Amid the bustling streets of Washington, D.C., in the midst of Monday morning traffic, a growing body of protesters could be heard for blocks.
“Change the game, time is coming! Change the game, we’re getting ready!” they sang.
The Reverend Jamal Bryant, pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, led just under 200 people in a peaceful assembly with a strident demand. They want the U.S. Department of Justice, under the direction of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, to take over the investigation into the death of Sandra Bland.
Bland, 28, was arrested several weeks ago after a routine traffic stop for assaulting a public servant and later found dead in her Waller County, Texas, cell from an alleged suicide.
“Over the last two weeks, six African-American women have died in police custody. And while we realize black men have already been targeted in mass incarceration it looks like the next in line are black women,” Bryant said. “Today we’ve assembled to take a stand not just for Sandra Bland, but for sisters that are under attack all over the country,” he said, standing shoulder-to-should with protestors holding hand written signs that read “I am Sandra Bland,” “I am Ralkina Jones” and “I am Sarah Lee Circle Bear” – signs listing the names of women of color who’ve died in recent weeks while in jail.
When asked what sort of response he anticipates receiving from Lynch, Bryant replied: “I am eager and expecting that with the assault on African-American women she will be able to identify and I expect that she will take action.”
“We are on the front line urging Lynch and the Department of Justice to stand with us. We have come to implore the Department of Justice to live up to its name,” said Bryant, 44.
Tamika Mallory, a community organizer for the Justice League New York, thanked Bryant for leading the protest. She recalled a phone conversation they had weeks ago when she called him crying hysterically after learning the details of Bland’s death and urged him to get involved.
Mallory says she’s more than a community organizer. She said she’s also a concerned activist committed to fighting for justice in cases of police brutality perpetrated against minorities.
“[Our organization] specifically works on police misconduct cases in New York,” she said. “In April 2015, we marched from New York to D.C. and even traveled to Baltimore when Freddie Gray died.”
“This is a very serious issue and something we have to stand up against,” Mallory added. “I am Sandra Bland. It could have been me, my mother, my sister or anyone of us at any time. We cannot stand by and watch what we know is a pattern where women are turning up dead in police custody. The Department of Justice needs to do what it says it does and protect every citizen and every human being the same.”
Protesters of all ages and social strata gathered for the rally. Reality TV celebrity Yandy Smith-Harris of “Love & Hip Hop New York” traveled from New York to the District seeking justice for Bland and the five other women who’ve died while in police custody in recent weeks.
“I’m not here as a celebrity,” she said. “I’m here because I’m tired. I’m here because I have questions. I’m here because I want my questions answered and they haven’t been. I’m here because there are so many inadequacies that I don’t understand and I just want to know why. And because no one is telling me why or feels like they have to answer my questions. I have a problem with that too.”
Noticeably present were a number of mothers with very young daughters under the age of five.
Shay Miller, a resident of Northeast, said she felt it important to bring her one-year-old daughter Eva to stand in solidarity with Bryant and other demonstrators seeking justice.
“As a Black woman in this era I feel like my voice should be heard. I feel like if my voice isn’t heard I’m not standing for anything,” Miller said.
Willie Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, shared his disappointment with the Department of Justice’s inaction in cases like Bland’s that have gained national attention.
“The federal government has failed to do its job and in many instances it has failed to prosecute [those responsible] for causing the deaths of black men and women,” he said.
Near the end of the protest, Bryant issued a statement to the 2016 presidential candidates, urging them to adopt justice reform as part of their platforms to gain favor among African-American and Latino voters.
“If you can’t understand the importance of the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ then you won’t matter to us,” he said. “We need all elected officials to be accountable – not just the Republicans, but every Democratic candidate also.”
“Please know this election cycle you will not take the Black and Latino vote for granted. We need to hear about policies, laws, justice reform and what you will do about police who are corrupt and feel like they can handle Black and Latino people any kind of way. At this moment, here are your options – justice or else,” Bryant concluded.