Five years ago, on July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland was found dead by apparent suicide in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Bland died only three days after she was pulled over for a routine traffic stop, at the tail end of her drive from Illinois to Texas to start a new job. Her death came during a time of extreme tension between police officers and the Black community: Freddie Gray and Natasha McKenna had died five months prior while in police custody; Tamir Rice and Mike Brown had been gunned down by officers the year before.
The circumstances surrounding Bland's death remain unclear, with many people doubting that she died by suicide, and wondering why she was taken into custody at all. In the years since Bland's death, activists have made a point to use the rallying cry "Say Her Name" to honour Bland, and to make sure that her life and legacy will remain a big part of the movement to end police brutality and racial injustice.
On July 10, 2015, Bland was pulled over by now-former Officer Brian Encinia for not signalling a lane change. Their interaction was captured by a 52-minute-long recording from Encinia's vehicle's dash camera; it showed the officer angrily confronting Bland, pointing a Taser at her, and yelling for her to get out of her vehicle and threatening to “light [her] up.”
That dash cam footage was shocking, and it was the only video of the traffic stop made available to the public until four years after Bland's death, when a cell phone video of the stop taken by Bland herself was revealed, offering a whole new horrifying look at the encounter.
The 39-second footage from Bland's phone, which had been previously held by investigators, shows Encinia clearly holding a taser directly up to Bland's face while speaking to her. Throughout the video, he repeatedly tells Bland — who was only pulled over for failing to signal that she was changing lanes — to cease filming, which she refuses to do because the phone is “[her] property.”
Encinia is shown being combative and threatening, and the video made clear that the former officer’s declaration that his “safety was in jeopardy at more than one time” from Bland was false. The video also drives home an important point: The greatest visual tool against police violence and racist interactions with law enforcement is a phone video — not a police-provided body- or dash-cam.
Cell phone footage of interactions between police officers and members of the public, especially racist encounters with the Black community, have been published to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook en masse for years now. Their proliferation has made it impossible to ignore the brutality and violence faced by Black people at the hands of the police. These videos have also brought justice in situations that otherwise might have gone unnoticed or even unreported. Whether filmed by the person being assaulted, like Sean Reed or Sandra Bland, or filmed by a bystander, like George Floyd, phone cameras have forever changed how the public sees racist police violence.
Notably, when instances of violence by police officers against Black men and women don’t go recorded, they often don't get the attention they deserve. Breonna Taylor’s death wasn’t publicly discussed until two months after she was shot and killed by police in her own home. Elijah McClain was killed by police officers in August 2019, and only gained attention in recent weeks. There was no phone video of his death, but part of his last moments were recorded on a body camera that allegedly fell off during the arrest.
The lengths authorities have gone to cover up the deaths of Black men and women have become more glaringly obvious over the years, and as heart-wrenching as it is to hear about each new case, it is necessary that they come to light, so that we all know what it is that we, as a society, are dealing with as we fight against racist authorities. While phone videos did not save the lives of Eric Garner or George Floyd or Sandra Bland, they have been instrumental in starting social justice movements and in holding police departments accountable.
Today, Sandra Bland’s name is still being invoked; the rallying cry to "say her name" is stronger than ever, as is the movement for racial justice. There is still a long way to go, but what activists are more certain of than ever is that we will have to move forward on our own terms, relying not on the videos and testimony of police officers, but on that of the people whose lives are on the line, who are fighting the fight that must still be fought — and must be won.