Sandra Bland won’t just go away.
She spent the final years of her life as an outspoken civil rights activist, spreading the word about racial injustice and police brutality. Even in death, she won’t stop talking.
When it appeared that suspicions surrounding her alleged suicidal hanging in a Texas jail cell in 2015 had been put to rest, she forced us this week to reconsider and ask more questions.
Police dashboard camera video released four years ago showed us what happened that afternoon in southeast Texas, when state Trooper Brian Encinia pulled over the 28-year-old African-American woman for failing to signal a lane change.
The footage authorities released in the weeks following Bland’s arrest and death documented how the routine traffic stop escalated after she refused the trooper’s demand to put out her cigarette.
Until now, the story had been told entirely from the officer’s vantage point. Last week, video taken from Bland’s cellphone was made public.
The short video shows a calm and controlled young woman at the mercy of an increasingly agitated officer towering over her with a Taser pointed in her face and yelling, “Get out of the car. I will light you up. Get out. Now.”
There is no indication that the trooper feared for his life, as he contended. There’s no reason to think that Bland posed a threat to him. The cellphone was already in her hand when he swung opened the car door, contradicting his claim that she was reaching for something.
If anything, the new footage raises more questions about why Bland was hauled off to jail to begin with. It shows that the only person who was a threat that day was Encinia. The one who should have been afraid for her life was Bland. Three days later, she was found hanged in a jail cell. Authorities ruled it a suicide.
Close to home
I am thrilled that Bland won’t shut up and go away. I am Sandra Bland. Every African-American woman is.
Black women, in particular, cannot allow her story to be silenced. We cannot allow this tragedy that exemplifies the bottom-tier justice Black women often receive go unchallenged. We cannot do what everyone seems to want us to do – forget about it and move on.
It is easy to imagine how terrified she must have been that day. Sure, she was talking tough, but as an advocate against police brutality, she was well aware that such confrontations with law enforcement officials often don’t end well for Black people.
Gender doesn’t matter
And while Black men most often are the targets, there have been enough cases in recent years to know that Black women can face the same fate.
Rekia Boyd was hanging out with friends when Chicago police killed her. Charleena Lyles, of Seattle, was pregnant with her fourth child when police shot her to death after she summoned them to her home for a burglary. Seven-year-old Aiyana StanleyJones was sleeping when police barged into her home in Detroit looking for a murder suspect and ended up shooting her. There are many others.
Some argue in the trooper’s defense that Bland should have kept quiet, that she should have acted more respectful toward him. They still place all of the blame for what happened upon her. They refuse to acknowledge how disrespectful he was to her, or to hold him accountable for his part in escalating the situation.
As in most confrontations involving African-Americans and law enforcement officials, Bland became the offender and Encinia the victim. She knew that she couldn’t trust authorities or their dashboard cameras to tell the truth. That’s why she refused to put her cellphone down, even when the trooper demanded it.
Four years after her death, we know that she was right to keep recording.
Though a grand jury failed to indict Encinia on criminal charged related to Bland’s death, it did recommend perjury charges for lying about the events leading up to Bland’s arrest. The trooper was fired.
Bland’s family has never bought the suicide claims. They insist that there is more to Bland’s death than what they have been told.
The family’s attorneys said the cellphone video was never turned over to them for use in the federal lawsuit they settled with the Texas Department of Public Safety, but state officials insist that it was.
After seeing the 39-second footage obtained by a news reporter, Bland’s family wants the investigation into her arrest and death to be reopened. They want to know if there was a cover-up and if other evidence has been hidden. Several presidential candidates, including Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke, both of Texas, have joined the call. Many other voices have joined in, too.
But it is Sandra Bland leading the call. She spoke directly to us through her cellphone video. Justice can only be served if we pay attention to what she has to say.
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.