HBO’s Say Her Name: The Life & Death of Sandra Bland
It’s 12:56am, and I’ve just finished an unplanned screening of the new HBO documentary centered on the life and tragically mysterious death of Sandra Bland. I am tired and my mind is weary, but I cannot rest until I discuss what I just saw, and urge each of you readers to view it, too.
Sandra Bland was just 28 years old when she died in police custody July 13, 2015. She was a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, where she had earned an opportunity to attend college on a band scholarship. She had moved back to her home state, Illinois, where she worked various positions while in search of her calling. Described by her family and loved ones as someone who knew right from wrong and was not afraid to use her voice, Sandra began to channel her passion into activism. She began to regularly share videos on social media discussing current issues, racial inequality, and promoting strategies to unify against racism with love.
Sandra, affectionately called “Sandy” by those who knew her, had returned to Waller County, Texas in July 2015 to interview for a position at her alma mater. On Friday, July 10, she was pulled over for allegedly failing to use a turn signal during a lane change. We’ve all seen the videos. What began as a seemingly routine traffic stop turned into Sandra being harassed, physically assaulted, arrested, and taken into custody at the Waller County Jail. She was booked and assigned a $5,000 bond for her release. Monday, July 13, Sandra was found dead in her jail cell.
Just as there has been with countless other victims of police brutality before and after Sandra’s untimely death, there has been a ton of controversy surrounding her case since the world learned of her passing. #SayHerName flooded social media timelines all over the country as we demanded answers. Why was another Black person dead after interaction with law enforcement? Why did the details of her passing seem so particularly unclear? And most strikingly, how in the hell did a traffic stop result in something so horrific?
I’ll be the first to say that I have tried my best to stay away from stories involving the abuse of black bodies at the hands of police, as of late. I have shied away from watching the news. I have tried to avoid online coverage. News articles. CNN mobile alerts. You name it, and I can assure you that I have tried to avoid it at some point or another over the past few years. I have grown so emotionally exhausted with the stories of my people being slain by the power structures that were, in many ways, never meant to protect us, that I have tried to avoid them altogether for my own sanity. I had started some of this avoidance prior to Sandra’s death, but her story was one of the significant catalysts of my own legitimate, tangible fear of what may happen if I were to ever come in contact with the wrong officer.
Sandra was a Black woman, just like me. She was educated, outspoken, professional, and willing to respectfully call out racism anywhere she saw it, just like me. She knew her rights and was not afraid to make it known in her interactions with anyone, just like me. Though I had been thoroughly shaken by the previous deaths of many other police violence victims whose names we know all-too-well, Sandra’s story struck an eerie chord within me that was on a whole other level. She was a Black woman just trying to live right, mind her business, and go grocery shopping on a Friday afternoon. Just. Like. Me.
The new HBO Documentary “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” provides significant, detailed insight on all the issues with Sandra’s case. It gives us a chance to hear the family’s side of the story and empathize with pain they’ve faced in the aftermath of Sandra’s loss. It gives us a better look at those helping her family fight for justice and just how long, dangerous, and pain-staking that process has been for them. And perhaps most importantly, it gives us a window of insight into Waller County’s “justice” system, it’s District Attorney, it’s NRA-endorsing, gun-collecting, good-ol’ boy logic-spitting Sheriff, and the department and jail he oversees.
When Sandra Bland’s body was found in that solitary jail cell, the initial autopsy report ruled that her death was a suicide by asphyxiation. It was asserted that she had hung herself from a beam in the mostly concrete cell, where almost everything in the room was bolted to the ground by the way, using plastic trash bags. I will say that this documentary—while heavy to watch, especially if unprepared like me—does a great job of exposing the inconsistencies and downright despicably questionable actions of Waller County officials prior to, during, and after Sandra’s detainment. There have be missing and/or falsified records submitted in investigations; ethically questionable practices in the intial grand jury investigations; inexistent vital information; limited and seemingly gapped footage of Sandra’s time in custody, and so much more.
