It has been another 100-degree day in Hempstead, Texas. But no matter: dozens of activists have still come to demonstrate outside the Waller County Jail, setting up improvised camps and playing songs, as they’ve been doing for the past month.
In July, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, apparently commited suicide inside the jail, 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, and there have been calls for a Justice Department investigation.
Bland’s death also sparked a heated conversation on social media — and inspired activists like the Rev. Hannah Bonner to brave the summer heat demanding answers.
“I’m a millennial, and so I do live in this social media generation,” Bonner says. “But I also understand the weaknesses of that, and one of those is an addiction to technology and also using technology as a placebo for actual action.”
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.
“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 a bachelor’s degree, which I happen to have,” Cauley says.
Residents of Hempstead — like Kyle Spears, 20 — have had mixed reactions to the vigil.
“If they start destroying stuff or being a nuisance, then it’s not good,” says Spears, who has 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.
“People here are just trying to live,” he says. “You got all these outsiders coming in, trying to do whatever. If it’s peaceful, that’s good. If not, then you get the hell out.”
Spears doesn’t like having his small town in the national spotlight. He only wants things back to normal.
But other people have welcomed the demonstrators. As Bonner stands strumming her guitar in front of the jail, Waller County resident Mary Dolen approaches her and bursts into tears, sharing her own concerns about local law enforcement.
“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,” Dolen says. “It’s people like me, too.”
By “people like me,” Dolen means white residents. Bonner says she’s had lots of encounters like this over the past month.
“It’s taken people some time of us sitting out here, and now that we’ve been out here long enough, it seems like our courage is giving other people courage to speak up.”
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.