PVAMU Students Memorialize Sandra Bland with Seven-Mile Protest
“No justice. No peace. No racist police. No justice. No peace. Prosecute the police.”
PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas -- Hundreds of Prairie View A&M University students and alumni rallied together Saturday afternoon for a seven-mile march from the Sandra Bland Memorial on University Drive to the Waller County Sheriff’s Office & County Jail where Bland died nearly five years ago this July.
The protest, known as “PV Protest,” was in honor of Bland who was pulled over by a former state trooper in Prairie View for failing to signal a lane change July 10, 2015. Their exchange escalated to a heated confrontation which led to the PVAMU alumna’s arrest at University Drive on accusations of assaulting a public servant. Bland, 28, was found dead in her jail cell three days later. Her death was ruled a suicide.
A protestor stands in front of the Waller County Sheriff's Office & County Jail with a sign that reads "We don't understand the death of Sandra Bland???"
“What happened to her will never leave our minds,” said Samuella Bassey, a PVAMU senior biology major from Houston who was one of the head organizers. “Her memorial is a daily reminder she was and is not the only person who faced police brutality.”
Although Bassey and others provided the organizational and logistical skills to mount one of PVAMU’s largest protest in recent years, Alexandria Vincent and Jada Hyman initially had the powerful idea. Vincent, a senior nursing student from Houston, said Bland’s death was very personal.
“The PV Protest served as a visual to show how fed up Black people are. We are in this together and are willing to walk seven miles - in the heat - in order for us to be seen and heard,” said Vincent. "We are no longer going to stand for blatant disrespect and disregard for Black bodies and Black lives. It’s not going to fly anymore without any repercussions.
Eventually, Vincent and Hyman collaborated with Bassey, the PoliSci Posse and around 20 other students to disperse responsibilities and form a steering committee. PSP, which Bassey is a part of, is a group of mainly political science majors who have organized protests in the past and spoken out on common campus issues including voter suppression.
Samuella Bassey (R) with fellow organizers and PSP members Jayla Allen (L) and Maia Young (C) before the protest. Credit: Tyrese Green
“Protesting shows you have a voice. Creating a march with mostly PV students, which erupted over issues we and Sandra have faced with the police, may prompt someone who is listening to try and help us out,” Bassey said.
“Say his name! George Floyd! Say her name! Sandra Bland!”
The protest comes on the heels of nationwide outrage over police brutality and systemic issues related to race due to the killing of Houston native George Floyd. Floyd used his last breaths to cry out for his dead mother while a former white Minneapolis police officer was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds on Memorial Day.
With invigorating chants of Floyd’s and Sandra’s name yelled through megaphones disseminated amongst the crowd, Bassey explained “We do care about our future and rights as Black individuals. This protest isn’t for her in specific, but for all Black lives that have unjustly passed away.”
Sesily Rigsby, a senior mass communications major who traveled from Huntsville, agreed with Bassey. “The PV Protest was related to all the injustices we face as a Black community. Within our own and what we face 10 times more in the public eye , the government, law and education systems. [PV Protest] was motivated by Floyd and how he died was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Enriched and enthused by a history of activism, student organizers developed a list of demands, inspired by the arrest and death of Bland, for a more just policing system and revitalized chance for incarcerated people. The demands include:
Bail Reform: Implementing pretrial services which will help reduce bonds.
Citizens Review Board: When a citizen files a formalized complaint against an officer or constable, citizens can read the complaint and advise action on the situation.
Jail Programs: New re-entry programs for those incarcerated.
Bland’s sister, Shante Needham, was also in attendance. She traveled from Illinois, where the sisters are from, and briefly spoke to protestors at Bland’s memorial before the march began.
Shante Needham, Sandra Bland's sister, spoke to protestors before the march at the Sandra Bland Memorial on University Drive Saturday afternoon. Credit: Tyrese Green
“When I got the phone call to come down, it was only a yes for me. We have to keep marching. We have to hold elected officials accountable,” said Needham. “I am hopeful and prayerful we will see change. We have to begin to appreciate the small victories that we’re given...even though it took a George Floyd to pass, when so many others have passed.”
Bland returned to PVAMU to work as a recruitment advisor in the college of agriculture and was set to start the following semester. Vincent said she is the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement hits so close to home regardless if you knew Bland personally.
“She was one of us. As a student, you drive past her memorial everyday so it didn’t make any sense to not have a protest. Her memorial is a constant reminder of what Waller County has been capable of - not caring for the Black students they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Vincent. "We have to exercise our rights as citizens when we see injustices. This isn’t going to be the last of what PV students have to say. You will see more of us everywhere.”
“She means a lot to us,” echoed Rigsby. “She puts PV on anybody’s map or mind. [Bland] was a passionate activist so we owe it to her; not because she was an activist but a person in general. If she was going hard for everybody else, we have to go hard for her.”
Sandra Bland Memorial located on University Drive which was recently renamed to Sandra Bland Parkway. Credit Tyrese Green
And go hard they did.
With efforts from over 200 volunteers, the protest was one for the history books. Volunteers were split into committees which included safety, transportation, outreach and fundraising. The fundraising committee raised more than $2,000 to supply snacks, bottled waters, signage, megaphones and other supplies.
In the extreme case of dehydration or heat exhaustion, the safety committee took extra precautions for all involved. The seven-mile trek included hydration stations positioned at each mile with a plethora of volunteers who passed out water and snacks to rehydrate and refuel protestors. Drop-off points were also tactically placed along the route to be more inclusive of those who were unable to walk the full distance.
The fire department, constable’s office, emergency medical services and the city and university's police department trailed along for the hilly journey. A car caravan, golf carts and shuttles also tailed alongside with extra water and snacks for additional precaution.
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people cause the power of the people don’t stop”
The three-hour march felt to many like a family reunion. With campus life cut short due to the pandemic, students saw each other (in person) for the first time since March. Minutes before the protest, students excitedly embraced each other at the Hobart Taylor parking lot, yelled through face masks and honked repeatedly - signaling to friends their arrival.
“It was really great to see a lot of my friends and other students who I didn’t know that were marching with us. A lot of students were really excited to be amongst each other. Seeing us together was truly inspiring. It was good to see we were willing to walk seven miles - in the midst of a pandemic and 90-degree heat - to fight with a purpose," recalled Vincent.
Protestors begin their march from University Drive. Credit: Tyrese Green
The buzz and eagerness of reconnecting was slightly reminiscent of homecoming. DJ Sasquatch and MC Jono were partly responsible for harnessing that energy. Both were mounted on a trailer hitched by a pickup truck and provided nonstop gospel, hip-hop and new jack swing selections.
Many traveled as far as Dallas - with the exception of Needham - to participate. Students from other HBCUs, such as Howard and Morehouse, who were home for summer break or holding internships nearby showed their support and marched alongside.
“This sets the tone for all HBCUs and also gives Black PWI students a voice they might think is diminished on their own campus. It unified us as Black students saying we are educated, organized and can put anything together we put our minds to,” said Rigsby.
In a pandemic and fighting for Black lives, PV students are a force to be reckoned as they channeled their anger and frustration into productive action and solutions. As Bassey told COSMiC before the march, “You can always talk about things but there has to be a solution. Suggestions do not work without solutions.”
*A full list of all volunteers can be found here.
Xanté Wallace contributed to this report.