At first, she used Facebook in that cute, ho-hum way that most people do: selfies vamping new hairstyles, jocular shots with her sisters and mom—nothing special. Not until just after Christmas of 2014, and the debut of Selma. Within weeks of seeing that electrifying portrayal of the civil-rights era, she transformed her Facebook page. “I’m here to change history,” she declaimed in a smartphone video posted in January 2015.
She apologized that she was about to go to bed. In a T-shirt and with her hair pinned in rollers, she could not have seemed more unself-conscious. Her face glowed with the smile that everyone who knew her loved, and her voice was rich and friendly. “It’s time for me to do God’s work,” she said. She called her new project #SandySpeaks.
In the next few months, she would post over two dozen videos. Typically, they began with that smile and the greeting “Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens!” Her links took readers to articles about black history. (“No, this is American history!” she corrected.) She posted about the economic crisis burdening young African Americans. She suggested that white people get black friends and that blacks befriend whites. That might be hard for African Americans to do, she said, but God was testing their ability “to show love to somebody who can hate you for no very reason.”
In the days after she died, #SandySpeaks went viral. Her videos made her the first black casualty of police brutality whom the world could know and deeply love postmortem. She’s been gone now for almost a year, and we are still asking: #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland? Too often, that question has been merely a call to conspiracy theory: about monstrous jail guards murdering her, perfectly hiding the evidence, even taping her eyes open after death to take a convincing mug shot. The obsession over what transpired during three days at the end of her life has left little room for considering the 28 years before. Black lives matter—and hers was one of them, in its length, complication, and black pain.
* * *
Sandra Annette Bland—Sandy, as everyone called her—was born in 1987. Her mother, Geneva Reed, raised five girls on her own; she had the first at age 15. As an old friend from grade school remembers, Reed’s determination was “thunderous,” even as a child. She graduated from high school on time. She received a bachelor’s in journalism at age 23. Today, she has a real-estate business.
Reed grew up on Chicago’s Near West Side. But by the time she had Sandy, the area was profoundly segregated, poverty-stricken, and violent. So in the 1990s, when Sandy was 9, Reed headed with her daughters to the suburbs—settling in DuPage County, just west of Chicago. DuPage is affluent, quiet, and back then was just 4 percent black.
Deeply religious, Reed joined the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was feted by the Chicago Tribune as a flagship of the suburbs’ emerging black middle class. By age 13, Sandy was singing in the choir, standing next to her classmate Robert Lega. The two became close, mainly, Lega told me, because Sandy had a wicked sense of humor and never took offense at his gross adolescent jokes. Dee and Lionel Watts were church members who were childless, and they, too, loved Sandy. Dee, a software engineer, became Sandy’s godmother.
Sandy was “spunky, feisty, and wasn’t going to let anyone run over her,” says Joyce Kordas, who taught business courses at the largely white high school. The white teachers weren’t used to it. Sandy joined a dizzying array of extracurricular groups, from the foreign-language honor society to the cheerleading squad, where she was the only black member. And she joined the concert band, playing trombone—a choice that shaped her life.
In her senior year, she was accepted on a music scholarship to Prairie View A&M University, near Houston. The school was founded for ex-slaves after the Civil War, and it sits in Waller County, in Texas’s historically Deep South region. The little town surrounding the school, also named Prairie View, today has a few thousand residents; this small population is overwhelmingly black.
The school band’s name is the Marching Storm, and it’s known for pioneering the drum line. At black colleges, the marching band’s halftime shows are fantastic affairs, often a bigger draw than the game itself. At Prairie View, the larger-than-life band leader was George “Prof” Edwards, a stern but affectionate taskmaster. When he was displeased with someone’s performance, he often ordered the errant student to do push-ups. He demanded martial discipline via a traditional enactment of masculinity that included the female members. According to Lanitra Dean, a schoolmate of Sandy’s who played clarinet, Edwards used to say: “There are no females in the band—no girls.” Sandy was “no girls” times two. Dean remembers that she eagerly conformed to the bandmaster’s grueling schedule. Sandy, Dean says, was “strong”—even as she confided in some friends at Prairie View that she had epilepsy. “She never cried.”
