On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland died in Waller County Jail. The dashcam video of her apprehension and arrest, which had taken place three days earlier, went viral. It captures every second of the verbal violence and physical brutality she experienced at the hands of (former) Texas Department of Public Safety Officer Brian Encinia. It also reveals how she boldly expressed her rights and dignity as a Black woman by contesting Encinia’s provocations. “What’s wrong?” he pointedly asked. “You ok?” He then acidly replied, “Are you done [talking]?” He continued to push: “You mind putting out your cigarette, please?” When Bland insisted that she could smoke a cigarette in her car, and asked why she was being arrested, Encinia grabbed her, pulled her out of the car, drew his Taser, and screamed, “I will light you up!”
Encinia’s escalation of the traffic stop set in motion an arrest that shouldn’t have happened; it produced an unnecessary incarceration that resulted in another needless death of a Black woman while in the state’s care. Her death and the protest movement that bears her name, has become a signature event in the era of Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName.
For the last four years, the rehearsal of these painful images of Bland’s traffic stop have produced profound lamentation and have dominated how she’s remembered. The recently released footage from her own phone documents Encinia’s escalation, confirming that contrary to his claims, Encinia’s life was never in danger during the entire traffic stop. The new footage prompted calls to reopen the investigation into Bland’s death. It also reopened deep wounds. “Despite all of the work I’ve done over the past four years to piece myself back together after her untimely death, I became unraveled as I was reminded of what I’ve always known,” Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper recently wrote.
“My sister died because a police officer saw her as a threatening black woman rather than human.”
In the four years since her untimely death, Bland’s family, activists, scholars, and advocates have reminded the world that she was a human being — that she’s more than the dashcam footage that recorded her fighting for her life; that she still deserves justice. This is why Cooper’s words bear repeating: Sandra Bland was not a threat. She was a human being. Sandra Bland was a human being. She was a confident, caring, engaging, and educated 28-year-old Black woman. She had a right to smile, to cry, to laugh, to love, to hug, to be hugged, to show love and be loved, and to simply breathe and exist in space and time — unbothered and unaccosted. Her own “Sandy Speaks” videos reveal this profoundly and powerfully.
Recalling key developments of activism and advocacy in Bland’s case throughout the last four years reminds us of how her family, friends, and supporters reiterated her humanity in the face of state violence against Black people. For example, Bland’s family asked #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland by filing a wrongful death lawsuit in August 2015. They continued to do so even when they settled the lawsuit in September 2016. Activists proclaimed Bland’s humanity in the days and weeks following her death by remembering her words during an 80-day prayer vigil at Waller County Jail, including a Day of Remembrance and Response on August 9, 2015–the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Artists literally painted her words on protests signs: “Do what you can to be a positive light in someone’s life” and “If we want change we can truly make it happen,” which is a quote from a January 15, 2015 video in which she also stated, “I’m here to change history…. I can’t do this by myself. I need you.” I need you. The truth is, Sandra still needs us to #SayHerName.
Bland’s family proclaimed her humanity at Justice or Else in October of 2015, the 20th-anniversary event for the Million Man March. Activists called for justice in December 2015 when a Waller County grand jury returned no indictments against Waller County Jail officials. They repeated the refrain when, after a Waller County grand jury charged Encinia with perjury in January 2016 for lying about what happened during the traffic stop, a Waller County judge dismissed the case against him in exchange for him never serving in law enforcement again.
In January 2016 when the Congressional Black Caucus demanded an investigation into her death. A week later Sandra’s sister Shante Needham — keeping a long-standing tradition of putting white supremacy on trial in the court of world opinion — testified before a United Nations working group about the pathology of anti-Black state violence that killed Bland. That same month scholars and activists from Houston launched SandySpeakOn.com as well as the Sandra Bland Social Justice Scholarship at Prairie View A&M University.
Meanwhile, Bland’s family testified to her humanity in April 2016 at the official unveiling of Sandra Bland Parkway in Waller County, Texas, where her mother Geneva Reed-Veal demanded an end to police violence against Black women. Three months later on the one-year anniversary of her death, a “She Speaks” gathering at the site of Bland’s arrest and apprehension featured artistic performances, poetry, and song. She Speaks inaugurated a 64-hour sit-in at Waller County Jail, a direct action protest that lasted the length of time Bland was unjustly incarcerated.
That fall, after a chance meeting with Bland’s family in a Washington, DC restaurant, then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said her name during a debate. Then, as one of the Mothers of the Movement, Sandra’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal kept Sandra’s name in the national spotlight later in the campaign.
“So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she said. “Sandy can still speak through her momma!”
The following year in 2017, Ms. Reed-Veal testified in Austin — before the Texas governor signed the Sandra Bland Act (SB 1849) into law — that had police officers treated people with dignity and respect as human beings, her daughter would still be alive. The bill, first proposed by Texas state legislator Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), called for stronger police accountability. While SB 1849 lacked police accountability provisions that many desired, it did create mechanisms focused on the mental health of incarcerated persons.
Online various scholars and writers have commemorated Bland’s life by featuring visual artwork, music, poetry, and wide-ranging commentary on the ongoing need for justice in her case. Filmmakers recorded Awaken the Voice, a locally-produced video documentary of Prairie View A&M students that featured young Black women Bland influenced to work for social justice. In early 2018 just before the release of the HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, the Houston Museum of African American Culture hosted a Sandra Bland exhibit.
These are just some of the diverse ways that Bland’s supporters have reminded us during the last four years that she was a human being, Sandra told us herself in the “Sandy Speaks” video blogs she recorded between January and April of 2015. In over 20 videos, she presents her personality and her evolving thoughts about life, politics, religion, and history. She displays her deep commitment to making the world a more just and equitable place.
To mark the four years since Sandra Bland’s death, rather than rehearse the trauma of the dashcam video, we should listen to Sandra through the digital resurrection of her own words. She encouraged us to explore Black history. “Y’all, our history is so rich and deep, but it is up to us to find it, and share it. It is not just Black history… it is American history… my kings and queens, let’s get to work. I’m ready. What about you?” she asked on February 21, 2015. In her April 8, 2015 message, she called us to put that knowledge into practice: “Show me in American history where all lives have mattered…. Show me where there has been liberty and justice for all…. White people, if all lives mattered, would there need to be a hashtag for Black lives mattering? Think about that…. I am into building up my kings and queens. So for me, Black lives matter…. Take it or leave it. Sandy Speaks.”
Bland recorded over 100 minutes of Sandy Speaks. Compare this to the 55-minute dashcam video of her arrest and apprehension. Yet, the dashcam footage receives the lion’s share of attention instead of the video messages she curated. Meditate on the simple yet profound reminder her sister Sharon offered: Sandra Bland was a human being. And Sandy still speaks.
About the Author
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.