This is not a story we want to tell. On Friday, July 10, 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was leaving Prairie View A&M, where she had just signed job papers for an administrative role at the university. After months struggling to find work, Bland was ecstatic about this new position. She got in her car. She drove away.
Not long after, Bland pulled over for supposedly failing to signal a lane change. Three days later, on July 13, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. An autopsy ruled her death a suicide by hanging.
How did a traffic violation escalate to such tragedy? The HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, out December 3, seeks to answer that question, as well as speak frankly to the racial dynamics and questionable police practices that led to Bland’s controversial death. The documentary, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, was filmed over the course of two years. It features interviews with Bland's family (she is one of five sisters), law enforcement, and never-before-seen footage.
In many ways, Bland is the narrator of her own documentary. Beginning in January 2015, Bland began uploading candid, funny, intimate videos to the YouTube channel Sandy Speaks. She spoke about a variety of topics, from her struggle with depression to natural hair to police mistreatment of Black people. In one eerily prescient video, Bland said, “In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed."
Bland's vlogs are an essential component of the documentary. "It’s also such a rare opportunity to help bring somebody who’s died in police custody, or in the hands of police — that kind of death, it’s so rare to have access to that person in a more three-dimensional way," documentarian Davis told Jezebel of Bland's palpable presence in the documentary. "We don’t have such videos of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin perhaps, or a lot of victims of law enforcement. Sandy, I felt, through her videos, could speak for a lot of people whose lives we may not get to know in the same way, or as well."
What actually happened on that stretch of Texas road on July 10, 2015? Bland’s initial interaction with the police was captured by a police car dashcam and by a bystander's video recording. In audio and video released by the Texas police, we see State Trooper Brian Encinia approach Bland’s car, pulled over on the side of a wide, relatively quiet road. At first, Encinia issues a warning. Then, Encinia asks Bland to put out her cigarette. After Bland responds, “Why do I have to put out a cigarette when I'm in my own car?" Encinia orders her to exit the vehicle. They have a heated back-and-forth, culminating in Encinia forcing Bland to leave the vehicle. Encinia points a stun gun at Bland and says, "I will light you up." In the bystander's video, Bland is seen laying on the ground and heard saying that the officers “slammed her head into the ground.”
On Monday, July 13, after three days in custody, Bland was found hanging from a noose fashioned from a plastic trash can liner. Bland's family questioned the circumstances that led to her suicide (and many, whether it was a suicide at all). Why was her body bruised? Why was she held in a cell without surveillance cameras? “Everything surrounding it was questionable. We'll never know. That's what hurts the most," Bland's sister, Shanté Needham, said on The View.
If Bland did indeed take her own life, perhaps her death could have been avoided, had protocol been followed. While in the county jail, Bland shared her recent mental health struggles with a guard. She said she had been feeling "very depressed," and that she had attempted suicide 2014 following a miscarriage. The Nation reports that according to jail protocol, Bland should have been immediately "seen by a mental-health professional and perhaps hospitalized — or, at the very least, put on suicide watch." This did not happen. Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan, put the importance of this protocol bluntly in an interview with The Huffington Post: "People often say, ‘Well, if somebody wants to kill themselves, they’re going to kill themselves.’ That’s false. If you run a jail with an appropriate degree of suicide prevention, you get almost zero.”
Following Bland's death, activists worked to ensure such essential protocol isn't ignored again. According to the Texas Tribune, the Sandra Bland Act, signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in June 2017, "mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability, and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths."
As for Encinia, the state trooper who arrested Bland? He was indicted for perjury in 2015. In June 2017, the charges against Encinia were dropped in exchange for Encinia surrendering his Texas law enforcement license. "That charge was dropped with the promise that he wouldn’t practice law enforcement in the state of Texas, and quite frankly, he shouldn't be a law enforcement official anywhere," Bland's sister, Sharon Cooper, told The View.
Sandra Bland's legacy has been kept alive through activism. The #SayHerName movement, launched after Bland's death, raises awareness about the Black women and girls who have been affected by police violence. Say Her Name is an essential addition to the movement, and an affecting tribute to Bland herself.
Say Her Name premieres on HBO December 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.