On July 13, Sandra Bland was found hanging in her jail cell. The mystery surrounding the 28-year-old Black woman’s death, along with the recent spate of murders of unarmed Black individuals in this country, has many concerned citizens wondering if we are living the lynching narratives we learned in history class. Narratives of Black lives being taken publicly and without remorse, narratives that some people in this country have felt were long gone. Black Americans and our allies have known, for some time, that these narratives are still alive and well. The rest of America may now be catching up.
Traditionally, the murders of unarmed Black Americans have been endured by families outside of public view, and with assistance from community-based anti-racist movements. However, because of the Internet and the amazing organizing under #BlackLivesMatter, these murders are being brought to wider attention. Other individuals in our society, even presidential candidates, can no longer afford to look away.
In the media, Sandra Bland’s views and political beliefs have been overshadowed by the one police encounter that ended in her death, and by her alleged suicide. We have not been given a rounded view of who she really was, which can be found, among other places, in the 29 #SandySpeaks videos she left behind.
This is not the first time a Black woman has been misrepresented in the media, but if we are to learn anything from Bland’s story, hopefully, it can be a distrust of sources that fail to portray Black individuals as whole people.
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Sandra Bland had been in Prairie View, Texas, for one day. She interviewed for and was subsequently hired to work in community outreach at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Early morning on July 10, Sandra Bland sent a text to her sister, saying, “I GOT THE JOB,” according to reports. She and her sister were to speak by telephone that afternoon. That call never happened. At around 4:30 p.m. Sandra Bland was pulled over for a routine traffic stop: a failure to signal during a lane change. As Texas trooper Brian Encinia’s dash-cam video shows, the officer spoke with Sandra Bland through her passenger side window for just a few minutes before forcefully removing her from her vehicle. A routine stop quickly escalated into a series of events that would end in Sandra Bland’s arrest on the grounds that she assaulted the officer.
Officer Encinia transported Bland to the Waller County jail, where she remained until she was found dead.
On July 13 at 7:05 a.m., Bland reportedly told the jailer that she was fine. About 50 minutes later, according to Texas authorities, she used her intercom to ask if she could make a phone call. There is no record of her making that call. At 8:55 a.m., a jailer went to ask Bland if she wanted to go to the recreational hall. The jailer then noticed that Sandra was hanging from the “privacy partition” in her jail cell with a plastic trash bag gripped around her neck.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been combing through Sandra Bland’s Facebook profile. I was fortunate to see the profile before her timeline was made private. Her passionate posts piqued my curiosity, provoking me to learn more about her life, and that is when I encountered her #SandySpeaks videos. I was surprised by what I discovered, not just because of how different she seemed on her own platform compared to the news reports and the now renowned mug shot. There was so much more to Sandra Bland’s story that I personally found to be familiar and haunting.
Sandra Bland began #SandySpeaks in January 2015 because of the unrelenting police brutality against Black Americans. The series includes commentary about current events, information about Black history, and insight into the creator’s life. With each of the 29 posts, she addresses her viewers as “Kings and Queens.” She clearly saw it as her duty to uplift and assist her viewers, given the tremendous hurdles they are facing as Black people in America.
Here are five videos that really resonated for me, as they show a side of Sandra Bland that challenges the suicide narrative.
1) On #BlackLivesMatter: “You can stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.” In this video post, she relays the importance of #BlackLivesMatter. In an effort to address her white viewers, she speaks to them about the devaluation of Black life as evidenced in police violence. She implores her white viewers to adopt another perspective and stop labeling her a racist because she states that Black lives matter.
Throughout many of her videos she is unwavering in her position to uplift Black America and willing to explain to white America why that is so. She implores, “Show me, in history, where all lives matter. Show me, in history, where there has been liberty and justice for all.”
Bland, it appears, has a deep level of consciousness around racial and social justice. She is thoughtful. Her videos remind me of the many posts that my friends and I have created over the course of the last few years since the death of Trayvon Martin. The ubiquity of Black death has moved many to a soapbox, a platform, to see if we can provide a salve, a balm, a lifeline to our fellow Black people through this continuous roll call of unarmed Black people being murdered. Her voice, then, can be viewed as part of a collective of voices rising through this wilderness of trauma, seeking light in the midst of extreme darkness. Like many of us, Bland is taking a stand through her videos, sowing the seeds of activism.
Until Amerikkka can show me otherwise #BlackLivesMatter #SandySpeaks
Posted by Sandra Bland on Wednesday, April 8, 2015
2) On race and religion: “This whole race thing, this race game, I think, for African-Americans—that truly is the test from God.” Sandra posted her videos in venues other than her Facebook page. At one point, she attempted to post a #SandySpeaks video on her high school’s Facebook page. The video was removed and she was called a racist. As a result, there are several #SandySpeaks videos where she addresses race relations. She states, “You’ve got to conquer hate with love. And, any time you’re presented with a situation where somebody is being racist or giving false information, really, that’s your time to educate.”
