On Friday, July 10, Sandra Bland, an African-American woman from Chicago who was in Texas for a job interview, was pulled over in Hempstead, Texas for failing to signal a lane change. The officer, Trooper Brian T. Encinia, started out the ticket by saying, “You seem very irritated.” About a minute later, he asked her to put out her cigarette. Less than 30 seconds later, he told her to get out of her car. Less than 30 seconds after that, he was opening her door and trying to pull her out. She eventually got out of the car herself (after having a stun gun pointed at her). Trooper Encinia then forced her to go to the side of the road out of view of the dash camera where he yelled at her, handcuffed her, arrested her, and slammed her into the ground with his knee in her back. You could watch the video here.
Sandra Bland was a 28-year-old black activist who routinely posted on Facebook and Twitter about racial justice in the US. According to her mother, she once said, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas. My purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South,” and supposedly she had just been accepted for her dream job when she was pulled over. She had expressed some depression and shock in the fairly recent past, most notably in connection to how black people are treated in the US, but nothing in her social media, the dash cam video, or her family’s recollections would indicate that she was one traffic stop away from taking her own life. You can even hear in the video how she’s threatening a lawsuit and relishing the thought of taking Trooper Encinia to court.
While I do not agree that just because someone seemed happy and feisty they could never commit suicide, I don’t buy the official line of inquiry. Texas and the Hempstead Police Department have a strong history of police brutality and racism, and Trooper Encinia was both clearly baiting Sandra and later clearly massaged his official report to make him look better. I’ve also lived in Texas for 18 years. No one signals lane changes, and it’s common practice to get out of a trooper or cop’s way when you see them charging up behind you, usually in excess of the speed limit. It’s also not uncommon for cops to pull you over, citing you for going three or four miles over the limit, accusing you of reckless driving, or giving you a ticket for a burnt out light. Texans revere guns and aggressive, unquestionable authority, and cops are the ultimate combination of the two. They are often combative, condescending, and bullying. It’s part of the culture.
I’ve seen some people argue that Sandra should have been quieter, more soft-spoken, and just let Trooper Encinia do his job. But being irritated because you’re about to get a $200 ticket and smoking a cigarette is not cause for being forcibly removed from your car, having a stun gun pointed at you, and then arrested and knocked around. Why couldn’t Trooper Encinia just have written her the ticket and been on his way? Why did he have to exacerbate the situation? Why isn’t he being held responsible for his actions? Cops/troopers are meant to uphold the law, not police people’s moods. Even people like the Fox News correspondents and Donald Trump are saying, “There was no reason whatsoever to arrest her,” “There needs to be an intense investigation,” and the trooper was “So aggressive… overly aggressive… terribly aggressive.” Apparently, everyone but Trooper Encinia and the Hempstead Police Department agrees that this was a miscarriage of justice.
As of July 17, the FBI has joined in the investigation of Sandra Bland’s death. On July 25, Sandra Bland’s autopsy report by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences was released, which seem to indicate that her cause of death was a suicide, though her family and many in the social media community don’t agree. As of Saturday, July 25, Sandra Bland was laid to rest at her funeral in Chicago.
Sandra Bland’s death never should have happened. She never should have been pulled from her car, never should have been arrested, and absolutely should not be dead. Even if her death were self-inflicted, it never would have happened if Trooper Encinia had not violated her rights and arrested her. She would not have been put through the abuse, pain, and psychological upheaval of the three days preceding her death. She would have been irritated and had a story to tell at parties about how she goes down to Texas to fight for the equal rights of black people and instead got pulled over for driving while black. She would have been spurred on to fight harder for other black people. She would have spoken out more.
And that, I think, was instrumental to her death. She was a threat to authorities and the status quo that says police can do whatever they want, especially against black people. And the only thing to do when a black person won’t shut up and sit down is to make them shut up and sit down – permanently. And that’s what happened to Sandra Bland.
So don’t forget her. #SayHerName. Follow her story. Look up #SandySpeaks. Contribute to #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. And keep fighting against injustice because this needs to stop. There are too many hashtags of dead black people. Far too many.