And she was busy without letup. She joined a historically black sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, which emphasizes community service. She constantly volunteered for projects. She also helped LaVaughn Mosley, a middle-aged man at Prairie View who worked with students from poor families who had problems adjusting to college. Mosley was dazzled by Sandy’s talent for counseling. He became her friend and mentor.
* * *
Sandy majored in what Prairie View A&M calls “animal science.” Sorority sister Ashley Gooden remembers Sandy often saying that she wanted to work for the Food and Drug Administration. But when she graduated, in 2009, there were few jobs open in animal science.
Unemployment that year was dire for everyone. The recession badly hurt young college graduates, but black grads had it worse, especially black women, who were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white women. Overall, in 2010, one in five African Americans who’d just finished college couldn’t get a job. Many who were lucky enough to be hired ended up in low-paid positions unrelated to their majors.
During her first months after graduation, Sandy got a job at Prairie View’s Cooperative Extension Program as an office assistant. She commuted from Houston, where she was living with her boyfriend, a fellow Prairie View graduate and music-education major, who was also struggling to find work that matched his degree.
As she drove around Houston and Prairie View, Sandy was deluged with traffic tickets, fines, and court costs. Texas has no income tax, and the state, its counties, and its municipalities have to get the money from somewhere. One way is through traffic tickets, using a system similar to the one the Justice Department has criticized in Ferguson, Missouri. In Texas, extra charges are attached to the tickets, and they are staggering. There’s a $25 “records management” fee, a $15 “judicial fund” fee, and $15 added to each bail-bond payment. The tickets themselves also include add-ons to fund a statewide program providing services for people with brain and spinal-cord injuries. Even Prairie View A&M’s juvenile-justice school was funded with money from traffic tickets.
In 2009, Sandy received tickets for driving in Waller County without a seat belt, driving without liability insurance, and speeding. Her fines and costs totaled $876.50. The following year, she was cited in Houston for speeding and colliding with a vehicle. The court told her she owed $260, though she said she was unemployed. She didn’t pay, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
And then there was marijuana. In the Houston suburbs, Sandy was charged in 2009 with misdemeanor possession of a small amount. Her arrest was predictable: Nationally, one in five people her age were smoking marijuana in 2009, but people of color were especially likely to be criminally charged. In Harris County, which includes Houston, proportionately three times as many blacks as whites were being arrested and subjected to some of the harshest punishments in the country. Sandy faced prison time and a $4,000 fine. Her first year out of school was not going well.
Carl Anthony Moore is a Houston lawyer and Prairie View A&M alumnus. Sandy hired him to defend her, and he got the marijuana charge dropped and replaced with possession of “paraphernalia.” The fine was $500 and no jail time.
But then, in May 2010, Sandy was again arrested in Houston, as she was driving home from a party after midnight. A sheriff’s deputy said he noticed a car going too fast, with a bad headlight and the taillights out. He thought Sandy was drunk. She told him she didn’t drink much because of her epilepsy, so the few drinks she’d had that night might have affected her more than they would other people. She took a Breathalyzer test; it came back barely above the legal limit. She was arrested anyway, for DUI. Later, when her car was impounded, the deputy found a small plastic bag with 1.4 grams of marijuana. That amount would barely have made three joints. In Texas, it was enough for another possession charge.
Moore again represented Sandy. This time, he got the DUI dropped. He thought he could successfully fight the marijuana charge, too, but Sandy told him not to try. She seemed demoralized and overwhelmed, Moore says, as though she was having trouble coping with the stress of the case—and with stress in general. She had earlier told him that she smoked marijuana daily, and he wondered if she was self-medicating. Moore didn’t get a chance to explore further: She didn’t have the money to pay for more of his services, so she pleaded guilty to the possession charge. Her sentence was 30 days in lockup.
* * *
The Houston area’s main correctional facility is the Harris County Jail, which houses around 9,000 inmates each day. It was, and is, notorious. A year before Sandy landed there, the Justice Department investigated the jail and found rampant civil-rights violations. Overcrowding was one. Fights were another. Dirty sheets, clothing, and mattresses were common. In the intake area, there were no toilets, only holes in the floor.