She puts this very thing into practice in her advocacy work. It seems important to Bland to build a bridge between the racial divide in her videos. She informs her viewers who labeled her racist that she “was the only Black cheerleader on an all-white cheerleading squad.” She chooses to focus more on her racial politics and gaining understanding from her viewers than what was being said of her in response to her videos.
She states: “If you call yourself a Christian, I really truly believe how we handle people of other races is going to be that one question, you know, that God truly asks us about.”
She was a Christian who felt, it seems, that racism was an evil that had to be dealt with through the lens of her Christian faith.
#SandySpeaks is a great way to start the day
Posted by Sandra Bland on Monday, March 23, 2015
3) On interactions with the police: “So, you want to call the police. Every single minute of this thing is ‘bout to be recorded.” Sandra Bland stood her ground in an incident that she caught on camera, which was eerily reminiscent of her final encounter with Officer Encinia. Posted on March 10, 2015, the video shows two security guards threatening to call the police on her as she sits in a local (mainly white) shopping mall. She was seeking signatures for a petition from her church to reinstate a title to the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team in Chicago. In her estimation, the Little League players had experienced an injustice by having their title removed due to zoning.
Security guards approached her and asked her to leave. She did not back down.
It is clear that Bland was committed to her actions. She did not cower because the guards stated they would call the police. She was courageous. In the comment section of this video, she has a brief exchange with a friend about knowing one of the security guards. It is heartening to learn that the guard secured a copy of the petition for himself and his girlfriend. This was a positive outcome.
This video is haunting because it demonstrates how when it comes to interactions with the police, there are outcomes other than death that are possible. Those outcomes, unfortunately, were not made possible for Bland by Officer Encinia.
GAME ON racist mall cop #LEGGO #SandySpeaks
Posted by Sandra Bland on Saturday, March 28, 2015
4) On the importance of safety and self-reflection. Sandra Bland used her car as a space for her advocacy work. In her car, she recorded many of the #SandySpeaks videos. And in those videos, she speaks to the camera with an ease that shows the viewer her car provided a fortress of protection where she could address racism, gang violence in Chicago, her hair, and her life, including her personal struggles, in an effort to connect with and help others.
A car represents so much to women. It provides a sense of escape and privacy that other spaces in women’s lives do not. A car is freedom.
From her car, Bland spoke to her viewers from a place full of love. “I do just want to let you Kings and Queens know that there is somebody out there who loves you and that is praying for you,” she said.
This video helped me understand why Bland objected to an officer asking her to extinguish a cigarette while she was in her car. I can see that the intrusion by the officer was an extreme violation of her personal space.
Short & sweet #SandySpeaks
Posted by Sandra Bland on Wednesday, March 4, 2015
5) On personal transformation. Sandra Bland was in a period of transition. The inaugural video for #SandySpeaks, posted on January 14, 2015, may be the most painful to watch, because we learn that she started the videos as a way to educate Black youth on how to interact with police officers to escape violence.
“Through #SandySpeaks we are going to open up a door, open up a gateway for the kids. What I would like you all to do, if you’ve got kids, and it doesn’t even have to be just for the kids. Um, you know, some things they may not be able to comment on. But, now would be the perfect time, if you feel like your child is too young, to kind of start opening the door, to them, and educating them on interacting with police. I don’t think it’s ever too early, honestly,” she said.
At one point, she even invites cops, who may be watching, to participate in the conversation. It is distressing to know that six months later, she would be involved in an interaction with a police officer that would cement her legacy within the embittered framework between Black Americans and U.S. police officers.
It is important to note that whenever she spoke of police violence in her videos, she only referenced Black men. Her legacy has helped to move that conversation to be more inclusive of police violence experienced by Black women.
I only selected five videos for this piece but there are 24 others. In one, she cries into the camera because she had just escaped injury or death after a motorcycle plowed into her car. Her cry is not sorrowful; it is joyful as she praises God that she and the motorcyclist were unharmed.
In another video, she talks of how she missed church on Sunday because she went to a Maroon 5 concert with her sister the night before.
Six months after her first #SandySpeaks video, Sandra Bland would be found hanging in a jail cell.
She was a woman who was unfolding in her videos. Bland found her purpose and was putting it into practice. She states, “I am here to change history. I am ready to do what I need to do for this next generation. It’s time for me to do God’s work.”
I do not know what happened to Sandra Bland. Honestly, I am afraid to know. What I can say is that the media portrayal of her is limited. She was full, complex, awakening. Sandra Bland was becoming.
Sandra Bland’s #SandySpeaks videos are available for viewing on her Facebook page.