she says she doesn’t even particularly like the vegetable. The little cabbages keeping watch at her stoop are the doing of her neighbor, Donald Collins, a formerly homeless man involved in a spoken-word poetry ministry Bonner started called The Shout. Every month the ordained United Methodist minister brings together some of Texas’ best slam poets to explore timely and often difficult-to-talk-about topics like racism and inequality. Collins—like many of Bonner’s neighbors in this scruffy Houston apartment complex—is a regular at those monthly slams. He often can be found in the background, sketching portraits of attendees on his drawing pad and presenting them like laurels before the last poet has taken the stage.
With the same attention to detail, Collins noticed Bonner’s garden in distress. For the last few months, she has been away from her home more than she’s been in it, and she hasn’t had time to mind her garden. Collins carried home bok choy stalks destined for the compost pile from a café where he works as a cook—and nearly overnight, a new garden popped out against Bonner’s terrace rails.
It’s the least he can do for Bonner, Collins says. A man who had abandoned the church for forty years until recently, Collins says he isn’t interested in cheap evangelism. But there’s something different about his pastor neighbor. “I’ve learned from Hannah that there are still real people doing real things,” Collins says. “There’s a few people when I see—I see the light. She’s one of them.”
The real thing Bonner has been doing is getting up and driving an hour southwest of Houston to Hempstead, Texas, to hold daily vigils in front of the Waller County jail for Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old black woman found hanging by a trash bag in a cell July 10, 2015, just three days after being stopped for failing to signal when changing lanes.
Ruled a suicide by a local medical examiner, the case has been embroiled in controversy and left many questions unanswered as the one-year anniversary of Bland’s death approaches this summer. Bonner began showing up at the jail to ask the most fundamental of those questions: What happened to Sandra Bland?
Returning to her Houston apartment only to sleep, Bonner drove to Hempstead each day for eighty consecutive days last year in her clergy uniform: a black (and sometimes Duke blue) short-sleeved dress shirt, Bermuda shorts, white sunglasses, a detachable clerical collar, and, when the occasion called for more courage or more fury or both, red lipstick. And as the days passed at the jail, Bonner’s search for truth became more than a short-term mission to get answers about Bland’s mysterious death. It’s become what the thirty-three-year-old pastor describes as a calling to seek justice, borne of her Christian faith.
Her continued presence at the jail, Bonner says, is fueled by a determination to make sure “that Sandra Bland’s name would not be like a puff of smoke.”
The roadside altercation between Texas Ranger Brian Encinia and Bland made national headlines last summer in the midst of a national conversation about race and policing. News of people of color who had died after encounters with police— among them Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, and Freddie Gray—sparked protests across the country. Bland’s story became yet another part in that national conversation. Janelle Monae released a songcalling for Americans to “say her name,” and U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera memorialized Bland in a Mexican ballad during his inaugural reading.
“Ladies and gentlemen, hear! Listen what I have to tell you!” Herrera says in the ballad. “You may record this on video. But when will a recording save you?”
The video Herrera alludes to is Encinia’s dashcam recording—much of which serves as the only physical evidence of what happened that July afternoon when Encinia stopped Bland on a sluggish street outside Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas.
Bland had just accepted a temporary summer job at the university, her alma mater, when Encinia stopped her. Bland told Encinia she was trying to get out of his way. The interaction quickly intensified. Encinia pointed a stun gun at Bland and told her, “I’ll light you up!” before handcuffing and arresting her.
Over the following months, the Texas Department of Public Safety would terminate Encinia after ruling he escalated the situation with Bland by, according to official agency documents, neglecting to use “patience and discretion,” prolonging the traffic stop, and failing to follow the agency’s “violator interview.”
Encinia was indicted by a federal grand jury on perjury charges and faces up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. The Prairie View City Council renamed the road where Bland was arrested as Sandra Bland Memorial Parkway. The spot of Bland’s arrest—just feet from where the painted lane lines faded into the asphalt—was stamped with fresh paint and has become a roadside memorial to her life. Friends and strangers filled the space beneath a nearby live oak tree with a nursery’s worth of stuffed animals, candles, a rosary, and, when Bonner visits, as she does once a week, fresh yellow roses.
