TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
It's been just over a month since the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail after her arrest during a traffic stop. Local authorities ruled that Bland committed suicide, but her family and friends have questioned that finding. Since her death, activists have braved the summer heat to demonstrate outside the jail. From Houston Public Media, Syeda Hasan reports.
SYEDA HASAN: It's another 100-degree day in Hempstead, Texas. The Rev. Hannah Bonner has been camped outside the Waller County Jail for hours.
HANNAH BONNER: It's really hot out here (laughter). So we talk, we play the guitar, we pray.
HASAN: Bonner is one of dozens of activists holding a daily vigil at the jail for the past month. She finds shade under a tent and plays a song to pass the time.
BONNER: (Singing) We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not...
HASAN: In July, 28-year-old Sandra Bland apparently committed suicide inside the jail. It was just days after she was arrested by a white state trooper during a traffic stop. Bland's family has filed a federal lawsuit against Waller County and state officials. There have also been calls for a Justice Department investigation. Bonner says Bland's death has sparked a growing conversation on social media, with activists demanding answers.
BONNER: I'm a millennial, and so I do live in this social media generation. But I also understand the weaknesses of that, and one of those is an addiction to technology and it also is using technology as a placebo for actual action.
HASAN: So Bonner drives an hour each way between Houston and Hempstead every day to protest in person. Demonstrators hope to keep attention on the issue by camping out at the jail. Some days, there are dozens of people gathered here. On this day, there were six, including graduate student Carie Cauley. She's been taking part in the vigil for three weeks and feels a personal connection to the cause.
CARIE CAULEY: Sandra Bland was black, which I happen to be. She was a woman, which I happen to be. She was educated, which I happen to be. She had her bachelor's degree, which I happen to have.
HASAN: Residents of Hempstead have had mixed reactions.
KYLE SPEARS: If they start destroying stuff or being a nuisance, then it's not good.
HASAN: Twenty-year-old Kyle Spears stopped by the jail on his way home from work. He says he's neutral on the issues and just wanted to come see the protesters himself.
SPEARS: People here are just trying to live. You got all of these outsiders coming in, trying to do whatever. You know, if it's peaceful, that's good. If not, then you get the hell out.
HASAN: Spears doesn't like having his small town in the national spotlight and just wants things back to normal. Other people have welcomed the demonstrators. As Hannah Bonner stood strumming her guitar in front of the jail, Waller County resident Mary Dolen approached her and burst into tears, sharing her own concerns about local law enforcement.
MARY DOLEN: Yeah, I - I wanted to get the courage to come in here and say something and let you know it's not just you. It's not y'all. It's - it's - it's people like me, too.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Look, ma'am, we've got...
HASAN: By people like me, she means white residents. Bonner says she's had lots of encounters like this over the past month.
BONNER: It's taken people some time of us sitting out here. Now that we've been out here long enough, it seems like our courage is giving other people courage to speak up.
HASAN: Bonner says connections like these can only be made in person. And that's what keeps her coming back to Hempstead every day in the 100-degree heat. For NPR News, I'm Syeda Hasan in Houston.
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