The late Sandra Bland was an activist primed for the social media age. In a series of videos that attracted a significant following, the telegenic young African-American woman spoke out on thorny issues of race and injustice in America, and supported the aspirations of an audience she addressed directly as “my kings and queens.”
What led to her death at age 28 seems, in a disturbing way, almost inescapable—to be caught up, arguably, in the very machinery of racial bias that she had called out in life.
“She was educated, she was passionate about issues. She wanted to make an impact,” declares David Heilbroner, co-director with Kate Davis of the HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, now in contention for Emmy nominations. “We came to think of her almost like a Rosa Parks. She wouldn’t go to the back of the bus.”
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In her videos, which she dubbed “Sandy Speaks,” Bland expressed dismay over the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a police officer after a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, and she defended the Black Lives Matter movement. But she would become emblematic of that movement herself after a fateful traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas in July 2015.
Bland, a Chicago native who had just taken a job in Prairie View, was pulled over by trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. What began as a routine stop turned heated, after the trooper made several pointed comments that could be interpreted as trying to provoke Bland.
“He was picking a fight,” Heilbroner maintains. “And Sandra resisted for awhile, [but] he got her. You know, she took the bait.”
The argument between Encinia and Bland escalated, in part over a lit cigarette in the car that the trooper wanted her to extinguish. He threatened to “light her up” with a Taser. In the end Bland wound up face down in the dirt with another officer on top of her, the arrest captured on video by a bystander.
“She was charged with a felony of assaulting a police officer, even though there’s absolutely no visual evidence of that,” the director insists. “In fact, there is evidence of trooper Encinia slapping her face in the car, which we were able to zoom in on the dash cam video and show what happened. So then she was slapped with a $5,000 bail, and held in solitary confinement.”
That was Friday, July 10. On the morning of Monday, July 13, she was found dead in her cell, hanging from a noose fashioned from a plastic trash bag. Mystery over what happened—whether Bland became distraught and took her own life, or someone killed her—persists to this day. The Waller County coroner ruled the death a suicide.
“Some days [I’m] convinced she had to have been murdered,” Heilbroner tells Deadline. “There were too many weird, suspicious facts, like the noose that she was found hanging from didn’t have her DNA on it. This was not an air-conditioned cell. We’re talking about Texas in July. You would think it would have her sweat on it, which would have her DNA. That just didn’t seem to make any sense. The jail logs were falsified. Why would you do that? Why would you put her in a cell with no camera?”
But there are other factors that suggest a different possibility.
“You don’t see anybody come in and out of her cell. She had suffered from mild, very mild depression. And you could imagine just feeling like the system has got you beat. And you’re going to be charged with a felony. You’re not going to get this new job you had, your life’s going to fall apart…And on top of which you’re in solitary confinement, which as anyone knows is just extremely, extremely harmful mentally. And she’d been beaten up.”
The bottom line for Heilbroner is this: “One way or another,” he states, “she was lynched. And that’s sort of where I come down.”
Bland’s death triggered protests in Waller County and around the country. At rallies, activists often chanted “Say her name: Sandra Bland,” a collective expression of the will to keep her memory—and what happened to her—alive.
Co-directors Heilbroner and Davis followed Bland’s mother and sisters as they tried to get answers about her death. The family hired an attorney who eventually filed a wrongful death suit against Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety that was settled for $1.9 million.
Trooper Encinia was fired and indicted for perjury, a charge that was later dropped. No jail personnel were charged in Bland’s death.
The filmmakers interviewed the Waller County district attorney, who defended the integrity of the investigation. They also sat down with Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, who was in charge of the jail. He insisted Bland took her own life, but conceded jailers held moral responsibility for her death because their job was to keep her alive until her court appearance.
“We let her down,” the sheriff acknowledges in Say Her Name.
Davis and Heilbroner earned an Oscar nomination for their 2017 short film Traffic Stop, which documented a different violent arrest of a young African-American woman pulled over by police. Emmy Awards recognition for Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland would be consequential on several levels, Heilbroner says.
“It would mean the world to us,” the director comments. “But what matters more than that is that [the film] has hit a nerve in the public. And it’s been seen by millions on HBO, and Sandy’s family, and the audiences we’ve shown it to, have given it their stamp of approval. Ultimately, the family made this film to make a statement, and hopefully to move the dial a bit in our country. And to me that’s the biggest reward.”
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