After doing her 30 days in these conditions, Sandy broke up with her boyfriend and returned to Illinois, to resume her job search and reunite with her family. But she was worried that the Texas warrant—for the speeding and collision fine she’d never paid—would haunt her when she tried to renew her license in Illinois.
So Sandy did what is known among Texas’s poor as “sitting out” traffic tickets. The state lets people discharge their tickets with credit earned by serving time in jail. Sandy went back to the dirty, crowded, violent Harris County Jail and spent several days “paying” her ticket, earning $100 a day in credits.
After she was released, her Prairie View friend and mentor LaVaughn Mosley asked her how she’d managed. Sandy was all strength and bravado, giving him the impression that “it was nothing to her to sit out time” and that she’d done it “like a champ!”
Back in Illinois, she went from shitty job to shitty job. She worked some shifts at Portillo’s, a hot-dog and milkshake café. She did a few days at McDonald’s. She signed up with a temp agency. Sometimes she lived with her godmother, Dee Watts, and Dee’s husband Lionel. Other times, she stayed with her sisters, watching their children. She felt boxed in, and went back and forth to Texas on buses. By 2013, she was in Illinois again, still without her own place to live and still working as a temp. She hoped these brief assignments would lead to a permanent hire. They never did. According to her tax returns, in 2013, four years out of school, she grossed less than $8,000.
Her misdemeanors seem to have plagued her job search. In a later Facebook posting, she discussed a workshop about how to get one’s criminal record expunged. She introduced the post with a quote, suggesting that she’d heard it during her own job interviews: “We think you are a great candidate, but based on your background…”
Her “background” got worse in Illinois. According to state data, black drivers in towns like Naperville, Lisle, and Villa Park are up to four and a half times more likely to be stopped for traffic violations than white drivers, and up to four times more likely to be searched. Fines collected from tickets are mostly put into county and township general funds. As in Texas, they operate like taxes on the poor.
In July 2013, Sandy got stopped in Naperville for speeding. She was also ticketed for driving without insurance and with a suspended registration and driver’s license. Her fine came to over $4,000. She didn’t appear at her court hearing. An arrest warrant was issued, and she spent a night in jail.
Sandy was bonded out by Lionel Watts, her godmother’s husband, who recalls his wife’s puzzlement that Sandy’s mom hadn’t paid the bond. Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly. But according to Lionel, he and Dee became Sandy’s economic fallback in this period, especially Dee. She transferred the title of her old Cadillac to Sandy. She opened a joint bank account with her. And she was Sandy’s sounding board.
By 2014, Sandy owed thousands of dollars in tickets. Late one night in Naperville, she was arrested while driving with an inarguably high blood-alcohol level. As a one-time incident for a young adult, speeding and drunk driving might be deemed a sowing-one’s-oats peccadillo—but with Sandy, they suggested emotional troubles.
Robert Lega, her childhood friend from church choir, was living in Chicago, and the two occasionally called each other to catch up. Sandy often told him about her problems finding work and being broke. And she told him she suffered from depression.
Hearing a friend talk about depression was unusual for Lega. Considering it as a medical condition deserving of treatment is not something black people generally do, he says. Instead, “It’s like, ‘Hey, man, if you’ve got problems, figure out a way to deal with them.’” Lega’s observation is echoed by research and anecdotal evidence. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 4 percent of African Americans report major depression, a significantly higher percentage than whites, at just over 3 percent. Still, while about 14 percent of the population in general sought treatment for depression in 2011, only about 8 percent of African Americans did. Black women have it even worse than black men: They are among the most undertreated groups for depression in the nation.
* * *
One reason for the lack of treatment is that, even with Obamacare, many poor people still don’t have health insurance. And even when they do have plans, many psychotherapists don’t accept them.
