Sandra Bland and the trope of the “angry black woman”

When a Texas state trooper described Bland as hostile and combative, he was reinforcing a deeply entrenched stereotype

The arrest and death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland has the nation dissecting details and questioning answers as a gulf forms between official accounts and public perceptions. Was Bland the victim of a crime, or perhaps a troubled woman pushed to suicide by abusive or negligent treatment at the hands of law enforcement?

On July 10, Bland was pulled over in Texas by state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to use a turn signal. The alleged traffic violation resulted in a viral police brutality video, a death, and an enraged public.

Bland was booked on a third-degree felony and taken to Waller County jail where her bail was set at $5,000. The day after her arrest, Bland left a voicemail recording for a friend saying, “I’m still just at a loss of words, honestly, about this whole process. How this switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this, I don’t even know.”

Her sentiments reflect those of many, as the public is left weighing theories of conspiracies and cover-ups: One such theory, discredited by expert sources in a Daily Beast story, holds that Bland was already deceased in her mug shot.

According to NBC News, Bland was last seen alive at 7:30 a.m., July 13, and discovered dead in her jail cell at 9 a.m. that same day. On Thursday, Waller County Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam told The Washington Post that after investigating Bland’s death, “At this particular point in time, I have not seen any evidence to indicate that this is a homicide.” Diepraam explained that the autopsy showed no injuries on Bland’s body signifying a violent struggle or defense.

Diepraam also noted “a substantial amount of marijuana in her system.” He was quoted as saying, “It’s a mood amplifier, so it is relevant in our opinion to determine whether or not marijuana played a role in death as well, by exacerbating existing conditions.” This narrative is fueling critiques of the disproportionate criminalization of blacks in connection with marijuana consumption, mirroring the overall criminalization of blackness in America.

Bland can be heard on camera referencing her rights as a citizen as well as an officer’s legal boundaries. In Encinia’s police report, he describes Bland as “combative and uncooperative,” though Bland’s behavior in the video appears to be a response to his provocations.

Activist and community organizer Zellie Imani, who has been vocal on social media throughout the unraveling of Bland’s case, says “The victim is being blamed. . .Sandra exercised her rights. Brian Encinia infringed upon them by breaking department policy and procedures. He, and only he, is the reason why she isn’t alive to today.”

The official autopsy reportedly showed 30 cut marks on Bland’s left arm “consistent with self-inflicted wounds,” dating from three to four weeks prior to her arrest. On Thursday evening, CNN reported that Houston’s Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences ruled Bland’s death a suicide by hanging. The jail where she was held has been cited for lapses in its custodial care of Bland—specifically, a failure to check on her within the required timeframes. And the case is not closed. Diepraam reportedly concluded, “Nothing is certain.” Bland’s family has ordered an independent autopsy, whose results are pending.

Some public figures have joined Bland’s family and friends in their demand for greater transparency in the case, calling into question the official video of the arrest. Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated film “Selma” expressed her concern by tweeting, “I edit footage for a living. But anyone can see that this official video has been cut.” She then linked to an article by journalist Ben Norton, delving into the dashcam controversy. Norton notes that the Texas Department of Public Safety uploaded a new video of Bland’s arrest that is roughly 3 minutes shorter than the initial video posted. In this footage, the timecode—which is customary in all police videos—is missing.

The department told the Texas Tribune that the video had not been doctored, but Norton’s analysis of the footage—which goes on to enumerate a lengthy list of discrepancies—suggests someone either cropped out the timeframe, or zoomed in with the intention of cropping out the timeframe. A longer video has since been released but sheds little light on the case.

Still, the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody has sparked a wider discussion on the possibility of foul play. The public’s skepticism is driven, in part, by a number of high profile cases in which video and other evidence did not lead to police brutality convictions. These include the viral video of Eric Garner being put in a chokehold by NYPD officers—the officers in the case were not indicted, despite the damning footage. Citizens may well wonder: Why would this case be any different? And another disturbing question persists: Why would Bland take her own life?

Hundreds gathered in mourning Saturday at the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church for Bland’s funeral service.

Rev. Theresa Dear, associate minister at Bland’s church, voiced her concerns over the findings in a recent interview saying, “This is someone who had over 50 selfies, healthy self-esteem…Someone who had two job offers. Someone who just talked to her family and knew that help and rescue was on the way. This is someone who knew the Lord and was extremely close with her church family and her sisters, her biological family. None of that adds up to taking one’s life or suicide.”

At the service, mother Geneva Reed-Veal also shared words on her daughter’s death “Some call it a tragedy. Some call it a travesty. But I’ve got to call it testimony.”

CNN notes conflicting responses to questions about having depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts on Bland’s jail intake forms where it seems she indicated “yes” on some forms, and “no” on others. The Washington Post points out that Bland was never clinically diagnosed with depression. To some, it seemed she had a bright future to look forward to. At the time of her arrest, Bland was days away from starting a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Relatives have also reported that they did not see any signs of depression. Rather, Bland’s mother told MSNBC that, “Her spirits were lifted spirits, she was excited about the next chapter in her life.”

Bland was also engaged in online activism, using her social media sites to address social injustices and to educate fellow black Americans on how to deal with law enforcement altercations. Her mother was quoted saying, “I want Sandy to be remembered as an activist—sassy, smart and she knew her rights.”

Bland’s supporters will remember her in the inspiring light her mother describes. But some have accused state trooper Encinia and other officials of projecting onto Bland the entrenched trope of the “angry black woman.”

“Every black woman and girl who has or will be called ‘combative’ is having their life devalued by the rationalizing of Sandra’s arrest,” says Imani. “For those who have been steadily following the string of killings in the last few years, this is just the same old story, with a brand new victim—another black life transformed into a hashtag.”

The public is catching on to the pattern of anti-black violence, however. In the past week, Sandra Bland’s name and story have been shared, retweeted, re-blogged, and plastered all over social media. But this is not a victory. A black woman’s life has been lost, while a flawed criminal justice system endures. Whatever facts emerge in the coming weeks, Sandra Bland’s death was a preventable tragedy.

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