Of those last days of Bland’s life, as she waited for her family to round up the $500 required to bail her out, little is known. What is known is that something went terribly wrong in the Waller County jail.
Bonner remembers the call she got from her friend Jeremyah Payne last July. The poet, who went to Prairie View with Bland and was a regular at The Shout, was in disbelief. The Bland he knew in college didn’t fit with the Bland he was hearing about on the news. She had spent three of her college summers working as a camp counselor for a youth 4-H camp and returned to campus each semester to pick up the flurry of student activities that matched her gregarious personality—playing the trombone in the Marching Storm Band and participating in community service with her sorority Sigma Gamma Rho. She was an activist back then, too—joining thousands of Prairie View students and supporters in 2008 as they walked more than seven miles to vote at the sole early-voting site as a statement against a history of voting-rights abuses in the county.
That impassioned part of Bland known so well to her friends and family was hard to forget—and it didn’t take long for more of Bland’s friends to text Bonner with the news. The men and women Bland held close in college were the same people coming to The Shout. Bonner had never simet Sandra Bland, but with so many of their mutual friends grieving, she says her spirit felt heavy.
Bland’s story hit an even more personal note with the pastor, too.
As a clergywoman, Bonner didn’t shy away from addressing social issues in the church. Following the Charleston shootings, she had issued a stern call to action via You Tube to clergy preaching in predominately white churches to address issues of racism from the pulpit, because it is a “Gospel responsibility.” She had made a pilgrimage to Ferguson, Missouri, where teenager Michael Brown had been shot and killed, to meet with fellow activists.
As she and friends talked about Bland’s story at a Bible study a few days after her death, Bonner decided to act.
“I feel like we need to put feet on this,” Bonner texted Payne.
An hour later Bonner and two friends were weaving through the crumbling asphalt streets of Hempstead in Bonner’s red Hyundai Elantra hatchback named “Esperanza,” Spanish for “hope.” They drove past cottages with porches and mobile homes with front-yard trees until the Waller County jail came into view in the middle of the neighborhood, gleaming like a gas station in the pitch black of night.
Bonner placed a tall votive candle on the concrete steps in front of the jail’s double- mirrored doors. She struck a match. Moments later, a voice called out over the jail’s exterior loudspeaker telling the trio to extinguish the candle, Bonner says. A few minutes more, a woman opened one of the doors, dipped low to the wick, and with a puff, blew out the flame before disappearing inside.
Bonner approached the candle again. She struck another match. The candle lit up again. “What Happened to Sandra Bland?”—scrawled in permanent marker on the side of the candle—glowed in the summer night as the trio climbed into Esperanza and turned back into the night toward Houston.
As night turned into day again, Bonner returned to the jail to ask that same question. Friends from The Shout sat with her just outside the jail doors in camping chairs and on coolers filled with cold bottled water. As the sun moved, they clipped small beach umbrellas to parking signs. Texas temperatures soared into the triple digits. They protested with signs and silence. They sang hymns. They prayed. They got sunburned. More people arrived: Bland’s sorority sisters and Prairie View professors bearing rations of fruit, BBQ, and loaded baked potatoes. Clergy representing the A.M.E., Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and United Church of Christ denominations arrived. Local news vans in the parking lot turned into a campout of national reporters. There they all waited on the jail’s doorstep.
Sometimes Bonner pulled out her iPhone to watch videos of Bland. Early in 2015, Bland had started a Facebook video series called “Sandy Speaks” to address how people of color and white people could work together to confront racism in the U.S.
In the twenty-eight videos Bland recorded before her death, she talked frankly about racial tensions in the United States and the need to talk honestly with one another to fight racism. Bland’s Christian faith also is a theme of the videos, with Bland often telling viewers that she is trying to be an example of how to love in the midst of hate.