Another is what several feminist researchers call “the myth of the Strong Black Woman.” Sociologist Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant notes that white culture has never viewed black women as normatively feminine. Instead, slavery and Jim Crow assigned stereotypes: sharp-tongued Sapphires; big, asexual, all-giving Mammies; and fertile, Jezebel-like welfare queens. Today, another stereotype has arisen: the notion that extraordinary strength is a natural quality of black women.
After liberation, an emerging African-American women’s-club movement tried to reconfigure the slavery-era idea that, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote in the 1930s, the black woman was the world’s “mule.” Instead, the movement took up the notion of “strong black womanhood” in service to the race. It tried to turn a contemptible stereotype likening black women to pack animals into one that celebrated their profound human dignity. But the new myth turned out to be a Faustian bargain: At least partly because of it, black women find it hard to talk about their suffering in a culture where racism and sexism continue to sap health and spirits.
Monica Coleman is a professor of African-American religion at Claremont College and a theologian ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church, the same denomination as Sandy’s. Coleman has struggled since adolescence with major depression and suicidal thoughts. She wants the black church to be a place where people like Sandy can go to give and get help with depression. But very few churches provide mental-health counseling, Coleman notes. Instead, they recommend casting out depression through prayer. “Faith can help,” she says, “but it doesn’t get rid of chemical imbalances or life stressors.”
In 2014, according to Lionel Watts, Sandy got pregnant. Medical records indicate that it was an ectopic pregnancy. The condition occurs when a fertilized embryo implants in a fallopian tube rather than in the uterus. The result, usually experienced early in pregnancy, can be excruciating pain as well as the risk of a burst tube, internal bleeding, and death. Timely treatment usually saves the woman’s life. But in the aftermath, there is a risk of additional ectopic pregnancies as well as permanent infertility. In all, ectopic pregnancy is harrowing.
Immediately after Sandy’s death in July 2015, jail intake documents surfaced indicating that she had told the guards that she’d “lost a baby” a year earlier. Ectopic pregnancies are complicated medical experiences that most people don’t fully understand. That may be why, when asked by reporters, one of Sandy’s sisters said only that Sandy had “a miscarriage”—and that she had taken it in stride. But Sandy also reported that after she “lost a baby,” she tried to commit suicide by taking pills. Her family said they knew nothing about this.
Sandy’s godmother Dee Watts may have known. Her husband vaguely remembers Sandy seeming “sullen” and saying something to Dee about it. But Dee at the time had her own grave medical problems: She was terminally ill with cancer, and in July 2014—just weeks after Sandy’s pregnancy—she died. Dee was the older woman that Sandy had leaned on, for money, a place to stay, and a sympathetic ear. Lionel went into mourning and says he didn’t feel like having Sandy in the house anymore. He spoke with her much less often than when Dee was alive.
* * *
One of the last times Lionel saw Sandy was when she asked him for a ride to a job interview. He drove her to Cook’s, a manufacturer and distributor of cookware and kitchen supplies, mostly for prisons. Sandy was hired as an administrative assistant. The job paid only $13.50 an hour, but it was the first steady job she’d had in years. Lionel was happy for her. Not long after, she told him she was living with an older man who worked at Cook’s. An older man with steady employment, Lionel thought, would be good for Sandy.
Cook’s is a family-run business with about 30 employees, most of them white. One job perk is the chance to appear in short YouTube videos that advertise Cook’s products. Sandy starred in some. In one video, she bends a red spoon back and forth while touting its softness and the fact that “it cannot be easily sharpened into a weapon.”
A few months after she was hired by Cook’s, she saw Selma and started #SandySpeaks. She never posted on Facebook about her job, even though working there began to weigh on her as she became more politicized by the Black Lives Matter movement. “She had grown tired of helping ‘the Man’ generate profit off the backs and sweat of black people,” Lega remembers her saying one evening as they ate dinner together. “I just can’t do this anymore,” she told him about working at Cook’s. “It hurts my heart.” But she desperately needed the income, not to mention the health insurance.
Sandy did not typically speak on Facebook about her misdemeanor record, her problems with money, or anything else personal and dark. But in early March, after two weeks of uncharacteristic silence, she finally offered a personal revelation: She was suffering from depression and PTSD. On that very day, she said, she had been crying. Her illness was “something that the African American culture likes to turn a blind eye to.” Coping for her was a daily struggle, against “nothing but the Devil.”
