Last breath? A year after Eric Garner, more suspicious deaths by asphyxiation

     Booking photo of Sandra Bland.

    Booking photo of Sandra Bland.

    Death by asphyxiation has been the subject of too many news stories in the days leading up to the one year “anniversary” of Eric Garner’s death by illegal police choke hold. Last week, in Mississippi, Jonathon Saunders was allegedly strangled by a police officer with whom he may have had an altercation. And in the same week, a day apart, two black women, Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, died by asphyxiation from hanging, both of their deaths alleged suicides, while in police custody.

    Black Twitter has been on the case. News of Bland’s arrest and imprisonment and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death generated an onslaught of tweets, hashtags and the kind of public pressure that only Twitter can muster with such speed.

    Within hours, late on July 15 and early on July 16, the hashtags #WhatHappenedToSandy and #SandraBland were trending. It took longer for the New York Times and the Associated Press to pick up the story.

    Ironically, Bland used social media to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement and how camera phones can serve as tools for fighting back against police brutality and excessive force. After her arrest following a traffic stop, Bland reportedly called a friend from jail and said that the arresting officers pulled her from the car and “slammed her on her face.”

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    Even though family and friends report that Bland was looking forward to making bond, and was excited about starting a new job and new life in Texas, a few days after her arrest, officials say the 28-year-old used a trash bag to hang herself from a ceiling partition in her cell. The FBI has joined with the Texas Rangers to investigate.

    In Alabama 18-year-old Chapman was arrested and charged for stealing a cell phone. Authorities claim that she committed suicide in her cell by hanging herself with a bed sheet. Although Chapman’s death was reported in the same news cycle as Bland’s, there is still very little information being reported about her life and her family.

    Kindra Chapman was someone’s child, and her (or any) alleged suicide in a jail cell still underscores the all-too-close proximity between black death and our criminal justice system.

    New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted:

    So hard to believe that all these black women are just hanging themselves in these jail cells…

    — Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) July 17, 2015


    And that is the simple fact of it all. We cannot believe the stories that law enforcement is telling us. There is little to no trust between our community and the police. We can only rely on independent verification of the facts by state or federal law enforcement. Without that verification these tragic deaths will continue to haunt the social media sphere and our collective conscious.

    It takes great effort on the part of a diligent collective of people to force the public to pay attention to stories of injustices and crimes against black women. This fact is a tragedy that compounds the tragedies of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman’s deaths.

    For many in the black community it is difficult to believe the police narratives on these cases — especially in the present moment, when we are not only remembering the brutal strangulation of Eric Garner but all of the black deaths that have stacked up in the year since his death.

    It’s up to all of us, whether we are on Black Twitter or not, to do the work that gets the actual stories of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman into the light so that justice may ultimately be served.

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