Bland’s words inspired Bonner. They comforted her. And as time went on, they gave her courage to continue showing up as tensions began rising in Hempstead. Before Bland’s death put a national spotlight on Hempstead, the sleepy town— with its power lines drooping across its main street like summer hammocks— was best known for its popular watermelon festival each July. Overnight a deluge of social-media posts from across the country branded Hempstead residents as racist. A jailer moved out of her house because of death threats. The Waller County jailers and the vigil keepers began to face off.
Bonner and Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith recorded their conversations with each other on their smartphones like gunslingers at the Alamo. One day Smith told Bonner to “go back to the church of Satan.” The sheriff, who every day wore his cowboy hat and boots, told the group to “try to stay cool” because things were about to change, before disappearing behind the jail’s mirrored doors.
The next morning a barricade of wood logs appeared—forcing Bonner and the vigil keepers out from the slight shade of the jail’s roof overhang—while across the parking lot, the sole tree the group sat under for shade was cut down. Unfazed, Bonner and fellow clergy took their questions inside the jail lobby, taking turns picking up a wall-mounted telephone in the jail lobby to ask the dispatcher, “What happened to Sandra Bland?”
But those interactions escalated into more sobering moments, too. There were death threats on Twitter. Public chat rooms announced Bonner’s whereabouts as she drove around Hempstead in Esperanza. A Facebook page heralding her “lies and mistruths” showed edited images of Bonner with a long, beak-like nose reminiscent of a mix between Pinocchio and a Nazi-era cartoon. A former Texas prison guard encouraged residents to shoot rocks at protestors with slingshots.
“You better run, and you better hide,” he says before cocking a rifle in a video uploaded to Facebook. “We’re pulling names and addresses, and we’re going to hunt you sons of bitches down.”
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, whom Bonner has become close to in the last year, visited Bonner at the jail in the midst of that eighty-day stretch to give her some advice.
“I want you do whatever God’s told you to do, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise,” Bonner says Reed-Veal told her. “But God’s got a lot that he’s going to do with your life, and I need you to stay alive.”
That conversation changed Bonner’s approach. “I didn’t want to live in fear,” she says. “But there’s a balance between fear and wisdom.”
Bonner tried to be less predictable. She mixed up her driving route. She went home before it was dark. She visited Bland’s memorial often to pray and to talk to her. “Not like in a I’m-crazy-kind-of-way,” Bonner says, “but I always tell her: ‘We got you. We still got you.’ ”
At times it felt like the lines were permanently drawn. There were many people in Hempstead who saw Bonner as “a creator of tension,” she says. But Bonner says what she was trying to do was something far different. “I think we’re shining a light on tension that exists.”
Waller County, of which Hempstead is the county seat, is home to nearly 49,000 people. It’s spread across five pastoral square miles—a patch of farms and small towns in southwest Texas. Twenty-five percent of its residents are black, and most—nearly 8,000—live on the Prairie View campus, which was built on a former slave plantation in 1876. People ride horseback on the streets. Some of them will tell you that people get along—even that racism does not exist here.
“People who live here do take this very personally,” Bonner says. “It’s not personal, and it is personal. It’s not personal in the sense: We’re not saying that each and every person that lives here is a bad person. But it is personal in the sense of we each have a personal responsibility to do something about the systems that we live in.”
Part of the disconnect, Bonner says, is a lack of understanding one another— and the pastor admits some of her own failure in the process. “I think people maybe didn’t really understand why I was there, and maybe I didn’t articulate that well enough. And maybe it’s because I didn’t know. I just knew I was called to do it. I knew I was supposed to be there and ask the questions.”
Bonner grew up in Philadelphia and, like Bland, was the fourth of five siblings. Bonner’s first name is a Hebrew one meaning “God’s given gift.” Her middle name, “Adair,” she inherited from a man named Adair Montgomery, who, according to family legend, shepherded her grandfather as he made a life among the Pennsylvania mills, far from his parents’ birthplace in England.