The degree of difficulty through which we must trod in assigning responsibility for Black deaths at the hands of police remains simultaneously alarming, mind-boggling, but not at all surprising, in the U.S.A.
I won’t tell you the entire documentary from end-to end. I will allow you to take it in for yourself, and I do insist that you take the time to do so, even if you have to pause several times to get all the way through it. However, I do wish to submit my brief comments.
After being walked through the timeline of her last weekend of life, I stand with everyone else who has rejected the notion that her death was a suicide. I didn’t believe it before, and I certainly do not believe it now. Hearing the results of the independent autopsy conducted by the family’s counsel makes it crystal clear that the Waller County has diligently, but very sloppily, tried to hide their hands after causing her death. Now having gained more information about Sandra’s injuries at her time of death; the choice to put her in solitary confinement with no consistent records of her being monitored; the lack of evidence regarding her body temperatures when she was found deceased (which is critical in a coroner’s ability to report a likely time of death); the lack of DNA on the trash bags from which she supposedly hung; the lack of skin or tissue samples from several areas of her neck and body; and the victim-blaming narratives that were spun by the Waller County justice system to deflect the focus off themselves, I have reached my own hypothesis for how Sister Sandra likely passed.
I am not a medical professional, but given what scientific and logical knowledge I do possess, it is my opinion that Sandra Bland was put in solitary confinement and left alone for an extended, undisclosed period of time, during which she likely died as a result of her unaddressed injuries. I have also considered that, in this age of social media, officers could have even found out about her #SandraSpeaks videos online, drew their own conclusions about that outspoken Black woman in their cell, and done something to her that ended up killing her. When it comes to the mysterious death of a Black woman surrounded by white power structures in the Deep South, I put nothing past anyone. Regardless, the fact remains that we can all speculate, but we just don’t know.
We do not know if they beat her more after the initial arrest. Because the log of hourly inmate checks originally submitted by Waller County police was later found to be falsified, we do not know if anyone actually checked on her at all. We don’t know how long her lifeless body was there before being discovered. Nor do we know the layout of the jail or anything else about what could have happened to Sandra Bland while she was being detained.
We DO know that she was an educated Black woman who was not afraid to question authority when her rights were on the line. We DO know that the arresting officer’s entire demeanor shifted when he was confronted by her intellect that fateful afternoon in rural Texas. We DO know that there are many convenient holes in the police department’s story and so-called investigations that support the narratives they created about Sandra’s passing, but fail to provide actual evidence that may lead to real conclusions. We DO know that the presence of marijuana in her system was sensationalized in police documents and reports as a means to channel societal bias toward recreational marijuana use, and thus support their false claims of her cognitive instability.
SN: Anybody who has smoked, or knows someone who smokes marijuana regularly, knows that while THC stays in one’s system residually for a period of time as a result of marijuana use, its detection in a toxicology screening does not mean a person was under the influence on any exact date. The department’s effort to play on the societal bias against weed-smokers is problematic, immoral, and compromising when applied to investigations like the Sandra Bland case.
In closing, at the core of it all we know this:
No matter what was in her system, what she had done in the past, or how much the fragile ass white men running that police department felt threatened by her knowledge and articulation of her rights, Sandra Bland did not deserve to be arrested or set up to die over the damned failure to signal a lane change.
Sandra was the victim of the abuse of power in small-town Waller, TX and died as a result of the same racial bias she fought against. Adding insult to injury, the police fabricated a story to accompany a botched job of trying to cover their own asses. It is despicable and it is unjust, but it is an all-too-familiar tale for the black and brown communities of America. Sandra’s story just brought the real possibility of dying while just trying to live and be Black a lot closer to home for many of us.
Watch the HBO Documentary. Continue to #SayHerName. Mobilize in her honor. And lastly, continue to cover each other in love and prayer while we face such trying times. I love y’all for real.
Black Lives Matter. Stay Kultured.