Law & the Courts

Evidence Doesn’t Seem to Matter to #BlackLivesMatter Conspiracy Theorists

What happened to Sandra Bland?

That question has animated national news coverage and social-media outrage since July 13, when 28-year-old Illinois native Sandra Bland, arrested outside Prairie View, Texas, was found dead in her cell at the Waller County Jail. Local authorities reported that Bland committed suicide; her family insists otherwise.

In an autopsy report released late last week, Sara N. Doyle, assistant medical examiner for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, concluded that Bland, arrested on July 10 after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, hanged herself with a trash bag in her jail cell. Ligature marks around her neck were consistent with suicide, and Doyle reported no injuries consistent with homicide. Taken in concert with a questionnaire that says Bland had attempted suicide recently after a miscarriage, and with autopsy findings that suggest Bland recently had been cutting herself, there is no evidence to suggest that Bland’s death was anything other than a tragic suicide.

Unless one follows Deray Mckesson, who opined on Twitter last week: “The cover-up is thick.”

Despite the autopsy, McKesson, self-appointed head of the Black Lives Matter movement’s traveling infantry, along with thousands of his social-media acolytes, maintains that Bland was murdered:

As evidence, these social-media “sleuths” have pointed to contradictory details in Bland’s booking documents. One questionnaire reports that she previously attempted suicide; the other doesn’t. Likewise, one document reports that she was on medication for epilepsy; the other doesn’t. What to make of these contradictions?

They have asked why Bland was already in a jumpsuit at the time her mugshot was taken. When other Waller County inmates were shown to have been photographed in jumpsuits, they questioned why Bland’s jumpsuit was a different shade of orange.

Last week a theory gained traction on social media that Bland was already dead at the time her mugshot was taken:

sandra bland conspiracy theory

Ryan Broderick has rounded up most of these theories at BuzzFeed.

There are straightforward potential answers to these accusations. The details in Bland’s booking documents may be different because, according to the Waller County sheriff’s office, the inmate is screened twice during the booking process. If the questionnaires differ, it’s most likely because the inmate gave different answers at each screening.

About Bland’s purportedly “faked” mugshot, one can turn to The Daily Beast, which interviewed several prominent medical examiners on the possibility that Bland is dead in the picture:

“There’s nothing in the photo to indicate she’s dead,” says Dr. Adel Shaker, a board-certified anatomic and forensic pathologist with almost three decades of experience. “Period.”

And Dr. Michael Baden, the medical examiner who conducted a private autopsy of Michael Brown at the request of the Brown family, adds: “To say that she’s dead from the photo is ridiculous because you can say that about almost any head photo. You have to use evidence.”

But this is, of course, not the world of evidence. This is the world of conspiracy theory.

#related#Sandra Bland’s arrest was unnecessary. Stopped for a minor traffic infraction, she was going to be let off with a warning. She was unnecessarily rude, Officer Brian Encinia was quick-tempered and grossly unprofessional, and a bad situation became violent. For violating Texas Department of Public Safety procedures, Officer Encinia is on administrative leave, and rightly so. We need law-enforcement personnel to de-escalate tense situations, not to scream at young women, “I’ll light you up!”

Additionally, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has cited Waller County Jail for failing to provide documents ensuring that jailers had been trained, in the past year, on interacting with mentally ill or potentially suicidal inmates, and for failing to check in on Sandra Bland in person at least once an hour. Jails that permit these sorts of violations need to be cleaned up.

Some in the Black Lives Matter movement have become so attached to the narrative of rampant police brutality against black Americans that they cannot accept a tragic death that does not have a uniformed villain.

But there is no reason — zero, zip, none — to conclude from Officer Encinia’s outrageous conduct during a traffic stop, or from the jail’s incompetence, that he, or local law enforcement, must have murdered Sandra Bland. Yet this is now an article of faith among the most zealous Black Lives Matter hashtag activists, one that, by necessity, must be admitted to include not just multiple local policemen — several ended up on the scene of Bland’s arrest — but at least two corrupt district attorneys (district attorney Elton Mathis and assistant district attorney W. K. Dipraam), a county judge (Carbett J. Duhon III), and the assistant medical examiner for Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. If Bland was murdered, all of them must be in on the cover-up.

This sort of thinking is patently cracked.

Whether the subject is Jewish bankers or September 11, conspiracy theories are invariably diseases of the mind. Some in the Black Lives Matter movement have become so attached to the narrative of rampant police brutality against black Americans that they cannot accept a tragic death that does not have a uniformed villain. They need Sandra Bland to have been strangled by police; it’s the only thing that supports their worldview.

One could argue the merits of this story and point to contradictions and gaps in the skeptics’ own theories. (The inconsistent booking documents, for example, suggest that if this were a conspiracy, it would be an astonishingly incompetent one.) But we are, of course, beyond the realm of argument here, and into the realm of unimpeachable faith. A lack of evidence is evidence, and evidence to the contrary is fake.

Shaun King, a columnist for the Daily Kos and a Black Lives Matter activist, summed up the phenomenon quite neatly in a tweet earlier today:

There is much we can learn from the tragic death of Sandra Bland — about the proper role and conduct of police, about potential reforms to our laws, etc. But we ought also to learn, if we haven’t already, that we have in our midst a constituency of fanatics, impervious to evidence, dedicated to conspiracy.

Black lives matter. So do facts.


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