(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, with more essays in the following days.)
Just over one year ago, Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, in the context of a system of policing that continues to treat much of his and other officers’ violence as legal and blameless. This intersection of state power and racial violence is neither a unique nor a contemporary development. One hundred years ago, a mob of white Tulsans murdered hundreds of Black Tulsans, in the context of a system of policing that helped to create the conditions resulting in the Massacre and exacerbated those conditions in the Massacre’s immediate aftermath.
At a time when “racial reckoning” and “police accountability” are terminologies de rigueur, what do those terms require in response to state participation in such tragedies? In the case of Tulsa, monetary reparations are one necessary ingredient of any meaningful racial reckoning. Yet, the Massacre not only involved property loss and human devastation; it was also an assault on Black democratic agency. It was a form of estrangement of the Black community that was physical, economic, legal, and epistemic.
Alongside necessary monetary reparations, a democratic reckoning and commitments to repair are also necessary. Governments that have actively silenced and diminished the political voices of marginalized people have an obligation to correct that injustice by taking a multifaceted approach to restoring that lost political voice. Restoring political voice has implications for voting and electoral practices, school curricula (including education on histories and theories of racism and political violence), municipal governance and investments in the development of marginalized neighborhoods and small towns, and more.
State-Sanctioned Racial Violence
On Tuesday evening, May 31 and Wednesday, June 1, 1921, an angry mob of white Tulsans firebombed the city’s Black district, then known as “Greenwood,” the “East End,” or “Little Africa,” but now more frequently called “Black Wall Street,” in broad public discourse. The mob burned Greenwood to the ground, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. It slaughtered hundreds of Black Tulsans, burying some in unmarked graves and slaying many more whose bodies have never been recovered. Beyond the killings, the white mob effectively exiled thousands more Black Tulsans who left the city for destinations north and west, traumatized, destitute, and humiliated. Those who remained in the city rebuilt Greenwood and restored the area, to some degree. Yet, despite the efforts to rebuild, the community never fully recovered.
Since the Massacre, survivors and their descendants have claimed that Tulsa Police officers actively participated in the Massacre, perhaps even arming the white mob.
Those likely hoping to avoid municipal liability and, thus, reparations have emphasized the blame of private individuals for the Massacre, with no mention of police involvement or state sanctioning. In an August 2020 speech at the groundbreaking for Greenwood Rising, a museum that is meant to pay homage to survivors of the Massacre, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum described the Massacre as an episode in which “people murdered our neighbors, and then they covered it up—for decades.” Instead of “whites” and “Blacks,” or “those with control over the state” and “those who were oppressed by it,” Bynum’s description reimagines the Massacre through a color-blind, power-blind, and aberrant lens—an inexplicable episode carried out by “people” against “neighbors.”
Yet Tulsa Police and criminal system actors, both as individuals and through policy, were part of the impetus for the Massacre and contributed to the humiliation and oppression of Black Tulsans in its immediate aftermath.
“The Police Peril”
Before the Massacre, Black Tulsans were advocating against police racism in Greenwood. For example, in January 1921, The Tulsa Star, Tulsa’s primary Black newspaper, published a lengthy editorial condemning “the police peril.” This peril, according to the newspaper’s editor A.J. Smitherman, was caused by white police officers who routinely came to the Black district, usurping the authority of the Black officers who had been appointed to patrol the Black district, unjustifiably searching Black establishments, and terrorizing Black Tulsans. Smitherman wrote of his own experience being unjustifiably stopped by police. He claimed that five white officers stopped a taxi with him inside and threatened his life simply because he stood up for himself and criticized their practices. His conclusion was that the white officers did not see that “all citizens have legal rights that even police officers must respect.”
It is thus unsurprising that less than six months later on May 31, 1921, Black Tulsans were wary when the Tulsa County Sheriff assured them that he would protect 19-year-old Black man Dick Rowland, who had seemingly falsely been accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman in a downtown elevator.
As a white mob gathered in an almost certain attempt to lynch Rowland, a group of Black Tulsans organized to protect Rowland from the mob. This confrontation at the county jail was a direct response to the interlocking failures of harsh police presence paired with little police protection for Black people. As Roscoe Dunjee, editor of another Oklahoma Black newspaper, The Black Dispatch, explained on June 3, 1921: “The sheriff of Tulsa county has permitted men to be lynched by the same gang that was at his jail door Tuesday night.”
Even as policing theories have evolved over the past 100 years, the basic truth has remained: far too often, police are present in Black communities not to provide Black security, but to undermine it. This seemingly timeless truth ultimately resulted in the Massacre that May evening in 1921 and through the next day.
Much inquiry about the role of police in the Massacre over the past century has focused on whether police officers directly armed the white mob or participated in mob activities themselves. But this inquiry overlooks the fact that police malfeasance and ineffectuality created the conditions for the Massacre.
