An ordained pastor with the United Methodist Church has been keeping a daily vigil outside the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and County Jail, where Sandra Bland died under disputed circumstances last month. On Monday, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith let pastor Hannah Bonner know how he feels about her vigil by telling the pastor that she should “go back to the church of Satan that you run.”
Bonner recorded the Monday-afternoon exchange, along with a later conversation with the sheriff.
“We were sitting out there, as we have been, fiddling around with a guitar,” Bonner told The Washington Post on Tuesday. As she and other protesters sat there, Bonner said, Smith came out of the jail; he was, she said, “clearly aggravated and looking for something to do.”
Eventually, as seen on Bonner’s video, the sheriff approached the pastor and asked: “You need a business card?”
“We know your name, sir,” she replied.
“Why don’t you go back to the church of Satan that you run?” Smith said before walking into the jail lobby.
“Oh, that was great, thank you,” Bonner said.
The exchange was the first testy interaction between Bonner and the sheriff, she said. Officers, including Smith, had previously engaged in playful banter with the pastor and a small group of protesters who have come to the jail daily since July 15 — two days after Bland was found dead in her cell at the county jail. The protesters were even able to use the jail’s lobby restrooms as needed without incident, Bonner said.
Bonner told The Post that her purpose at the jail is to “be respectful but to also ask the questions that need to be asked.”
An autopsy and an investigation into Bland’s death have ruled her death a suicide by hanging, though Bland’s family and some activists say her death and the coroner’s and district attorney’s conclusions are suspicious. Earlier this month, Bland’s family sued the sheriff’s office, along with the state law enforcement agency and officer who arrested her during what began as a routine traffic stop days before her death.
Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman, was arrested after a Texas state trooper threatened her with a stun gun while ordering her to leave her vehicle. In the lawsuit, her family says that the officer violated Bland’s constitutional rights during the arrest, and that the jail failed to adequately monitor her while in custody, or to provide adequate medical treatment.
Bonner said she is holding vigil every day because, she said, “I just want people to know that Sandy still speaks; her voice can’t be silenced.”
A spokesman for the Waller County Sheriff’s office did not return multiple e-mailed requests for comment Tuesday about the interaction with Bonner. Calls placed by The Post to the sheriff’s office automatically disconnected Tuesday. An e-mail sent to the sheriff’s office’s catch-all account for complaints and compliments returned an automatic out-of-office message containing a statement from Smith that does not directly address his remarks to Bonner.
According to Bonner, after the initial confrontation with Smith on Monday, the sheriff came back outside the jail, took a photo of her license plate and another of her face.
In a second video Bonner posted on Monday, Smith is seen observing the area around the jail’s entrance. Another protester asks Smith why he is taking pictures. His reply: “Just intelligence.” The protester responds that it feels “more like intimidation.”
“I hate that you feel that,” Smith says, adding: “It’s been a real peaceful, good three weeks.”
The two engage in a lengthy, cordial discussion over how the sheriff has treated her group, during which it becomes clear that the sheriff believes Bonner had a role in a tense protest the day before, on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Mo. During that protest, a large group packed the jail’s lobby and chanted in support of Bland until law enforcement officials pushed the protesters outside.
Bonner told The Post she had been present at an earlier Sunday rally outside the jail, but did not enter the facilities with the smaller group after the rally ended.
The sheriff’s office said in a statement posted to Facebook that the Sunday protest “interrupted our dispatch office to the point that everyday calls could not be heard,” and that the office considered the protests “a direct threat to public safety [and] not a peaceful assembly.” The statement said that four officers were injured while removing protesters from the premises. It did not address Smith’s remarks to Bonner.
“Yesterday, I sort of saw the difference in what y’all are promoting,” Smith told the protester in the second Monday-afternoon video. “We gotta look at each one of y’all here,” he added.
When the protester told Smith that no one from their group was involved in the action that spilled inside the jail on Sunday, Smith replied: “She is, the church of Satan lady right there.”
“None of us were in there,” Bonner told him.
Smith then said that before the protest began, “she was out here provoking” — again referring to Bonner.
“What did I do to provoke?” Bonner asked repeatedly. The sheriff replied that things would be different at the jail the following day.
As Bonner spoke by phone with The Post on Tuesday, she arrived at the jail, as she has every day for nearly a month. Waiting for her, she said, were the Rev. David Israel Madison, an AME pastor, and Ashton Woods, whom Bonner described as an “atheist ally.”
There was also a surprise from the sheriff’s office.
“Oh, wow,” Bonner said over the phone. She explained that the sheriff’s office had set up barriers around the area where she has been sitting every day.
Although Bonner intends to continue her protest outside the jail, she is now concerned that the environment under which she is doing that will be less safe for her and her friends.
“The rumor has been spread in this community that two officers were shot” during the protests, Bonner said. The rumors, she believes, are intended to “intentionally raise the danger for me.”
Soon after Bonner arrived on Tuesday, she paused her interview with The Post to speak with two women who, she said, were approaching her in a car outside the jail. After the exchange — which The Post could not hear — Bonner said: “They said to me, ‘please be careful.'”
“Two local women are terrified for my life right now,” Bonner said. She added, “That was pretty extreme how upset they were.”
The small group of protesters ended up sitting under a tree near the jail’s entrance on Tuesday, with their normal spot now off-limits. Soon after they left the parking lot, Bonner wrote on Instagram, that tree was “cut down.”
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the national body of the United Methodist Church said the organization had nothing to add.
[This story, first published on August 11, has been updated]