It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since the tragic death of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015. The Chicago-bred, 28-year-old Black woman was gearing up for a new job at Prairie View A&M University in Waller County, Texas, her alma mater, that fateful morning she was pulled over for a routine traffic stop by state trooper Brian Encina.
Months prior to her death, Bland had been consistently posting content on social media related to the crisis of police brutality and the growing number of Black victims who were dying from systemic violence. “In the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed,” she wrote in one post, almost as if to eerily predict her own harrowing encounter with a police officer.
On July 10, Bland’s traffic stop quickly escalated into a threatening situation when State Trooper Brian Encina asked Bland if she was “irritated,” and she confirmed that she was. Encina ordered Bland to put out her cigarette, and she pushed back, “Why do I have to put out a cigarette when I’m in my own car?”
Encina then promptly ordered Bland to “get out of the car,” telling her she was under arrest, which she rebuffed, questioning why she needed to leave her vehicle, to which the officer responded, “I’m giving you a lawful order.”
Bland stood her ground and kept asking why she was being arrested—probably terrified of what the cop would do—until Encina forcibly removed her from her car. Eventually, he grabbed his Taser and aggressively pointed it at Bland, yelling, “I will light you up! Get Out! Now!,” and she did as told.
Encina told Bland she was on her way to jail, as she tearfully argued against being carted away over a minor violation. It got worse from there, with Encina brutally slamming Bland to the ground while she screamed. Through all the commotion, Bland managed to alert her captor that she was epileptic, and his only response to that was, “Good.”
Bland was then charged with “assaulting a public servant” and thrown into Waller County Jail, and placed in her own cell so she wouldn’t be a threat to other inmates.
One has to imagine how this exact scenario would have played out differently for a white woman. In 2018, damning footage of former Port Authority official Caren Z. Turner freely berating police officers who pulled her over during a traffic stop in Tenafly, New Jersey, made the rounds, revealing how white women are able to navigate these situations with the same general demeanor, but without issue.
Unfortunately, Bland’s story turned out very differently. She was unable to post the $5,000 bail and was later found hanging in her cell “in a semi-standing position,” reportedly having taken her own life. (Bland’s family refuted the findings and insisted she would never have taken her life and that she was looking forward to beginning her new job at Prairie View A&M University.)
Encina, meanwhile, was only indicted on a charge of perjury for claiming that he pulled Bland out of her car in order to professionally process the traffic violation. In the end, those charges were dropped in exchange for his permanent exit from law enforcement. But the search for the truth of what really happened to Bland and how the voice of a vibrant young woman with a passion for championing change and fighting against systemic injustice was permanently silenced over a minor traffic offense will continue to haunt her loved ones.
Bland’s family receive a $1.9 million settlement from their wrongful death lawsuit, but that hasn’t quelled their desire to reopen the case and launch a more thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to an unfathomable tragedy.
Bland’s tragic death inspired Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to sign the Sandra Bland Act, which aims to arm police officers with techniques on how to de-escalate situations and provide protections for people in jail who suffer from mental illness or are dealing with substance abuse. Additionally, it requires that all jail deaths be subjected to an investigation by private law enforcement agencies.
In 2018, HBO released the documentary titled, Say Her Name as a tribute to Bland’s life and activism. The film is a humanizing treatment for a Black life that wasn’t valued in the eyes of the law, but for those of us who see ourselves reflected in her eyes, is a poignant reminder of what she’s left behind.
Seven years on, and the struggle for justice continues. But in the midst of all the chaos and hopelessness, we pause to remember Sandra Bland and why her life, to us, will always matter.