Policing also intensified the Massacre’s brutal aftermath. For example, in the days following the Massacre, the City set up “detention camps” for Black Tulsans on local fairgrounds, packed with tents and barracks, vulnerable to flooding and other environmental hazards. One week after the massacre, Tulsa’s police chief issued an order requiring that Black Tulsans wear green identification tags bearing their employer’s signature or be arrested and banished to the detention camps. Although the green card would ostensibly protect Black Tulsans from police involvement—“the certificate of industry and decency,” one white-run local newspaper called it—the measure unsurprisingly offered little protection from arbitrary police contact.
Justifying their actions through a claim that Black Tulsans were sharing green tags, white Tulsa Police officers began rounding up any Black person they wanted to and demanding evidence of employment. When Black people “were unable to prove to the police that they were engaged in any lawful occupations,” white Tulsa Police officers captured and deposited them into a detention camp. Both the green card order itself, and its implementation, are examples of the racially oppressive practices by police at the time that intensified the already horrific nature of the Massacre.
The Tulsa Police Chief lifted the green card order on July 7, 1921—but only for “bona fide negro citizens.” Although it is doubtful that many Black people would have wanted to move to Tulsa immediately after the Massacre, the law assured that they could not: Black people who wanted to move to Tulsa had to receive an endorsement from “some reputable white resident of Tulsa.”
As the City debated what to do with the Black district after the Massacre, it convened a grand jury to assign blame for the event and to come up with a set of proposals to prevent future outbreaks. The grand jury unsurprisingly concluded that Black Tulsans were to blame. Specifically, the jury concluded that “indiscriminate mingling of white and colored people in dance halls and other places of amusement” raised concerns. Its proposed solution was to replace the Black officers who were assigned to patrol the Black district before the Massacre with white police officers who would ensure that “a proper relationship may be maintained between the two races.”
Ideas for Democratic Repair
The silence that took root in Tulsa’s Black community after the Massacre was a direct consequence of state action. Given this articulation of the democratic harms that policing caused during the 1921 massacre, what might democratic repair look like in contemporary Tulsa?
As an outsider to Tulsa, I am hesitant to devise highly specific prescriptions for a milieu that is not my own. For too long, Tulsa’s Black community has been overlooked in articulating its own agenda for justice, including reparations. Part of “democratic repair” has to mean shifting decisionmaking power to those who have suffered marginalization.
Yet, there are some general, basic features of what a capacious commitment to democratic repair in the wake of state violence might mean.
• First, given the centrality of police as state actors setting an environment for and exacerbating this violence, transformative change in policing is not just good public policy in the present—it is a way of repairing the democratic harms perpetuated in the past. The need for transformative change to policing in contemporary Tulsa is demonstrated through multiple sources. The City’s Equality Indicators reports, initiated by Mayor Bynum’s office, have consistently given some of the lowest equality scores in the city for “justice,” with the lowest equality score in the justice category for “Officer use of force by subject race.” Worse—justice equality scores have decreased each year since the annual reports started in 2018. It is too early to tell how to interpret these declining scores, but they suggest that reform efforts have either been ineffective or slow to show results for racial equality. The mayor appointed the city’s first Black police chief in 2020, whose key initiatives have been creating new units for community engagement and public relations, especially through social media. Local activists have been advocating for change to policing in Tulsa, but they have faced serious resistance on many fronts.
• Second, the linkages between education, including school curricula, and democratic voice is well understood. This is why the new state law banning certain aspects of education on race—including lessons that teach that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” is especially insidious. One hundred years after the Tulsa Massacre, the only way Tulsa youth will be permitted to learn about it at school is through a highly politicized lens that ignores its contemporary legacy and discourages reflection on continued responsibility for its harms.
• Third, vibrant community organizations, journalistic enterprises, and aesthetic works are the lifeblood of democracy. Part of a program for democratic reparations could mean grants for Black-led local community organizations and organizers, journalists and other writers, artists, and musicians in Tulsa who are contributing to the process of bringing the community out of the silence that both state and private violence constructed.
• Fourth, of course, voting is a critical piece of democratic engagement. Barriers to voting take on special concern in a state like Oklahoma, which has the second highest state imprisonment rate in the nation. As in most states, there is a severe Black-white disparity in state incarceration. While Oklahoma has restored voting rights for people with felony records, the State Election Board’s policy requires that they be denied voting rights until they have served out their full sentence, regardless of whether they are actually still incarcerated. It also fails to provide information to people with felony records that they can have their voting rights restored. Perhaps in Tulsa, part of an agenda for democratic repair would mean affirmatively expanding access to and information about the franchise, especially among those who have formerly been incarcerated.
• Fifth, the Massacre caused a mass exodus out of Tulsa, which also weakened Black collective democratic voice in the city. In a parallel way to the City’s efforts to attract remote workers by offering them $10,000 relocation grants, the City could offer relocation grants for those who would contribute to the strengthening of the political voice of survivors and descendants of survivors of the Tulsa Massacre.
To be sure, these ideas are preliminary and would certainly face political obstacles. Yet, this conversation is important as part of a long-term strategy of creating reparative tools after racially violent events that would restore lost democratic voice.