Blow and Kristof

In “Questions About the Sandra Bland Case” Mr. Blow says that when there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.  In “Starvation as a Product of War” Mr. Kristof says there’s a looming famine in South Sudan. What’s needed most isn’t food, but an end to the civil war.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I have so many questions about the case in which Sandra Bland was arrested in a small Texas town and died in police custody. These are questions that ought to be easy to answer, questions that I suspect many others may share. Here are just some of my areas of inquiry.

1. On the video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety of Bland’s traffic stop, the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, tells her that the reason for her stop is that she “failed to signal a lane change.” The officer returns to his car, then approaches Bland’s vehicle a second time. He remarks to Bland, “You seem very irritated.” Bland responds, “I am. I really am.” She continues, “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little bit irritated.”

Was Bland simply trying to move out of the way of a police vehicle?

The video shows the officer’s car accelerating behind Bland’s and passing a sign indicating a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. How fast was the officer closing the distance on Bland before she changed lanes? Was it completely reasonable for her to attempt to move out of his way?

2. The officer, while standing at the closed driver’s side door, asks Bland to extinguish her cigarette. As soon as she refuses, he demands that she exit the vehicle. Was the demand to exit because of the refusal? If so, what statute in Texas — or anywhere in America! — stipulates that a citizen can’t smoke during a traffic stop?

3. According to Encinia’s signed affidavit, Bland was “removed from the car” and “placed in handcuffs for officer safety.” The reason for the arrest is unclear to me. At one point, Encinia says, “You were getting a warning until now you’re going to jail.” So, what was the arrest for at that point? Failure to comply? Later in the video, Encinia says, “You’re going to jail for resisting arrest.” If that was the reason, why wasn’t Bland charged with resisting arrest? The affidavit reads, “Bland was placed under arrest for Assault on Public Servant.”

Encinia’s instructions to Bland are a jumble of confusion. After she is handcuffed, he points for her to “come read” the “warning” ticket, then immediately pulls back on her arm, preventing her from moving in the direction that he pointed, now demanding that she “stay right here.” He then commands Bland to “stop moving,” although, as she points out, “You keep moving me!” What was she supposed to do?

4. According to Encinia’s affidavit, at some point after being handcuffed, “Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin.” On the dashcam video, a commotion happens out of view of the camera, with Bland complaining that she is being hurt — “You’re about to break my wrist!” and “You knocked my head in the ground; I got epilepsy!” Encinia and another officer insist that Bland stop moving. Encinia can be heard to say, “You are yanking around! When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest!” (Neither the dashcam video nor a video taken by a bystander shows a discernible kick.)

When Encinia re-enters the frame of the dashcam, he explains to a female officer: “She started yanking away, then kicked me, so I took her straight to the ground.” The female officer points to Encinia’s leg as she says: “Yeah, and there you got it right there.”

Encinia says, “One thing for sure, it’s on video.” Only, it isn’t. Why exactly was Bland walked out of the frame of view of the dashcam for the arrest procedure?

5. The initial video posted by Texas authorities also has a number of visual glitches — vanishing cars, looping sequences — but no apparent audio glitches.

The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, tweeted: “I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut. Read/watch. Why?” She included a link to a post pointing out the discrepancies in the video.

According to NBC News:

“Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, blamed a ‘technical issue during posting.’ He said that the department was working to correct the video.”

What kinds of “technical difficulties” were these? Why wouldn’t the audio also have glitches? (Authorities have now released a new, slightly shorter video.)

6. Texas authorities say that, while in the Waller County jail cell, Bland used a trash bag from a trash can in the cell to hang herself. Is it standard procedure to have trash cans with trash bags in jail cells? Is the can secured to the floor? If not, couldn’t it be used by an inmate to hurt herself, or other inmates or jail staff?

According to a report on Wednesday by The Houston Chronicle:

“Bland disclosed on a form at the jail that she previously had attempted suicide over that past year, although she also indicated she was not feeling suicidal at the time of her arrest, according to officials who attended the Tuesday meeting with local and state leaders investigating the case.” Shouldn’t they have known it was a suicide risk?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that suicide is the No. 1 cause of non-illness-related deaths in local jails (although blacks are least likely to commit those suicides), and between 2000 and 2011 about half of those suicides “occurred within the first week of admission.”

Why weren’t more precautions taken, like, oh, I don’t know, removing any suicide risks from the cell?

7. Houston’s Channel 2 aired “exclusive video from inside the Waller County jail cell where Sandra Bland was found dead.” In the video, a trash can — a very large one — is clearly visible. But, strangely, it appears to have a trash bag in it. If Bland used the trash bag to hang herself, where did the one in the can come from? Did they replace it? Why would the jail staff do that?

