When you walk into part of the Sandra Bland exhibit at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, there are four seats and the front half of a car facing a wall. Each seat is a window into the events of July 10, 2015, the day a state trooper pulled over and arrested the 28-year-old activist after she failed to use her turn signal. Visitors watch as police dashcam footage is projected before them, showing the trooper remove Bland from her vehicle and threaten her with a Taser.
Three days after that arrest, Bland was found hanged in her Waller County jail cell northwest of Houston. Although her death was ruled a suicide, questions of police brutality and the unfair treatment of people of color under the law were raised—and the episode inspired passionate protests across the nation. A grand jury declined to indict Bland’s jailers, and the trooper, Brian Encinia, was fired after perjury charges noted his description of the arrest didn’t match up with the dashcam footage (all criminal charges were ultimately dropped).
Almost three years later, HMAAC CEO John Guess, Jr. curated the exhibit as a jarring exercise in empathy, timed alongside Black History Month to allow visitors to experience the many emotions Bland felt on the day of her arrest.
It is also a response to the Stanford University study that found, “police officers across the United States [are] more likely to cite, search and arrest black and Latino drivers during routine traffic stops than white drivers.” This statistic is reflected in everyday lives; Guess explains in a press release that black youth are familiar with receiving "the talk" from their parents, advising them on how to act during encounters with police.
Bland is remembered for her civil and social rights activism—particularly her outspoken views on police brutality—and her involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement. She alone had at least 10 encounters with police in both Texas and Illinois prior to her final arrest (many of which were traffic stops). In a Facebook post she once wrote, “in the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.”
But most days, Bland lived a happy and normal life. Before diving into social activism, she would use Facebook to post quirky selfies and photos with her mom and sister. It was the 2014 film Selma documenting the 1965 voting marches from Selma to Montgomery that inspired her to use social media for activism and launch her YouTube channel, Sandy Speaks.
The exhibit spotlights the harmful effects of police brutality, the need for civil justice, and insight into Bland’s infectious and joyous personality. Installations include the interactive car, an altar that celebrates the life of Bland, and a mural of Bland as a queen titled Black in Texas, among other pieces.
Lee Carrier, the muralist, has said she hoped to create a portrait “that was respectful and portrayed her and who she truly was, a beautiful spirit and light to all who know her and someone who spoke out against civil injustice.”
Ultimately, that injustice is what HMAAC wants to emphasize.
“We hope this exhibition will bring our multicultural audience to a better understanding of the fear African Americans have towards encounters with the police,” Guess said.
Exhibit extended thru April. Free. Houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline St. 713-526-1015. More info at hmaac.org.