- DeWayne Charlestonserved as the first African-American justice of the peace in Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was arrested and later found dead in jail. He is the author of the book, The United States v. Waller County, Then Me.
Hundreds gathered Saturday to remember Sandra Bland at the suburban Chicago church she attended for decades before moving to Waller County, Texas, where she was set to begin a new job but was then discovered dead in her jail cell after a traffic stop escalated into an arrest. The 28-year-old African-American woman’s family members stood before her open casket as they continued to dispute law enforcement claims she hung herself with the liner of a trashcan. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Bill Foster have sent letters to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a federal investigation into Bland’s death. We go to Texas to discuss the history of racial profiling in Waller County, and police relations with the African-American community, with DeWayne Charleston, who served as the first African-American judge in Waller County, Texas. He also responds to how Bland was arrested and the investigation into her death has been handled, and calls on Sheriff Glenn Smith to resign. Charleston is the author of “The United States v. Waller County, Then Me.”
AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds gathered to remember Sandra Bland Saturday in the suburban Chicago church she attended for decades before moving to Waller County, Texas, where she was set to begin a new job at her alma mater. People filled the church as well as overflow rooms. Many of them wore white, while others wore T-shirts with the message “Sandy speaks.” The 28-year-old African-American woman’s family members stood before her open casket as they continued to dispute law enforcement claims she hung herself with the liner of a trash can in her jail cell. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal said, quote, “That baby did not take herself out of here.” She also vowed to continue calling for answers, saying, quote, “I’m going to take today and relax. I’m going take tomorrow and relax. But Monday, it’s on!”
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Bill Foster both attended the funeral and said they have sent letters to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a federal investigation into Sandra Bland’s death. During an interview with ABC’s This Week, Lynch reportedly said she may undertake such an effort. She said Bland’s arrest, quote, “highlights the concern of many in the black community, that a routine stop for many of our—of the members of the black community is not handled with the same professionalism and courtesy that other people may get from the police.”
Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell July 13th after a traffic stop escalated into arrest when Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia forcibly removed her from her car after she objected to putting out her cigarette when he pulled her over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. On Friday, the attorney for her family said he believed she was targeted. This is Cannon Lambert speaking on Democracy Now!
CANNON LAMBERT: When I look at Sandy and I see that she is doing nothing more than saying, “I want to be treated the right way, I want to be treated equal,” I say, “I celebrate you, sister.” That’s the way I see it. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with making a stand when it comes to being treated fairly. You know, it is hard for me to get beyond the fact that this officer that stopped her made a U-turn right after looking her right square in her face, as she made a right-hand turn to go about her business. She didn’t do anything wrong when she made the right-hand turn. She didn’t do anything wrong when she was traversing down the street. It looked very much like she was targeted.
AMY GOODMAN: For the full interview with Cannon Lambert, as well as Sandra Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, you can go to democracynow.org.
But right now we’re going to Houston, Texas, to look at the history of racial profiling in Waller County, where Sandra Bland died, and police relations with the African-American community there. We’re joined by Judge DeWayne Charleston. He served as the first African-American justice of the peace in Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was arrested and later found dead in jail. On Wednesday, he spoke at a Waller County Commissioners Court meeting on Bland’s death and called for Sheriff Glenn Smith to resign. Charleston is author of The United States v. Waller County, Then Me.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Judge. It’s great to have you with us.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you say in your testimony this week?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Well, I was trying to point out that whatever happened in the jail, Sandy Bland died. And when she was in that jail, she was in the care, custody and control of Sheriff Glenn Smith. And if anybody had hired a babysitter and they come home from work finding their child hung with a trash can liner, they would get rid of that babysitter, that babysitter who they entrusted their child to. And so, all I was saying is that he bears accountability. He bears responsibility. She died in his care, custody and control. And, you know, I believe that he has to go. And it’s after a line of questionable practices that he has undertaken in both his capacity as chief of police of Hempstead and as the sheriff in Waller County.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you talk about that history of Sheriff Glenn Smith, who was first, as you said, police chief of Hempstead, and then, after being fired, was elected to be sheriff?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: You know, as I understand it, it was a pretty big media event back then. It was some years ago. When he was the chief of police, he had pulled—among other incidents that he was held accountable for, he pulled some African Americans over. I think he had a couple of his men with him. And they were searched in the street. They were—they had their pants pulled down and underwear pulled down and privates exposed, and they began to strip these guys in public. And there was testimony that he or one of his men began to ridicule the parts of their anatomy. And when it came to the attention of the city council, he was voted to be terminated. This was just part and parcel of their effort to intimidate, ridicule and malign, with an incredible sense of impunity. And I think that what happened to Sandy Bland is just an extension of that culture.
