Prairie View, Texas, now joins a list of places where African Americans have died after police encounters, and where mainstream assumptions about progress in race relations have been challenged, if not dashed. Here those assumptions have been especially shaky.
PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — When Sandra Bland enrolled in 2005 at Prairie View A&M University, the historically black institution founded here almost 140 years ago, its students were still waging a civil-rights war that had ended elsewhere decades before: a legal battle, against white Waller County officials, for the right to vote in the place they lived.
It took years and a federal court order, but the students won. When Bland returned here July 9, driving 16 hours from Chicago to interview for a job at her alma mater, the Justice Department had abandoned its court-ordered oversight of students’ voter registration, the campus had its own polling place, and the county had, in one key respect, passed a racial milestone.
Four days later, Bland was dead in a jail cell after a routine traffic stop by a state trooper escalated into a physical confrontation not 500 yards from the university’s entrance. And any talk of milestones gave way to questions about whether the county’s checkered history of race relations had set the stage for a tragedy the authorities acknowledge might never have happened had they followed their own rules.
Prairie View now joins a list of places — Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and others — where African Americans have died after encounters with the police, and where mainstream assumptions about progress in race relations have been challenged, if not dashed. But here, in a county where most blacks and whites are still buried in separate cemeteries, those assumptions have been especially shaky.
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“The caste system still exists here,” said LaVaughn Mosley, a former counselor at Prairie View A&M who had been friends with Bland since her undergraduate days. “There is a whole race of people here who are treated like second-class citizens.”
Local officials mostly disagree.
“We are not a bunch of backwoods, red-necked racists,” said County Judge Carbett Duhon III, the region’s chief executive officer, who is known as Trey and is white. “Far from it.”
Some African-American elected officials also insist that the vestiges of racism are being addressed.
“It’s not the Waller County of the ’60s and ’70s,” said Mayor Michael Wolfe Sr., the third black mayor of Hempstead, the county seat. “Things have changed tremendously.”
But at a time when deaths of African Americans after confrontations with law enforcement have the nation on racial tenterhooks, the county’s legacy of racial disparities has only catalyzed suspicions about almost everything that happened to Bland, a 28-year-old aspiring researcher who had proclaimed solidarity with the movement against racial bias in law enforcement.
Here and across the country, her last days — from the moment the trooper pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change to her death by hanging in the jail, ruled a suicide — are being exhaustively parsed for evidence of bias. Bland’s family is challenging the suicide finding and every document that does not bear her signature.
Johnie Jones, who was president of the Prairie View A&M student body in 2009 and fought for voting rights, has followed the news with sorrow and dismay.
“It just blew my mind that we were still in that same place and haven’t really moved forward,” said Jones, who graduated with Bland that year and described her as smart, generous and outspoken. “How could we still be dealing with these issues in 2015?”
Waller County, about an hour northwest of ever-growing Houston, is home to roughly 47,000 residents, a fourth of them African American. It was a haven for freed slaves during Reconstruction, but that soon changed: One study by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group, suggests blacks were subsequently lynched here more frequently than in almost any other county in the state.
In the past decade or so, disputes have erupted over student voting rights, the neglect of black cemeteries, a white mayor’s refusal to attend a parade marking the liberation of slaves at the end of the Civil War, and the firing of a police chief, later twice elected sheriff, after complaints about police misconduct against black residents.
Prairie View A&M, established in 1876 as the Alta Vista Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youths, is the county’s economic anchor and, many contend, its most progressive force. The university, serving 8,000 students and known for research and community service, is immaculately tended.
But the surrounding community of Prairie View, incorporated in 1969 and always headed by a black mayor, is bereft of the stores, lodging and restaurants of a college town. Home to about 5,800 residents and nearly 90 percent black, it feels like the forgotten stepsister of the rural county’s other, whiter towns.
Drug dealers are being blamed for several recent slayings, leading some people to call for help for the town’s seven-officer police force. But when State Trooper Brian Encinia stopped Bland, he was apparently on a routine patrol.
Encinia, 30, a white officer who joined the force 19 months ago, first pulled over a university student, issuing a polite warning to watch the speed limit, before making a U-turn and trailing Bland. The stop quickly became confrontational, ending with Bland in the back of a police car headed for jail, facing a felony charge of assaulting a public officer.
