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In Life and After Her Death, Sandra Bland Taught Others About Activism

“She had a way of giving you a blueprint on how to dig yourself out of it and how to turn that rage into something that is purposeful and impactful," says her sister Sharon Cooper in an interview with Broadly.

by Syreeta McFadden
Dec 7 2018, 9:22pm

Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

In the months prior to her death, Sandra Bland began making short videos speaking her truth to power and sharing them directly to Facebook. “I’m here to change to history,” Bland declared in her first recording in early January 2015. Here, the audience sees Bland up close and unvarnished, yet confident and resolute-looking directly at you, “This thing I’m holding in my hand, this telephone, this camera, is quite powerful.”

In the new HBO Original Documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premiered on Monday, audiences are re-introduced to Sandra Bland in her own voice, using archival video from her personal activist project “Sandy Speaks.” Bland’s own voice frames her story in the hands of filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner who juxtapose it against the larger mystery surrounding her death in a Waller County, Texas jail—and a local justice system bent on absolving itself of all responsibility for the placing her there in the first place.

On July 10, 2015, Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation (failure to signal a lane change) by then Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian T. Encinia. Dashcam video presented a tense exchange between Bland and Encinia. An audibly irritated Bland asked questions regarding the cause for the stop as an even more irritable, then aggressive, Encinia escalated the encounter, forcing Bland out of her car, then pushing her head to the ground. In a separate video recorded by a bystander, we see Bland in handcuffs thanking the cameraperson as she is escorted into a squad car that would take her to a Waller County jail. It is the last instance we would hear Bland’s voice. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her holding cell. She was 28 years old.

We think we know her story. For Bland’s sisters, Sharon Cooper and Shanté Needham, the documentary successfully renders a complete portrait of their sister, a woman who had always had a voice and had honed that voice growing up in a household of five sisters—women—who are all outspoken.

“This documentary humanizes her,” said Needham to Broadly in a recent phone interview. “That she was a person. She was loved. She was my mother’s daughter. She was a sister. She was aunt. She was a cousin. She was just loved by very nice church family… along with several different friend and people who were following her before we knew they were following her ‘Sandy Speaks’ videos.”

Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland now joins a canon of documentaries released over the last three years that center local stories of the most visible cases in the movement for Black lives. This feature-length documentary is the first of these narratives that centers on an African American woman’s death at the hands of police. These victims, whose names are recited in protests like rosaries, serve as proxies in the long struggle to reform policies of policing and criminal justice writ large.

However, notably African American women, who coined the term that became a movement—Black Lives Matter—and often are on the front lines of protest and civic action in confronting state violence against Black communities, are too often invisible (or worse, ignored) when they themselves are victims from national attention and fervor of protests. In early 2015, the African American Policy Forum launched a social media campaign, #SayHerName and released a report drawing attention to the acute experiences of state violence by Black women.

The greater impact of documentaries like these aims to correct the narrative, to humanize the beloved, whose image and very personhood has been distorted in the public imagination.

Davis and Heilbroner attempt to reconstruct a clear line of events leading up Bland’s death and its aftermath while balancing the story of two Blands—the Sandy her family knew against a version that Waller County officials constructed. County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith and District Attorney Elton Mathis, in interviews, methodically recount a tale of a woman unrecognizable to her family and friends, of a woman who was terrified, abandoned by her family, aggravated, and unstable whom they believed took her own life.

Yet, details presented in the film complicate their neat explanation. Bland had been in touch with her family to secure bail. Bland recently secured a job with her alma mater Prairie View A&M University. And there is still the matter of her modest activist project, “Sandy Speaks” which show an energized woman offering insight to all within earshot. Still, national media from the onset, abstracted Bland, readily consuming Texas official accounts at face value. The film underscores the problem that families face in their quest for answers in these tragedies—that they are constantly racing against the law enforcement’s account, fighting to preserve the humanity of their lives in the public record.

“I think that whether or not it was their intent, I think they did an excellent job of showing their inability to do their role effectively,” Cooper said of Waller County officials in a phone interview with Broadly. “I think that they validated the doubt that was cast upon the information they were sharing with us. I just think that they presented themselves in a way that was inconsistent with things that were shared with us previously.”

County officials, in the family’s view, were duplicitous and not transparent. County officials neglected to contact Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, listed as her next of kin. She learned of her youngest daughter’s death through a phone call by a relative. At one moment, viewers recognize the startling symmetries between Reed-Veal, a Black mother from Chicago bringing back the body of her dead child from some small southern town as Mamie Till did sixty years ago.

“I think that why people will resonate with the film is that they will very much see themselves in Sandy. Specifically, Black women,” Cooper said. “They will see their mother or their aunt or their sister or their sister-friend, who they’ve had conversations with.”

With “Sandy Speaks," Bland had quietly built a following through her social media. Activated by the movement for Black lives—where in the year preceding she witnessed sustained activism and mounting political pressure nationwide— Bland wanted to confront what felt like a pandemic of deaths of unarmed African American civilians at the hands of police. In the summer of 2014, the high-profile killings of John Crawford III in Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City, and teen Michael Brown in Missouri brought the issue of police brutality to a bubbling forefront. There were protests and demands for accountability, if not punishment, for police officers who killed. Yet, for Bland, her intention in generating video posts were to speak directly to people traumatized by racialized violence between communities of color and police.

As part of her own re-education on matters of police reform and social justice, Bland researched these issues, presented to her church’s pastor in Chicago with a two-and-half-inch binder containing that research on police brutality. She said she had found her calling.

“She had a way of giving you a blueprint on how to dig yourself out of it and how to turn that rage into something that is purposeful and impactful,” Cooper said.

While no one would be held criminally liable for Bland’s death, Encinia and Waller County Sheriff’s officials made a settlement with Bland’s family for $1.9 million in a civil suit. In 2017, the Texas State legislature passed the Sandra Bland Act, a mental health mandate for treatment and bond provisions, that called for an independent investigation of jail deaths of the mentally ill. But the law eliminated many key provisions, namely the most important condition for the family, which was statewide de-escalation training for law enforcement officers. Cooper, in 2017, called the deletions “gut-wrenching.”

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“What’s a bill with her name attached to it, if the very thing [that's not addressed] is the reason she is no longer here,” Needham said. To this end, the family plans to continue to work with local activists to advocate for a new state law to include training.

For the family, the answer regarding Bland’s death remains unsettled. For Needham, it is a condition she is resigned to accept, “I think, unfortunately, we have to move past that because we will never get those answers unless some good ol’ old person, by time, gets close to 90 [years old and] decides that they don’t want to go on with this truth that they’ve been holding in since 2015.” Her answer echoes the resignation of surviving family members of lynchings, who wait in vain in many instances for truth or consciousness of white people to reveal that had been known and hidden from view.

What remains clear is that Sandra Bland likely would be alive today, had she not been pulled over in the first place, and further, if Encinia had not escalated the stop and issued a warning instead. Bland’s arrest, incarceration, and death are all ensnared in an interconnected justice system where too many actors still harbor implicit biases. This fact is underscored in the film as activist, Hannah Brommer, reaches her—and by extension viewers—logical conclusion, “Therefore, racism killed Sandra Bland.”