AMY GOODMAN: As the Times put it today, reinforcing what you’re saying about his history, they said, “A decade ago, Hempstead’s only full-time black police officer sued, alleging that Chief Smith had dismissed him on a trumped-up charge after he complained about his supervisor’s racial slurs. An African-American couple also sued, alleging that Chief Smith had turned them away when they reported that 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 Chief Smith 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 black residents and searched a young [black man’s] underwear in public, he was fired.”
So, Judge DeWayne Charleston, can you talk about the history of Waller County, which you have been intimately involved with in your years of activism, but going back to—you write in your book that Waller County is the last county in the country to abolish slavery?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Yes. At that time, it was—I think it was part of Austin County. Those counties later separated, but it was that territory. They remained holdouts, those plantation owners. I think it was Groce’ Liendo, Alta Vista. Those plantations remained holdouts after the Civil War.
But even if you go back some 30 years before that, Waller County is where Sam Houston trained his troops during the winter, before they went to San Jacinto and defeated Santa Anna. Before that, Santa Anna and his troops killed everybody, all the men at the Alamo, except for two African-American men. Benjamin Lundy, The War in Texas, writes about it. They freed everybody except the two African-American men and the women and children they spared. And it was that thing that got me really interested, back when I was in college, and I came to find out that it was this preparation of Sam Houston and the defeat of Santa Anna that gave the Southern states the knowledge to know, the confidence to know, that they can secede from the Union. And now, today, because of that defeat of Santa Anna, we’ve got schools named after people who set black people free—people who were fighting to preserve slavery, and yet we malign Santa Anna, who set black people free. So, this was just the beginning.
In 1963—1964, my mother went into labor. My brother, my youngest brother, was born in a utility closet right there in Waller County, Austin County. He was born in a utility closet because they would not allow my mother to give birth in rooms that were reserved for whites. Then, if you go forward another 40 years, there’s a lawsuit because the cemeteries are not integrated. The city of Hempstead will not allow certain people to be buried in certain cemeteries, and they will not maintain the Jewish, the white and the black cemeteries equally, even though they own the deeds and have all of the stuff. They settled out of court and supposedly were supposed to begin. So, from cradle to the grave, from the beginning of time of the state of Texas, the republic of Texas, to now, Waller County has been at the forefront of suppression and oppression of African Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Judge DeWayne Charleston, you, yourself, was born at the historically black college of Prairie View A&M, where Sandra Bland was supposed to begin working and where she went to school back 10 years ago.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It is also key in voting rights in this country, particularly around college students. Can you explain?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Wow! In 1972, a guy named Charles Ballas—he was a white guy—was recruited by the Defense Department to come and integrate the Navy ROTC program at Prairie View. Chuck Ballas led a seven-year fight for African-American students—this white guy led a seven-year fight for African Americans to vote in Waller County. It took a very act of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, The United States v. Waller County, Leroy Symm, to assure and protect Prairie View college students’ right to vote in Waller County. It was that decision that assured college students all over America that they could vote in the college—the town in which they were living while they were attending college.
Now, since that Supreme Court ruling in 1979, Prairie View students have been under attack. There have been three city councilmen, a county attorney, a minister, a judge, two public officials, all arrested, all indicted, some convicted, after they participated in get-out-the-vote efforts and get-out—and 19 students, I might add, were also indicted, after they all participated in some get-out-the-vote or campaign initiatives. We’re talking about the suppression of voting rights since the Supreme Court assured that right in 1979. There was one district attorney who threatened to send any students to jail if they dared attempt to vote in Waller County. Nothing happened to him. The Justice Department, the district attorney—nobody slapped him with any criminal offense for his intimidation of voting rights. It is a long, storied history.