No official is defending the trooper’s behavior: After Bland refused to extinguish her cigarette, he ordered her out of her car, threatened her with a stun gun and handcuffed her.
Elton Mathis, the county’s district attorney, said he was “not happy” by what he had seen on the videotape from the trooper’s dashboard camera. Wolfe, the Hempstead mayor, said he was “very, very upset” by it.
The state Department of Public Safety has said the trooper violated protocol. An inquiry is under way.
Herschel Smith, the elected constable whose precinct includes Prairie View, said the encounter underscored the need to overhaul the culture of how officers treat minorities, a point he said he had made repeatedly to his counterparts here.
Smith, who is black, recalled that even he, a uniformed officer, had been pulled over this spring and detained for 45 minutes by a Hempstead officer who ran his license plate through a computer database.
“How humiliating is that for an elected official?” he said. “They have no respect, even when we do get elected. So I know how Sandy Bland felt.”
Handcuffed, Bland was driven about 10 minutes to Hempstead and the Waller County jail, run by Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, long a controversial figure. A decade ago, Hempstead’s only full-time black police officer sued, alleging that Smith, then police chief, had dismissed him on a trumped-up charge after he complained about his supervisor’s racial slurs.
An African-American couple also sued, alleging Smith had turned them away when they reported a white man had assaulted their 7-year-old son at Pee-Wee football practice.
Those suits were dismissed, but in 2007 city officials suspended Smith as police chief after he pushed a black man who he said had spit on him in the street. The next year, after complaints about officers who executed faulty warrants against blacks and searched a young black man’s underwear in public, he was fired.
Just months later, he was elected sheriff with two-thirds of the vote, making him one of the county’s most powerful officials. He was accused of racism as police chief, Smith said, “but racism was not what was going on.”
“I am not a racist, nor have I ever been,” he added.
Yet the criticism has continued. Detractors charge that the sheriff’s chain of command is lily-white; while Smith said he could not immediately give a racial breakdown of his 85-member staff, one of his four top deputies is black.
On the morning that Bland died, he said, all three jailers on duty were black or Hispanic.
He acknowledges the jail’s failures to protect Bland by not placing her on a suicide watch, not checking on her in person and leaving her with a plastic trash bag that became the makeshift noose from which she was found hanging.
Those appear to reflect a more general pattern; state inspectors also cited failings in 2012 when a white inmate hanged himself with a bedsheet.
Whether Bland’s treatment was criminally negligent is now up to Mathis, the county district attorney for nine years.
In an interview and at nationally broadcast news conferences, Mathis, who is white, has cast himself as a refreshing contrast to Waller County’s less savory racial past.
Whereas one of his predecessors wrongly insisted in 2004 that the black students at Prairie View A&M had to return to their counties to vote, he said he had helped ensure officials carried out a 2008 federal consent decree forbidding them to unfairly reject voter-registration forms or erect other specious obstacles to voting.
“A lot of that stuff they say about Waller County is true,” he said last week. “I grew up here.” But he insisted, “There is a new generation in control in Waller County, a more progressive generation.”
Still, when the Rev. Walter Pendleton, an activist African-American preacher in the county, accused Mathis in a May 2014 text message of mollycoddling a white former official who got into trouble, Mathis’ response seemed almost reminiscent of an earlier era.
Texting back, he said the 66-year-old preacher was “too stupid to know” the meaning of the term selective prosecution. Mathis urged him to “jump off a high cliff.”
“Keep talking,” he wrote. “When I talk, people will listen.” Mathis later said he had sent the messages in anger.
At Prairie View A&M, students taking summer classes now travel down University Drive more warily, with a makeshift roadside memorial as a reminder of Bland’s experience.
“We don’t even know what society we live in anymore,” said Chad Wilkinson, a 20-year-old junior from Nassau, Bahamas, who is majoring in health. “We thought we were so safe until it happened.
“Now everyone is on guard, and saying, ‘Who could be next?’ You don’t know who’s going to be next. It could be that guy. It could be anybody.”