8. NBC News’ John Yang also toured the cell, and in his video he says that “things are really the same as it was that morning” when officers found Bland’s body, including food (“Dinner Untouched” was the language used in title of the video on NBCNews.com) and a Bible on the bed opened to Psalms. (That Bible appears to be closed in the Channel 2 video. Who opened it between the two videos?).

And what page is the Bible opened to in the NBC video? It is open to Psalm 119 and at the top of the page are verses 109-110: “Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.” Eerie. Or, convenient.

Also in the Channel 2 video, there are orange shoes on the floor by the bed. In the NBC video, they are gone. Who moved them? Why? Where are they?

Yang says of the trash bag in the can: “Around her neck, they say, was a trash bag, an extra trash bag from this receptacle.” So what gives here? “Extra trash bag”? Was there more than one trash bag in the cell or had that one been replaced?

(It is also worth noting that the video shows what appears to be a rope holding a shower curtain.)

Isn’t this an active investigation? Shouldn’t that cell be treated like a crime scene? Why are reporters allowed to wander through it? Who all has been in it?

Maybe there are innocent and convincing answers to all these questions, and others. I hope so. People need things to make sense. When there are lapses in logic in what people think would be reasonable explanations, suspicion spreads.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Aweil, South Sudan:

One gauge of the famine looming in South Sudan is that people are simply collapsing from hunger.

As I was driving into this city, a woman was lying inert on the road. She was Nyanjok Garang, and she said she hadn’t eaten for three days. She had set out to look for work, maybe washing clothes, in hopes of keeping her two children alive. After a day of fruitless walking she had collapsed.

“My children are hungry,” she said. “I’m hungry. There’s not even a cent left to buy bread.” Her husband is a soldier in the government forces fighting in South Sudan’s civil war, but she doesn’t even know if he is still alive. So she left her children with a neighbor and set out in hopes of finding work — “and then I blacked out.”

A horrific famine enveloped what is now South Sudan in 1988, and there are some signs that this year could see a repeat. As in 1988, weather has led to poor harvests on top of civil war that has made it difficult to plant crops and move food around the country.

President Obama will be focusing on the South Sudan civil war in his trip starting Thursday night to Kenya and Ethiopia, both neighbors to South Sudan. The war is not only a military crisis but also ahumanitarian catastrophe, which makes it all the more important to step up efforts to bring about peace.

You might think that what’s needed to end a famine is food. Actually, what’s essential above all is an international push of intensive diplomacy and targeted sanctions to reach a compromise peace deal and end the civil war. Yes, Obama has plenty on his plate already, but no other country has the leverage America does. And in peace, South Sudan can care for itself. But as long as the war continues, South Sudanese will face starvation — especially women and girls.

The gender dynamics of hunger are obvious: In Aweil, the hospital ward is full of skeletal women and girls, looking like concentration camp survivors. That’s because (as in many places around the world) when food is insufficient, families allocate it to men and boys, and women and girls disproportionately starve.

One 15-year-old girl in the hospital, Rebecca Athian, was so malnourished that her bones pushed through her skin and she had a measure of anemia (a hemoglobin level of 3) that in the West is pretty much unheard-of. Yet the hospital was now forced to discharge her to make way for new patients.

Rebecca has already lost two siblings in the last year, and although the causes of death were never fully determined, it’s a good guess that they were malnutrition-related. Her mother would like to marry Rebecca off, because it would then be her husband’s duty to feed her and keep her alive. But she says Rebecca has been raped, so men are unwilling to marry her.

The United Nations says 4.6 million people in South Sudan — more than one-third of the population — are “severely food insecure,” and the situation will deteriorate in the coming months because the next major harvest won’t come until October or November. Until then, there is nothing to eat.

“It is the first time we’ve seen so many cases like this,” said Dr. Dut Pioth, the acting director of the hospital. “It’s going to be like what we saw in 1988.”

Dr. Dut was 11 years old during that famine, and he remembers some relatives starving to death. His family fled to Khartoum, where he thrived in school and attended medical school. But he is frustrated because what patients often need now isn’t so much medical care, but rather food and peace.

To see starving children is particularly wrenching. They show no emotions: They do not cry or smile or frown, but simply gaze blankly, their bodies unwilling to waste a calorie on emotion when every iota of energy must go to keep major organs functioning.

It’s striking that this area of South Sudan is not directly affected by fighting; it’s calm here. But the hunger is still war-related, for the conflict is keeping food and supplies out. The road from the capital, Juba, has been blocked by fighting, and disputes with Sudan have closed the border to the north. So this area is cut off, prices are skyrocketing, jobs are disappearing, and ordinary workers can’t afford to buy food.

The only certainty is that it will get worse in the coming months, and the women and girls who die will be war casualties. “Those who are dying of gunshots,” Dr. Dut notes, “are fewer than those who are dying of hunger.”

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