And, you know, of course, Sandra Bland underscores it. She speaks it up. But Sandy Bland was not an isolated case. She was symptomatic of a culture that has permeated for years in Waller County. She was the tip. And when she told her mother that she had found her purpose, that she was coming back to Prairie View because she wanted to fight injustice in the South, Sandy’s speaking about things she felt, things she saw. And I’m just grateful for the fact that she had an opportunity to highlight that even before she died, and now even more so in her death.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to something we discussed on Friday. You’re talking about the sheriff. You’re calling on the sheriff to resign. But I want to ask you about the DA.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2014, last year, Waller County DA Elton Mathis was accused of sending threatening text messages after an African-American clergyman asked Waller County to provide data on prosecution rates by ethnicity. Now, this is a man you’ve worked with, Reverend Walter Pendleton, who says—
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —after he accused DA Mathis of selectively prosecuting minorities, Mathis texted him with threats. Mathis reportedly told him, quote, “You are too stupid to know what that word means.” The prosecutor cited examples of white public officials he had prosecuted, and then texted, quote, “My hounds ain’t even started yet dumb ass. … When I talk people [will] listen. Keep talking and I will sue your ass for slander,” unquote. Now, I am quoting the text of the current DA, the current DA Elton Mathis, who is in charge of investigating the death of Sandy Bland and holding people accountable, perhaps, for example, like the man who arrested her, Brian Encinia, the officer, not to mention the sheriff and those in the jail.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: This comment is indicative of the spirit of meanness that African Americans and Latinos and, I presume, many whites are subjected to in Waller County. The fact that he would use such verbiage, the fact that he would imply that he would send his hounds after somebody, the fact that he would refer to a pastor as a dumb ass, and the fact that he would do it by texting shows you the absolute incompetence of this DA. And it would make one question: Why wouldn’t he, himself, remove himself in light of what he has said, so that the family, the Bland family, can be assured of total transparency, the total integrity of the election—I mean, of the investigation, they would be totally confident in that? It’s just like he has got to go, along with the sheriff. And I can’t—I can’t understand the delay with which the Texas attorney general or the Justice Department is having in removing him, so that the general public, and especially the Bland family, would know that there is integrity in this investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2010, Judge DeWayne Charleston, you pled guilty to accepting bribes following an FBI investigation into corruption, which ensnared—also ensnared other public officials in the county. Why do you believe your prosecution was racially motivated?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Well, like I say, I had led several marches. We sent thousands to Waller County. We had engaged the political process. I was empowering students. I was told that Sandy was part of the march in 2008. We were empowering students. We were assuring them that they had the right to vote and that they needed to stand up. I told you early on about the long list of people who had been attacked. The things that I had been saying for seven years were not very convenient for the people who were in power there in Waller County. I needed to be silenced. I totally needed to be silenced.
I pled guilty. It was what I had to do for my family. I was brought into a conspiracy because I had introduced a childhood friend to some people who had, in fact, accepted bribes. And so, I was brought into the conspiracy, based on the legal definition of conspiracy. But the reality of it is, it was really meant to shut me up because I had always spoke. And so, then, in a sense, I was shut up. But then, that’s why I decided I would speak now, because Sandy could not speak. They literally took everything from me but my mouth, and they took Sandy’s life, and so I feel like I have—I still have the right to come up and speak truth to life, where Sandy was violated.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book, Judge Charleston, you write an interesting fact, also going back to 1979, about the Iranian students who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the link to Waller County.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: Oh, absolutely. There was a gentleman named David Walker, who lived down the street from us, and a wonderful guy, wonderful family. And I remember as a high school student, he flew in from—after they were released, flew in to the White House and came straight to our football game. And I was so proud. But David wanted to go back. He was a true marine. He wanted to go back. I could see it in his eyes. He wanted to go back and continue to protect that embassy, to go back and be there. And that was my first experience with racism, when I saw how Iranians saw David Walker and other African Americans, as they released those women and all of the African Americans, and it had a profound impact on me for many years.
AMY GOODMAN: So they only released, first, the African Americans.
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: I’m not sure of that. I know they released the women and the African Americans. I’m not sure. But I do know that I specifically remember them releasing—I was 16 at the time, and I remember them releasing the African Americans, saying–and the general consensus was, “We sympathize, we empathize with what African Americans are going through in the U.S.” And it had a profound impact. I didn’t know that people around the world empathized with our condition at that time. And I think that was a pivotal point in my life, as I decided to deal with this injustice.
AMY GOODMAN: In our last 30 seconds, what do you want to see come out of the investigations of the death of Sandy Bland?
DEWAYNE CHARLESTON: You know, Sandy, for all practical purposes, was given a life sentence with no chance of parole. She was arrested by the state trooper. She was judged by the state trooper. She was booked in the Waller County jail, and there she died. Those are the facts, and that’s what we do know. And because she was given a life sentence on July the 10th at 4:27 p.m., somebody needs to be accountable for why she was not able to avail herself of this criminal justice system. It needs to be reformed. So that’s the first thing. In all aspects, from racial profiling to the grand jury system, it needs to be reformed.
The second thing is, she died under the care, custody and control of Waller County. They must be held accountable. They are responsible. They had already been in violation of so many different things with respect to the jail standards. They must be held accountable.
And lastly, I think that the district attorney ought to remove himself so that he can assure what the lieutenant governor said would take place, and that is the absolute transparency of this investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: DeWayne Charleston, I want to thank you for being with us, served as the first African-American justice of the peace in Waller County, Texas, where Sandra Bland was arrested and later found dead in jail. He’s the author of the book, The United States v. Waller County, Then Me. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.