In response to this confession, Sandy got no practical advice from her hundreds of Facebook followers, and barely any sympathy. There was a sad-face emoji, and one comment. “Depression sucks,” it said.
Meanwhile, she found an outlet for her increasing political awareness. She was determined to help the Jackie Robinson West baseball team, a group of black boys who had won the 2014 Little League World Series, but had the title taken away after it was discovered that some of the boys didn’t live in the team’s catchment area. Sandy vowed to collect petitions calling for reinstatement of the trophy. She spent hours at suburban malls, asking shoppers for signatures. She was disappointed that, though black people sometimes stopped, almost all of the very few people who signed were white.
She continued to post links to articles about disturbing injustices against black people. As April went by, they focused increasingly on police shootings of unarmed young men. One day she put up her own slogan, in capital letters: AT FIRST THEY USED A NOOSE. NOW ALL THEY DO IS SHOOT. She posted an image of a young black man in close-up, his neck encircled by an American flag, knotted so as to kill him by hanging. She made the noose image her profile picture.
A few days later, she left Cook’s—and became jobless and uninsured.
In June, she posted something else to Facebook about herself: “Walked into the house to a sink full of dishes. So I smashed a few plates (literally) to make myself feel better.” “LOL,” one response said.
On June 17, an armed white supremacist named Dylann Roof massacred nine black people during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina. Sandy immediately posted about the murders. At around this time, judging by a postmortem photograph of her inner left forearm, she seems to have cut herself repeatedly. The wounds were small, numerous, and neatly spaced. A bit of makeup, or a subtle turn of her forearm inward, would have easily made the cuts hard to see. Apparently, no one saw.
In late June, she called her old friend in Prairie View, LaVaughn Mosley. They had a long talk about her frustration and, as Mosley calls it, her desperation. Her feelings for the older man with whom she was living had diminished, even as he was getting more serious. The relationship had become one of convenience, a roof over her head. She had asked her mother if she could move in with her. She told Mosley that her mother had said she would think about it. Mosley urged Sandy to go onto the Prairie View A&M jobs website. She did, and found three positions. One was permanent, for someone with a college degree. Two were clerical and temporary, for just a few weeks that summer. She applied for all of them.
As she awaited replies, she drove with her mother to Tennessee over the July 4 weekend to visit family. According to her mom’s account in a Chicago magazine profile, they spent the road trip discussing old tensions, to the constant sound of the gospel-music CDs that Sandy had brought, and attempting to rebuild their relationship.
On Wednesday, July 8, Mosley got another call from Sandy. Prairie View wanted to interview her the next day. Her mother still hadn’t let her know if she could move in, and as Mosley recalls, she was at the end of her rope with DuPage County. “Fuck it—I’m going to Texas!” he remembers her saying. The following morning, he came home from a bicycle ride and found Sandy in his driveway. She had driven over 1,000 miles, nonstop, in 16 hours. According to Mosley, she had not told her boyfriend or kin that she was leaving.
She took a shower and went, on no sleep, to the interview. She was hired for one of the temporary jobs. It paid $13.80 an hour and would be just four weeks long. Her hire letter warned that it was “contingent upon the clearance of a background check.” Ecstatic nonetheless, Sandy called people to announce that she was hired. One of them was Mosley. He congratulated her and said she could stay with him until she got on her feet. He never saw her again.
The following afternoon, on Thursday, July 10, Sandy signed the papers for her job at Prairie View. She had just left that appointment when she was pulled over, brutalized, and arrested by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia.
* * *
At the county jail, Sandy told a Latino guard during intake that she had felt “very depressed” during the past year and that she felt that way at that moment. She added that she had tried to commit suicide in 2014 after losing her pregnancy (“a baby,” the jailer wrote). She said she’d experienced the death of a loved one.