Bonner comes from a line of what one might call justice seekers. Her paternal grandmother refused to ride a city bus when the driver barred her black classmate from boarding. Her father, then a civil-liberties attorney, and her mother, a legal assistant, ran a law office that regularly took on pro bono cases. “My parents were willing to take risks and were willing to fight for what they believed in,” Bonner says. “When you have five children, you don’t have the most comfortable life. They taught me that justice is more important than personal comfort.”
Working to create a just community, however, comes with a cost, Bonner says. Sometimes comfort wins, and when it does, it’s some of the worst kind of pain to endure for the people who are affected, she says. Several years ago, Bonner lost her eighty-nine-year-old maternal grandmother. She was found lying in a parking lot outside a nursing home in northern Pennsylvania. She had frozen to death. The attending nurse, who later was charged with involuntary manslaughter, had discovered Bonner’s grandmother missing at 1:30 that morning. She had gone back to her desk without reporting it.
The personal responsibility to take action has become an imperative for the pastor in her work now. She’s unapologetic about asking for accountability among those in power and asking hard questions—even if it means in her quest for justice, she doesn’t get the answers she seeks.
Growing up in Philadelphia also was a significant marker in Bonner’s faith journey—although she didn’t fully understand its importance until she entered Duke at twenty-five with the aim of becoming a Methodist pastor. The city is the birthplace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by black Methodists in 1816. Among them were the first African Americans licensed as pastors by the Methodist Church—commissioned to preach while simultaneously subjected to discriminatory church practices such as segregated worship. When they were barred from preaching in predominantly white churches, they took a stand by leaving the Methodist Church and starting the first African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I learned at Duke about how they had stepped out within the Methodist movement to stand up for their rights, and to say, ‘If we’re not going to be treated as equally in this religious faith, we will trouble you no more,’ ” Bonner says.
At Duke, Bonner took as many classes as she could with theologians such as J. Kameron Carter, associate professor of systematic theology and black church studies. Carter overturned her understanding of how Christianity has been “an accomplice in oppression” throughout history and challenged her to think about how a theological reformation might accompany intellectual and political movements fighting against racism.
She also joined a weekly lunch discussion to talk about racial issues with her classmates. Just one year into her master’s program, the lacrosse case erupted, sparking heated conversations about race and privilege. A divide developed among the members. Bonner says she thought she was the problem. She decided to leave.
But a black classmate, Christian Peele M.Div. ’08, now working at New York City’s well-known Riverside Church, intervened. She told Bonner to sit down.
“It was very firm,” Peele says. “I think it came from this place of knowing so much that Hannah was an authentic ally in ways that few people are. It’s so hard to find a partner or a compatible voice—and that doesn’t mean you agree on everything—but it does mean that your hearts sort of beat in the same way.”
Bonner sat back down—and from there, a friendship between the two women began that continues today. They ask each other the hard questions about life and church ministry. They’ve become close enough to have real arguments.
Bonner says Peele helped shape her into a different kind of pastor. “She taught me how to come and sit back down and not get up until it was over. When the day came, I knew how to sit in front of that jail for eighty days.”
Before Bonner started The Shout in 2014, she led churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Ordained at thirty, she preached from the pulpit and led Bible studies, and, at one point, shuttled between two churches on Sundays—called a two-point charge in Methodist slang.
But Bonner says she wasn’t happy in the traditional pulpit. She felt called to work more closely with a Millennial generation that felt let down by the church. She launched The Shout to bring together diverse voices to talk about oppression and injustice through poetry, art, and dance. Based on Isaiah 58:1(“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.”), the vision of The Shout would be to amplify voices that often are silenced.
That ethos has led Bonner to seek increasingly larger platforms to broadcast Bland’s voice. She fills her personal Facebook page of nearly 4,000 followers with “Sandy Speaks” clips. She nuzzles her iPhone playing Bland’s videos to the microphones at The Shout, church pulpits, and rallies. In doing so, her motivations have been criticized at times not just by some Hempstead residents but also by other social-justice activists.
