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Sandra Bland’s death broke my heart

It’s hard to accept why my childhood friend is gone

The last four years have been hard on black America.

The Sean Bells and Rodney Kings had always been known among various local stories of police brutality. But when Trayvon Martin was killed by a “neighborhood watchman,” the world started to feel different. Then Ryan Coogler made Fruitvale Station to bring back to light the Oscar Grant killing, then Michael Brown was killed, then Eric Garner, then Tamir Rice and every other day it seemed like another black person was killed by the police.

Then I got word that a friend had died.

I hadn’t seen Sandra Bland in years; I have been mostly gone from the Chicago area since 2006. When I heard she died, I was floored and promptly sent a Facebook message to Sharon, one of her sisters I had seen kind of recently. I remembered what Sharon said to me at the pancake house the last time I saw her, “Same ol’ goofy Steve.” She was always good to me. My heart broke for her and her family.

Eventually social media started churning and information was coming in fast. Sandra committed suicide, what?! She was in custody, what?! She got stopped for failing to signal a lane change, what?! Dude got in his feelings because she wouldn’t put out a cigarette, what?! She was arrested shortly after and slammed on her head, what?! I soon realized Sandra was about to become immortal in the most mortal way possible.

Daija Belcher, 5, holds a sign in front of the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church during the funeral service for Sandra Bland on July 25, 2015 in Lisle, Illinois. Bland'

Daija Belcher, 5, holds a sign in front of the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church during the funeral service for Sandra Bland on July 25, 2015 in Lisle, Illinois.

Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images

Some people see #sayhername and the pictures and the interviews and she is another symbol of injustice. Others see a noncomplier. I saw Cedric, E.J., Preston, Robert and Justin carrying her casket. I saw church lock-ins, Six Flags trips and Brunswick Zone parties. I saw choir rehearsals, praise reports and prayer requests, McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches on Sunday morning in between services, and a puppy love moment she had at the playground with one of my former YMCA basketball teammates at Lee’s graduation party.

Ta-Nehisi Coates talked in his book, Between the World and Me, about his friend lost to a police officer’s gun. During a conversation with his mother, she talked about all of the investment made in that man gone “in one racist act.” Well, more racist acts happened last week.

Two black men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, were killed within two days of each other and camera footage immediately circulated from both. Brutal, bloody killings straight out of an R-rated cop flick.

More families broken, more babies without fathers, more friends without a buddy to hold up a bar stool on a Friday. All of the rage from last year came gurgling back. It has been one year since Sandra died and I remember seeing her face on a loop on television all day while my stomach twisted in knots.

When events like this happen, it’s a wrinkle in time, nothing is the same. This particular wrinkle can be described in one word, gone.

As a black person you’re expected to eat it and tell your children to pull their pants up and put their hands out of the window. God forbid that fury might enter your body at a system that deems you and everyone that looks like you expendable.

Then, Thursday night, July 7 happened. As people organized and protested across the country, a sniper opened fire in Dallas. Five officers died and seven more were wounded, along with two civilians. A friend sent me a text about a few officers being shot, but I didn’t think much past “that sucks.” However, once those deaths started to roll in, the gravity set in that human beings were targeted and murdered. Those officers went to work and five will never come home again. Their families are broken, their babies will grow up without fathers and their friends won’t have a buddy to hold up a bar stool on a Friday.

Lying in my bed, my heart broke for all of them. Everything that ever happened, the civilian who killed Trayvon, the police who killed Michael, Eric and Sandra, the police harassment I have dealt with since I was 15 years old, the white people who called me nigger directly or indirectly, my family’s history in this country, I was able to hold all of that and still feel nothing but anguish for those fallen officers and those who miss them.

Why is it so damn hard for others to feel the same way about black people?!

If my heart can break for you, why can’t yours break for me? Why when black people die in these situations do some of my classmates from high school post a video of a white person being robbed by a black person? Why is their outrage so palpable for that but renders silence about Sandra, Sterling, Castile and everyone else?

Black people are not perfect, but stop asking us to be, because we sure don’t ask it of anyone else. The messed-up part is that if something happened to me, those who know me or know of me would be sad or if it even happened to another Knox. But what about my family members who don’t share my last name? What if something happened to my cousin on the South Side of Chicago who’s a teacher and loves her city with no intention to ever leave, who sends out an encouraging group text message every night? What if it was found out she was a little short with an officer after a trying day working for the Chicago Public Schools? Would she be a fallen school teacher or noncompliant, angry black woman?

Briosha Lewis, left, Mary Lloyd, center and Nakiya Brown pray at a memorial for Sandra Bland near Prairie View A&M University, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Prairie View, Texas. A newly released dashcam video documents how a routine traffic stop escalated into a shouting confrontation between a Texas state trooper and Bland, which led to her arrest. Bland was found hanging in her jail cell three days after the incident.

Briosha Lewis, left, Mary Lloyd, center and Nakiya Brown pray at a memorial for Sandra Bland near Prairie View A&M University, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Prairie View, Texas.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

We all have to have important talks with our children. They have to be taught about sex. They have to be taught not to talk to strangers and to not do every crazy thing their friends think is a great idea.

Black parents have to give their kids an instruction manual to navigate how the world reacts to their faces. For those who don’t have this experience, imagine asking yourself how early is too early to tell my children their complexion can get them killed.

How long until I have to look at their smiling, innocent, toothless faces and put a burden on their backs that our entire family has had to carry?

After all the talks, they do what you say as everyone says they are supposed to do. Their friends are people from church. They graduate from college and eventually get a job at their alma mater. Then one day they’re driving and get pulled over for something inconsequential.

And everything everyone ever worked for comes down to one moment: “May I see your license and registration, please?”

Stephen Knox is a freelance writer who has been published on ESPNW, Bleacher Report, Vice Sports, SBNation, NBA.com and NCAA.com. He is a Midwesterner living in the South and determined to never live through sub-zero temperatures again.