When I first learned of you, I knew they murdered you. Looking into your face, framed like a Benin sculpture, your image carrying the face of millions of Black women the world over. In your eyes I saw a constant shine. You were not ready to die.
When I learned that you were an activist, who had been on social media advocating for #BlackLivesMatter, it was clear – this was an assassination. They tracked you. Hounded you as though you were a runaway slave. You were headed to start a new job at your Alma mater, a new life.
I can’t get past the irony that the news of your hanging coincided with the birthday of Ida B. Wells, the very woman that dedicated her life to speaking out against the lynching of African Americans at the turn of the previous century. In truth, you were an Ida B. in the making, saying just days before that, “My purpose is to go back to Texas and stop all social injustices in the South.” And so you went back. I imagine the expectancy, the hope buoyed behind that bright smile of yours as you crossed the country on a trek to achieve your destiny.
I think I know how you must have felt when you noticed the cop car following you. His actions, captured on the dashcam, speeding up behind you. It was a setup. He pulled you over for failing to signal a lane change. But you would not have needed to change lanes so abruptly if he hadn’t sped up behind you like that. It was setup. You were being tracked. As Ida was tracked before you. And just as Ida had a price on her head, you had one on yours, too. It is public knowledge that the Feds have been tracking #BlackLivesMatters activists. That day they caught you. And what we see on that dashcam shows that they had no intention of letting you go with your life.
He questions you about your attitude when it was his that needed to be checked. We see his intent to take you there, to give himself the right to harm you. And even when you didn’t give it to him – responding with the clarity and conviction of someone that knows her rights – he still went beyond the boundaries of his badge. I could recount the numerous ways he overreached, but that would be redundant. What matters is that it doesn’t matter in the eyes of most Americans. His actions are too normal. His brutality has become benign, normalized, accepted. But even with that knowledge you would not cower. When you stepped out of the car, your majestic six-foot frame suddenly made his authoritative posturing look to be what it was – immature and childish. You dwarfed him and his oversized ego. You had enough awareness to know that your voice needed to be heard, that you would need to narrate the scene as we were watching. And so you spoke. With all the aggravated sass and biting sarcasm that the moment necessitated.
There have been many, mostly men, who have said you should have been silent and “behaved.” Yet, as Audre Lorde reminds us, even in our silence we are not saved. When even the sanctuaries of our churches are no longer safe havens. All that is left is scorched earth. And we, the wretched, dwell therein besieged by the depraved.
They lie and say you swallowed marijuana. What you swallowed was your fear. And you spoke. Loud enough for the world to hear. And we hear you still as your video series “Sandy Speaks” is now being heard by those thousands who would never have listened otherwise. Now it is time for us to speak – for you and the hundreds that have perished similar deaths before you this past year. Waging eternal defiance to those who say “I will light you up,” we hold fast the sacred memory of all of ours who have been lit up by egomaniacal cops, by those lit up in death chambers electrocuted and poisoned by the state, and the many lit up as mobs in the thousands looked on in evil glee as they picnicked by the lynchers’ tree.
They claim you committed suicide. They even doctored the autopsy report to justify their murder. They lie so much, they can no longer tell the difference. We, on the other hand, should not spend our time trying to unravel their lies as much as we should muster and mobilize all of our effort to unravel this corrupt system based on centuries of lies. What we must know is that what happened to you after you were stopped should be measured by the fact that you were stopped at all. For it is there, in that moment, that the fundamental disrespect for your life was made evident. Everything after that was a matter of course. As you, yourself, questioned, “… all of this for failure to signal?”
Ida B. Wells puts it succinctly and bluntly when she wrote a century ago, “Those who commit the murders write the reports.” Enough said.
Sis, are you yet alive in your mugshot? That has been a question as the picture has been on the newsfeeds of many social media apps this past week. You are clearly lying down. That is a carpet behind you, not the standard brick wall. When I saw it, all I could think of was how much a hell this place has become for us. That they would conspire to take your picture and pass it off on the public as though all is in order, like they did the edited video, like they did when they manufactured the arrest report, like they did when they doctored the autopsy report, like they will do with whatever comes out next. They are desperate to cover up the deliberate evil they did to you. We cannot allow them to get away with it. We have to remember that this is standard procedure for police and this criminally unjust system when it comes to us. Assata Shakur’s words speak hauntingly prophetic now in light of your case. In her 1987 autobiographyAssata, she writes: “In prison, it is not at all uncommon to find a prisoner hanged or burned to death in his cell. No matter how suspicious the circumstances, these deaths are always ruled ‘suicides.’ They are usually Black inmates, considered to be a ‘threat to the orderly running of the prison.’ They are usually among the most politically aware and socially conscious inmates in the prison.” She could have been talking about you. Every word.
I know you must be proud of your mother. Many people have been astonished at her words. When what she said is what we’ve known. They have declared war on us – the police, the prosecutors, the judges, the congress, the Klan, the ministers, the citizens. They all have declared war on us. Your beauty and bravery blazes on in the brilliance and clarity of your mother in all her loving defiance. Your mother has chosen a path unlike many others before her, the those of us who have strained past pain to offer forgiveness to them that never asked for it, to the them that long ago sacrificed their morality on the blood altar of a god they made over in their own image. And when she gives the word, I will be counted among the masses that will respond covered by the cloud of your courageous witness.
You sought justice for others. Now, we will seek justice for you, a martyr, in every way that is understood. And we will remember you and hold you in the same light as those murdered during the Civil Rights Movement. This movement is ours now as is your quest for a new life. With each deathblow we grow stronger as more of us are awakened from our slumber; a once sleeping giant is now rising. The election of the nation’s first Black president will be small in comparison to what we have yet to do. All credibility in this system has been lost. They have no moral position to take against us. Their lies and cover-ups expose them as frauds of democracy. It is now up to us to make this country what it claims to be – “with liberty and justice for all.”
Sister, Sandra, speak to us now. Urge us onward with your words, with your wisdom. And may we work with the same resolve as you worked. May we speak with the same conviction that you spoke. And may we hear your voice in the words of the women among us who continue to work for justice all over this tortured land.
Ewuare X. Osayande is a social activist, poet and author of several books including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement and Whose America?: New and Selected Poems. Follow his work on Twitter andFacebook.