The Case of Sandra Bland: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About the Danger of Being Black

Texas authorities release video of the civil rights activist’s arrest.
Sandra Bland. (Photo: Twitter)
Jul 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Steven Gray's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde.

Yesterday, for the first time, we saw video of a Texas state trooper’s arrest of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black civil rights activist who mysteriously died last week in a jail cell—apparently, authorities say, in a suicide by hanging. Bland had recently moved from suburban Chicago to Waller County, Texas, to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater and a historically black school.

On the afternoon of July 10, on a road in the county northwest of Houston, Bland was pulled over by a Texas state trooper named Brian Encina. The reason: She’d apparently failed to use her turn signal while changing lanes. In the 52-minute dashboard camera video released Tuesday, we see Encina walk to the side of Bland’s window and begin a tricky exchange.

“OK, ma’am, you OK?” Encina says.

“I’m waiting on you,” Bland tells him.

“You seem very irritated,” he says.

“I am. I really am,” she says, adding, “I was getting out of your way…. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I moved over, and you stopped me. So, yeah, I’m a little irritated. But that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.”

Encina asks Bland to put out her cigarette. She tells him: “I’m in my car. I don’t have to put out my cigarette.”

“Step out of the car,” Encina says.

Bland refuses and tells Encina he doesn’t have the right to force her out of the car. “I refuse to talk to you, other than to identify myself,” she says.

“Step out,” he says, “or I will remove you.”

Moments later, he leans into the car and says, “I’m going to yank you out of here."

“Don’t touch me. I’m not under arrest,” Bland tells Encina.

“I’m going to drag you out of here,” he says, pulling out a Taser and pointing it toward Bland. “I will light you up!”

Bland gets out of the car. Encina follows her to the side of the road and tells her to drop her phone.

“You feel good about yourself,” she says. “Why won’t you tell me why I’m being arrested?”

Part of the encounter isn’t clear in the video. Soon, Bland was charged with assault of a public servant and taken to the Waller County jail. Three days later, on the morning of July 13, another inmate found Bland hanging. The Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, has said Bland’s death will be treated as a murder investigation, standard practice in the county for any suspicious death.

Several Texas officials have condemned the trooper’s behavior. Helen Giddings, a Democratic state legislator from suburban Dallas, said simply, “This young woman should be alive today.”

At this point, we don’t know the details of the circumstances that led to Bland’s arrest and death. But it’s difficult not to view her case outside the context of the lethal tradition of American law enforcement encounters with black people. The evidence of this problem is so pervasive, there’s no need to repeat the statistics here. Yes, Sandra Bland was aggressive. Some might call her combative. Encina used this term to describe Bland in charging documents. It’s a term so often used to describe black people—and Latinos, and women—who have the audacity to think and speak critically and challenge authority. Regardless of what we learn about Bland’s case, some things are clear: The incident was unfortunate and shameful. It’s another reminder of the persistent danger of being black in America. And it’s why we don’t have the luxury of not talking about race.