Her revelations—and they were very brave ones, made to a stranger and signaling a desire for help—brought her no assistance whatsoever. It’s true that a little less than three hours after her intake, on a separate form, she contradicted herself and said she wasn’t depressed, never had been, and hadn’t thought of killing herself recently. Nonetheless, according to jail protocol, she should have been immediately seen by a mental-health professional and perhaps hospitalized—or, at the very least, put on suicide watch. None of these interventions happened. And, apparently, no one looked at her forearm.
She was charged with felony assault on a public servant and placed in a security cell that by chance was empty except for her. In effect, a very sociable young woman with signs of serious mental-health problems, and with a deep need to derive comfort from just being able to talk to someone, was thrown into solitary confinement.
Her cell phone was confiscated. Inmates are able to use a phone on the wall inside their cells, but only if each person they dial agrees to a $14.99 charge. They are instructed to pour water down the cell’s floor drain every time they use the toilet. And they are ordered never to use the jail intercom except in an emergency.
On Saturday, Sandy’s bond was set at $515, and she was allowed free calls from the booking desk. She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500. Mosley didn’t have the bond money either; he told Sandy that he would raise it from his fraternity brothers. He started contacting them but felt little urgency—after all, Sandy had always told him that “sitting out” time in jail had been so easy for her. By Sunday, neither he nor her family had the bond money ready.
Sandy called no one from her cell. No one visited. She was a woman with a reputation for never crying—yet, according to the women in a nearby cell, she spent Sunday sobbing uncontrollably and saying, repeatedly, that being locked up was not a life she could deal with.
On Monday, at about 6:30 am, she refused breakfast. Just before 8 am, she used the emergency-only intercom to beg a jail employee for more free calls from the front desk. He refused and said she needed to use the telephone in her cell. Two minutes later, she was on the intercom, making the same request. He again refused.
An hour later, she was found hanging from a bathroom privacy partition in her cell with a noose around her neck, fashioned from a plastic, jail-issue garbage bag. Her feet were touching the ground. The position is well known among coroners as being common in suicides, and quite effective for quickly causing death.
* * *
Postmortem, people of all races mourned Sandy as they might a dead daughter or good friend. Memorials, hashtags, and protests erupted, along with complicated theories about her being murdered by her jailers (many of whom were Latino or black). Her family filed a lawsuit, charging that the jail and jailers didn’t do what they should have done to prevent her from committing suicide. The defendants have responded to this eminently reasonable charge with stunning and stupefying cruelty, arguing that “Bland’s decision to commit suicide was hers alone.” Her family still doubts publicly that she killed herself, even as their own lawsuit suggests otherwise.
Since Sandy’s death, discussion has grown about Black Lives Matter activists suffering from depression. They talk of being worn down and worn out by the constant microaggressions they suffer, and which they spend their lives fighting. One woman has talked of wanting to fire a gun to her head. MarShawn McCarrel, a 23-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, went beyond wanting: He fatally shot himself on the steps of his state’s capitol, after posting on his Facebook page, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”
Amid the demons, everyone remembers the goodness of Sandy, especially a little boy who said goodbye to her. Eleven-year-old Taejon Washington lived in her apartment complex in DuPage County. He recalls a summer day when he and some friends discovered a game called the “Charlie Charlie Challenge,” which had gone viral on YouTube. To play, you take a piece of paper and write Yes/No/No/Yes in a four-square grid, then balance one pencil precariously on top of another, crosswise, in the center of the grid. “Charlie, Charlie, are you here?” the players in these videos intone—and when the upper pencil swings to “Yes,” they run away shrieking in gleeful terror.
Sandy approached Taejon and his friends. She had talked to them before, and they liked her. She’d been recording them with her phone; she said she wanted to document their lives. She told them they shouldn’t play the game—it was about summoning demons, not Jesus. Taejon felt grateful. After they spoke, she said she was leaving for Texas. They waved, and she drove off.
Days later, Taejon saw the horrifying arrest video and heard how Sandy was found dead. He doesn’t believe that she committed suicide. All he knows about her is that Sandy was the nice lady who gave him counsel and documented him with her cell phone. And as to the question #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland?, he knows that she was killed.