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Sandra Bland’s mother wants you to know the other black women who died in police custody

Geneva Reed-Veal speaks at the 2016 Tina Brown Live Media's American Justice Summit at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre on January 29, 2016, in New York City.
Geneva Reed-Veal speaks at the 2016 Tina Brown Live Media's American Justice Summit at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre on January 29, 2016, in New York City.
Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Nearly a year ago, 28-year-old Sandra Bland's mysterious death while in police custody captured the country’s attention. Now Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is raising awareness about other black daughters whose deaths escaped widespread media attention.

Reed-Veal spoke during a symposium last Thursday hosted by the new Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, established by three members of Congress in March to eliminate "significant barriers and disparities experienced by Black women" through public policy, they said in a press release.

Event speakers included Melissa Harris-Perry and Beverly Bond of Black Girls Rock. But Reed-Veal’s statement hit a nerve as she used her platform not simply to discuss her own pain but to bring attention to the ongoing problems black women face in the criminal justice system:

Let’s get something straight. I, as a mother, do not believe she committed suicide. I will say that until it’s proven. But if you want me to believe that my daughter—that I sent down there sitting up, driving her own vehicle—would be sent home in a capsule in the bottom of a plane with luggage on top of her, that I’m going to shut up? I will not. I will not. I will continue to speak for every mother paralyzed because of the loss of their child. Six, and Google them. I’m looking at your phones. Take two minutes and Google the other six that died in jail. We’re not talking about that year, we’re talking about the month of July.

This is a moving point that puts black women at the center of the ongoing police brutality debates. Reed-Veal's own daughter was taken into custody on July 10, 2015, following an argument over a minor traffic violation in Texas. Three days later she was found dead in her jail cell, and the county coroner classified her death as a suicide.

A grand jury chose not to indict anyone in her death, but Bland's name rang out in the streets and on social media channels, prompting the viral hashtags #IfIDieInPoliceCustody and #WhatHappenedToSandraBland.

But as Reed-Veal noted, there are many black women whose final hours in police custody remain mysterious. The women, who, like Bland, died in July 2015, include:

  • Kindra Chapman, 18, July 14: Chapman was arrested in Alabama after allegedly stealing a cellphone. She was found dead less than two hours after being placed in a cell. Her death was also ruled a suicide.
  • Alexis McGovern, 28, July 17: McGovern died while in custody at the St. Louis City Justice Center. Officials say the woman experienced a "medical emergency" shortly before her scheduled release and was taken to the medical infirmary. McGovern was later pronounced dead. Though she was not black, her death has been memorialized by local activists concerned with treatment and safety in jails and prisons.

  • Joyce Curnell, 50, July 22: Curnell was arrested for shoplifting in South Carolina and detained in a Charleston County jail. She had been taken to a hospital for a medical issue before being transported to the jail. The next day she was found dead.
  • Ralkina Jones, 37, July 26: That Friday, the Cleveland, Ohio, mother was arrested following a domestic dispute with her husband. On Saturday Jones was reportedly treated for several medical issues in the hospital. Hospital attendants evaluated and released Jones that same night, but by 7:30 am the next day she was found dead in her cell.
  • Raynette Turner, 43, July 27: Turner was found dead in her holding cell while waiting to be arraigned for shoplifting. The day before, Turner reportedly complained about not feeling well and was taken to a medical center, but was later returned to her cell. She left behind eight children and a husband of 23 years.

There have been efforts to track incidents of police brutality against black women, though an exact figure has yet to be determined. Still, a number of publicized altercations between black women and police highlight a disturbing problem. Most notably in January, a former Oklahoma City officer was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting eight black women while on duty — though he was accused by 13 different women.

Beyond physical violence from officers, black women generally face a host of troubling realities in the US. Data shows that black women are more than twice as likely as white women to be locked up in federal and state prisons.

Given the pervasiveness of these issues, there’s no better time to focus on the needs of one the country’s most vulnerable communities.

Correction: Reed-Veal's statement to the Congressional Caucus inferred Alexis McGovern was one of six black women who died in police custody in July 2015.