Bonner is a white woman who mobilized a justice movement to keep a black woman’s voice alive. She’s doesn’t want to be the “white savior,” a trope found in narrative film, where a white person rescues a person of color from hardship. That kind of power dynamic often can go unchecked in churches, Bonner says, and so she is sensitive about who is speaking for whom as the movement progresses. Bonner says she tries to continue listening to Bland’s voice. She’s joined with those who were closest to Bland—including her sorority sisters and siblings. She’s told Bland’s family she will sit at the jail as long as they want her to.
“I wanted to be very clear about who is leading this movement,” Bonner told a group of protestors at a night vigil in Houston last July. “Sandra Bland is leading this movement. It is Sandra Bland who called us to this place. It is Sandra Bland who called us to sit in front of the county jail. And it is Sandra that is guiding our decisions.… Sandy still speaks. Sandra has already spoken for herself, and she does not need anybody to speak for her.”
Bland is still speaking, but getting an answer to the original question that brought Bonner to the Waller County jail a year ago has not happened.
Bonner says she hasn’t given up. There have been moments of transparency. After months, a federal judge released the Texas Rangers’ report to Bland’s family, which has filed a civil suit against Encinia, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Waller County jail.
The Texas Commission for Jail Standards cited the Waller County jail for failing to sufficiently check on Bland and for failing to comply with minimum state standards for mental-health training. Bland had reported a past suicide attempt on one of her jail intake forms.
In the midst of those moments of truth, the quest that brought Bonner to the Waller County jail has changed. The reality, Bonner says, is she may never know what happened to Sandra Bland. “The point is that her rights were violated. That’s the point, and it led to her death.”
And in the absence of answers, holding vigils for Bland has become more of a lingering question about who will be held accountable.
That quest for accountability has spurred vigils not only for Bland one year after her death but for others, too. When a Texas sheriff’s deputy was found not guilty in April for fatally shooting an unarmed black woman named Yvette Smith as she opened her front door, Bonner was at the courthouse. When Prairie View A&M student Jesse Jordan Valdez was arraigned for resisting arrest and later found not guilty, Bonner was in the courtroom. When the police chief of Prairie View A&M opened a campaign office to run for sheriff of a nearby county and someone shot out windows, Bonner stopped by to pray with her.
Calling is a peculiar theological word matched in the difficulty of describing it with the ease the churched use in ordinary conversation. It is what Jean Vanier called “the recognition of a covenant” and what Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch called “knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
The resoluteness to continue when there may not be a chance for resolution is the mark of a calling, Peele says—a determination she’s watched Bonner embody over the past year, an intangible, spiritual force that says: “This is the call as I understand it in the moment, and I’m going to sit here in the tension of it until more is revealed to me.”
On the eve of day two hundred and fifty-two, Bland’s supporters held a vigil in front of Hope A.M.E., a historic church just feet from Bland’s arrest site. The next day, Officer Encinia would be arraigned in federal court on a perjury charge and his trial would be delayed to this summer.
But this night was a time for remembrance and reflection. Bland’s supporters, among them current Prarie View students, gathered in the crumbling church parking lot to pray and to sing. Strangers in a truck sped by, giving the group the middle finger and yelling, “White Lives Matter!”
Bonner set up a mini projector she had just bought at Brookstone and hooked it up to her iPhone. She pointed the projector at the wide steeple of the church, the perfect makeshift screen. She hit play on one of Bland’s videos, and in seconds the steeple was glowing with Bland’s largerthan- life face. The church’s cross floated in the middle of her forehead like an Ash Wednesday marking.
As if calling out from the grave, Bland spoke, her voicing pealing like church bells over Prairie View and into the night.
“I’m calling out to y’all. I still need y’all’s help. It’s not over. Sandy is still speaking.”