HMAAC adds to 'Stairwell of Memory' with Robbie Tolan portrait, interview
Cedric Ingram, the artist who painted the mural of Robbie Tolan which is part of the HMAAC's Stairwell of Memory. Feb 19, 2022. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Robbie Tolan has joined the Stairwell of Memory at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC). Yes, Tolan is still alive—a survivor of a horrific case of police brutality when he was shot three times while lying on the ground by Bellaire police officer Jeffrey Cotton on Dec 31, 2008. And yes, the other members of the HMAAC’s Stairwell of Memory, Sandra Bland and George Floyd, were not so lucky, as they lost their lives. But as program organizers pointed out, it’s important for the health of society that survivors of police violence and misconduct are remembered, as well.

“In that stairwell we have a picture of George Floyd, a picture of Sandra Bland, and we thought it would be extra special to put Robbie Tolan up, because sometimes those who survive are easily forgotten,” said Davina Reed, the HMAAC’s chief operating officer. “And we want everyone to remember what went on with him that night.”

To help people remember, the HMAAC recently held a special dedication of its stairwell and hosted its inaugural Bland/Floyd/Tolan Lecture, an event that featured an interview of Tolan by ABC13’s Melanie Lawson, along with a spoken word performance and the showing of a short documentary featuring Tolan and his mother recounting the events of Dec. 31, 2008 and the aftermath.

“We are all blessed to celebrate Robbie Tolan, ‘The Survivor,’ as the last portrait for HMAAC’s Stairwell of Memory,” said HMAAC CEO John Guess. “Robbie joins Sandy and Big Floyd, all subjected to police brutality that we must never forget. The Bland/Floyd/Tolan Lectures will help us learn from what happened to them as we improve the criminal justice system.”

Additionally, Tolan signed copies of his book, “No Justice: One White Police Officer, One Black Family.” Lezley McSpadden-Head, mother of police brutality victim Michael Brown, was in attendance as a special guest, as were the artists of two of the three paints adorning the Stairwell of Memory.

HMAAC adds to 'Stairwell of Memory' with Robbie Tolan portrait, interview

“John Guess commissioned me to paint the portrait of Robbie to be part of this commemoration,” said artist Cedric Ingram, a huge baseball fan who fashioned the portrait to resemble a baseball card.

Shawn Artis, the artist who painted the Sandra Bland portrait, was also in attendance. The jacket Bland wears in Artis’ work is made up a collage of Black people, with the right side of her clothes representing sorrow and mourning, and the left side representing “vengeance and not being afraid to stand up and fight for your people.”

“A lot of people miss this, but if you look in Sandra’s eyes, the left eye has a wifi symbol and the right eye has an Instagram share symbol,” said Artis. “The symbology in that is without technology we wouldn’t even know what happened to Ms. Bland. So, it’s our duty in this technological age to continue sharing when a tragedy happens like Ms. Bland’s. Sharing and continuing to share her story using technology.”

On New Year’s Eve 13 years ago, Cotton, who is white, shot a 23-year-old, unarmed Tolan who was just beginning his professional baseball career, in the driveway of the home where he lived with his parents, Marian and Bobby Tolan, who came outside in their pajamas and tried to explain that the car was theirs and that they lived in the house. The 23-year-old Tolan had been ordered to the ground at gunpoint, and was shot as he started to get up protesting the treatment of his mother who was being pushed toward a garage door by one of the officers on the scene. Cotton said he thought Tolan was reaching for a gun in his waistband. Cotton was indicted on a charge of aggravated assault by a public servant but was found not guilty and continued to work.

“Because of the Tolans, this case found its way all the way to the Supreme Court, and began the legal examination of qualified immunity for police officers involved in deadly use of force,’ HMAAC Board Chair Cindy Miles said.

Asked by Lawson why he continues to reach out to parents of police brutality victims instead of simply “washing his hands of his experience and moving on,” Tolan responded, “I won’t lie. For a while I just wanted to wash my hands of it, don’t be bothered with it and move on. My mom is the one who really kept the fight going. And I came out of that place of selfishness and realized that it’s just not about me. It’s bigger than me.”