On July 13, 2015, the unthinkable happened to the family of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old who was a “bright, beautiful, outspoken, bold, caring, loving and intelligent individual,” says her sister Shante Needham. Three days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop, Bland was found hanging in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. She had been pulled over by state trooper Brian Encinia, who told her it was because she had failed to signal a lane change. Later, dashcam footage would reveal Encinia asking Bland to put out her cigarette. When she declined, he grew irate, demanded that she get out of her vehicle and then threatened to drag her out and use his stun gun. When she finally did exit her car, he proceeded to take her into custody in a rough manner. She ended up on the ground in the process.
Bland was charged with assaulting a public servant and placed in a cell that, unlike others, didn’t have video cameras. She made several phone calls from jail to family members and friends to help secure her bail. Days later Bland was dead. Her cause of death was ruled a suicide.
Protests erupted across the country. The name Sandra Bland became a hashtag, and #SayHerName, which was created in May 2015 by the African American Policy Forum, dominated social media. People wanted the truth. Three years later, her family still hasn’t received answers or the apology they say they deserve. They hope that the HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, out December 3, will shed some light on the 72 hours Bland spent in custody. Her family granted access to acclaimed filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner just ten days after Bland’s death. Together, with the assistance of the family’s legal team, they have uncovered several inconsistencies, such as forged log sheets and the fact that neither Bland’s fingerprints nor her DNA were found on the noose she allegedly used to kill herself.
With Bland’s story being brought to the forefront once again, we’re learning more about how her loved ones are processing the heartache they’ve been dealing with since her death.
“I think that grief is a multifaceted experience that comes with a significant amount of ebbs and flows and there’s no finite timetable that you can put on it,” Sharon Cooper, another one of Bland’s four sisters tells ESSENCE.
Cooper went on to say that the family has good days and bad days, and that they make a conscientious effort to keep their relative’s memory alive even as they try to move forward. To this end, they have sought therapy, which she considers important when dealing with trauma, particularly in the Black community.
“I think we experience a lot of trauma, both historically and recently, that we don’t tend to for a number of reasons. We’re put into positions where we’re coached to be strong and push through,” says Cooper.
Along with therapy, Needham has been employing a variety of healing mechanisms. “I found that working out and journaling are very productive and help to manage the pain—the pain that can never fully be healed,” she says.
Although the millions who followed the media coverage surrounding the case still want to know “What really happened to Sandra Bland?” some may find the documentary difficult to watch because you’re left with an uneasiness and perhaps more questions when you realize that there are a lot of missing pieces in the circumstances leading up to Bland’s death. The filmmakers didn’t pull any punches when it came to picking through those pieces and trying to make sense of them, and many would describe what they have brought to light as a miscarriage of justice
Heilbroner, a former New York City prosecutor, and Davis, a veteran documentarian, say they wanted to make sure they approached Bland’s story as delicately as possible.
“Bland’s death riveted the country’s attention because it had a horrible resonance of a Deep South lynching but was happening in 2015 America. It was extremely upsetting for everyone. And after learning who Sandra was—an amazing, empowering woman—I was drawn to the fact that she left an enormous record of politically astute video blogs, which sort of foretold her own fatal encounter,” Heilbroner says, as one of his reasons for wanting to be involved in the project.
Davis believes that those videos and this documentary will allow Bland to “speak for so many others who have died in police custody or at the hands of police.”
As viewers notice the conflicting information unearthed in the film they will likely be enraged, especially Bland’s family members who are still searching for answers.
“There is this underlying mysterious tone around what actually happened to Sandy,” says Cooper. “That’s why I think our healing process is imbalanced compared with when you lose someone to a health condition and you have a definitive understanding of what happened to your loved one. We never really felt like we walked away with that.”
Needham adds, “I want the world to never forget Sandra Bland. And I want the world to know we have to speak out against what’s not right.”