Sandy Still Speaks: New Sandra Bland Doc Uses Her Voice to Uncover the Still-Unknown Tale of a Fatal Police Stop in Texas

Photo: HBO

Like me, Sandra Bland hailed from a “girl family.” She was the fourth of five sisters. Her siblings’ names, like hers, all start with S—Shante, Sharon, Shavon, Sandy, and Sierra. They were a close-knit clan who always had each other’s backs, whether it was in Chicago or Villa Park, Ill., where their mother moved them for better educational opportunities. Sandy—that’s what they called her, Sandy—played trombone since elementary school and went to Prairie View A&M, an HBCU in Texas, on a band scholarship.

She had a binder more than two inches thick of plans, of dreams, of visions, for reforming police and young adult interactions. Sometimes Sandy liked to rock out to a little Maroon 5 and Coldplay. She had a video blog. She was in a sorority. She stood nearly six feet tall.

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Sandy Bland was an American citizen stopped by a Texas State Trooper on July 13, 2015, falsely arrested on a felony charge, faced a $5,000 bail on a Friday evening, and was dead by Monday, found hanging from a noose. Her story galvanized and even gendered a Black Lives Matter movement, especially when footage was released showing the officer escalating a verbal confrontation with her into a physical one. Sandy, who was only 28 years old, has a name which will forever live on because she dared “speak her truth to power.”

On Monday, HBO will release its powerful, hard-charging, and explosive documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. In it, we hear directly from Sandy’s family, from her legal team, and from the Waller County Texas law enforcement officials, including the sherriff and district attorney, as well as from Sandy herself through a series of “Sandy Speaks” video blogs from the months before her death.

“I think it’s really eerie and ironic that she’s able to narrate her own documentary; it’s really something,” her sister Sharon Cooper told The Root. “She really leveraged social media for good, even speaking on topics that aren’t even that popular and that make people uncomfortable. But change doesn’t come from comfort; it comes from getting uncomfortable.”

To be clear, the documentary wasn’t able to definitively answer the myriad unanswered questions surrounding Bland’s death. Those answers remain elusive. Sharon says she’s made peace with that reality.

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“Unfortunately, we’ll never know all of the answers in terms of what truly happened to Sandy because of the misinformation and lack of information that wasn’t given to us, and, quite frankly, I don’t know if it ever will be. But there is some solace that we, meaning my family, don’t think that her death was in vain,” she said.

Ten days after Sandra’s death, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner began working closely with the family and its legal team, tracking the two-year battle between Sandra’s aggrieved family and Texas authorities, who never even had the decency to call the family and let them know their loved one was gone.

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The family decided to work with the husband-wife team so soon because the family deemed their approach authentic, respectful and empathetic, particularly in the midst of gut-wrenching grief. The family also quickly realized they had to get in front of Sandy’s narrative, or someone else would.

“What I want people to know is that there are families behind these tragedies, and when the lights and cameras are gone, there is a human behind the hashtag,” says Sharon. “And also understand the very real pain and heartache that families go through.”

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Filmmaker David Heilbroner was clear that Sandy’s humanity, driven by her actual voice, be centered in the film.

“We took that material and essentially let her become the narrator. She had the first word in the film and the last word in the film,” he told The Root.

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“We got involved pretty quickly,” recounts Davis. “So that really helped so much tell the story by having her come to the forefront. And not just as an individual with a personality but as someone who was woke politically and who had a lot to say about the very issue that brought her down. They’ll get to know Sandra as a character, a force, with grace and humor and intelligence, but someone who has thought through a lot of issues around systemic racism and the need for police reform.”

The film takes viewers from the very beginning of this family ordeal and does a masterful job of representing all relevant voices. It also takes us through the legal process and the family’s quest for justice. The officer who set this whole tragic string of events in motion – Brian Encinia – was fired but ultimately not charged with anything except perjury. The family, via its matriarch, Geneva Reed-Veal, received $1.9 million in a wrongful death suit and lobbied to pass the Sandra Bland Act, which the Texas legislature watered down.

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“It wasn’t all that we hoped for, but it is a start,” says Sharon. “I know that there’s a mental health component of the bill, and, of course we want people who come into the jail and who come into a jail and in a situation who need to be cared for in a different way, that they should absolutely be cared for in that way, so that’s what that bill highlights. It also highlights the need for there to be electronic monitoring to be able to check in on inmates in that way, because you can’t falsify an electronic device ... [like the] falsification of the jail logs that came out in the film, and so things like that feels like some semblance of justice.”

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Cooper, who says her family works closely with other families who have been impacted by police violence, says one thing she wants people to take from the film is that Sandy, her “little big sis” (she stands at 5’3’’ while Sandy was 5’11’’), mattered.

“She mattered to an immense amount of people; she had a village that genuinely loved and cared about her; and quite frankly, I think she’s given rise to a generation of changemakers. She’s given permission to be unapologetic about being seen and heard and being treated with a sense of dignity,” says Sharon. “Because I do genuinely believe that that was what she was trying to show in that moment in her traffic stop is that she deserves to be treated with dignity just as much as majority counterparts.”

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Her story is important because she matters, and because so many other black women, whose names we may never know, also matter.

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“Hopefully people outraged by this haunting and devastating film will heed Sandra’s family’s call to action, learn more about #SayHerName by reading the report published by the African American Policy Forum in 2015, and support and join the work of organizations working to end the conditions that contributed to Sandra’s death: profiling and police violence targeting Black women and girls, pretrial detention on money bail, police abuse and neglect of people with disabilities, and violence and neglect of the growing population of Black women in jails across the country,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women and co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Violence Against Black Women [PDF].”

Sandy Bland: Daughter. Sister. Soror. Dreamer. Builder. Fighter.

Martyr.

Say her name.


Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland debuts on HBO at 10 p.m. ET. @sayhernamefilm (IG & Twitter managed by the family for screenings. Use the hashtag: #SayHerNameSandraBland tonight during the broadcast.)

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.