The random shootings that rocked north Tulsa on Good Friday have been turned into splashy headlines across the nation for two weeks. Media outlets quickly drew similarities between the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots and the shootings on April 6.
Media reports listed bland round-ups of the fiery explosion of racial tension that shattered north Tulsa in June 1921. Tulsans spent decades being too ashamed of the riots to speak about them.
Nine decades later, things have changed, but they've stayed the same, too. Now, we have racial tension of a different hue. Though no one likes to talk about it, Admiral Boulevard has become an invisible boundary between north Tulsa and the rest of mostly "white" Tulsa. We are a city, segregated.
But national media reports got the comparison wrong. The raging, fiery slaughter in early '20s Greenwood bears little resemblance to the random, sterile picking-off of five random black Tulsans. No, the real similarity between these two incidents is the deep and amazing grace with which the north Tulsa community has coped with tragedy.
In rallies and church services and marches and vigils, the people of north Tulsa came together. And when they gathered, they made magic. With choirs in crisp black robes and fresh white scarves, with little girls in bright Easter dresses dancing, with people rising up from red-velvet pews, with hugging and crying, with drums and red electric guitar in tune ... rather than retaliate, north Tulsa sang.
Going to Live with God
In the hushed pre-dawn darkness of April 6, two white men hopped into an old white pick-up truck. These men, 19-year-old Jake England and 32-year-old Alvin Watts, allegedly drove through north Tulsa, aimed at the bellies of five black residents and fired.
Three of the victims died. Dannaer Fields, 49, Bobby Clark, 54, and William Allen, 31, lost their lives on Good Friday this year. Two other men -- Deon Tucker, 44, and David Hall, 46 -- survived and are recovering.
Near 2am on Easter Sunday, England and Watts were arrested in Turley. The north Tulsa shootings became national news amid another highly publicized race-related shooting death. Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager, was shot in the chest by gated community watchdog George Zimmerman. The controversy gained traction as the city of Sanford, Fla., delayed arresting the shooter, who packed a 9mm semi-automatic pistol on his way to the store that night.
While a special investigation looked deeper into the Martin case, a white pick-up cruised through north Tulsa. On April 11, just five days after the north Tulsa shootings, a special prosecutor filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman.
A disturbing trend in hate crimes statistics, published annually by the FBI, adds deeper context to recent race-related violence. The data show that incidents involving an anti-black racial bias make up the majority of hate crimes committed each year. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, anti-black incidents have composed more than 70 percent of all reported hate crimes with a racial bias.
Though hate crimes numbers have been gradually decreasing overall, incidents with an anti-black racial bias are making up a bigger share of the yearly totals than ever before. In 2010, 6,628 hate crimes were reported.
Broken down, 47.3 percent of these crimes were racially motivated (20 percent were based upon religious bias, 19.3 percent based on sexual orientation, 12.8 percent on nation of origin, and 0.6 percent on disability bias).
Of those that were racially motivated, 69.8 percent were based upon an anti-black bias. The next highest bias was anti-white, with 18.2 percent of the total.
Figures for 2008 and 2009 have even higher percentages. However, the statistics for 2006 show a relatively smaller number of hate crimes based on anti-black bias. Out of 7,722 hate crime incidents reported, 51.8 percent were racially motivated with 66.2 percent based on anti-black bias. Though not a dramatic increase, an upward tick of several percentage points in just a few years is startling.
We Shall Overcome
On Mon., April 8, a judge set bail for England and Watts -- a steep $9.16 million apiece. The two have each been charged on three counts of first-degree murder, two counts of shooting with intent to kill and one count of possessing firearms during a felony.
But after the north Tulsa community lived in terror through Easter weekend, worried they might be picked off next, even a stratospheric bond was cause for concern. There is still a chance, however slim, of the suspects walking their streets again.
On the morning of April 11, more than a dozen north Tulsans gathered in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse to protest the bond with handmade signs.
"There have been some changes since '21," said Andrew Burkes. "But it hasn't been enough to even write home about.
"The little gain that we've made over the years, they're trying to take it away from us," Burkes said. "And I'm here to say that the minority will not stand for it."
Burkes said he is originally from Mississippi. "I thought I was getting out of that atmosphere when I came to Oklahoma," he said. "But it seems like I just got out of the skillet into the frying pan."
Twenty minutes into the peaceful protest, a white man and woman, with two toddlers in tow, crashed the protest with their own signs. The visibly angry, unnamed man said, "It was a hate crime when a black man jumped on a white woman!"
The man had written "Don't tread on me" in black Sharpie on his thin white T-shirt. He said he was counter-protesting because crimes with an anti-white bias aren't as highly publicized. He repeatedly mentioned the recent case of two elderly Tulsans, Bob and Nancy Strait, who were attacked in their home by a black male on March 14.
From the crowd, someone angrily screamed, "This is about what happened on the northside. This isn't about what you're talkin' about."
Someone else shouted, "Don't come over here with that, man."
Two Tulsa County sheriff's deputies escorted the counter-protesters to another part of the courthouse square.
Charlotte Capers had a lot to say to the counter-protesters. "Yeah, that black guy beat them people, but he didn't kill them like that," Capers shouted. "Y'all gonna let him sit over there and talk about hate. Hate! You're talkin' about hate? We've been hated on our whole life. Everything that come on the map that's bad, black people get it."
Capers pointed at her dark tan skin and said, "We're not in a gang. Our color, this is us. But if you pull it off, we all the same color!"
The special education teacher who's spent most of her life in the heart of north Tulsa said she came to the protest to "represent people."
She clarified. "Not a certain color of people. There are bad of all nations."
Capers believes they set a bond for Watts and England because they're white.
As the angry counter-protester loudly voiced his own take on racially motivated hate crimes, Capers waved her arm toward him. "He'll be all right, he just need a little prayer. That's all he needs."
Before she came to the protest that morning, she said she asked the Lord for deliverance. She addressed the rest of the group, "You want to start singing that song, 'We Shall Overcome'?"
The response? "No, not yet."
Randall Lopez, also a north Tulsa resident, said he started a petition to protest the bond set for the two men. The city was relieved when the suspects were arrested, he said, "But then you give them a bond? It was like a slap in the face. It's like walking an old lady across the street and then when you get her to the other side, snatching her purse.
"I don't think anybody should walk on the streets with these people," Lopez said.
He posed for a few photos as he held up a bag of Skittles, a new symbol of racial injustice. Trayvon Martin was reportedly carrying only a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea when he ran into Zimmerman. Lopez said he feels the Tulsa shootings and the Martin case are similar in ways. "[Martin] was black. He was stereotyped and killed, and all based on skin color. And these [Tulsa] killings were based on their skin color," Lopez said.
In His Arms, I Feel Protected
By the evening of Sun., April 15, tempers had calmed. The racial tensions, the invisible boundaries and conspiracy theories melted as many north Tulsans gathered at First Baptist Church North Tulsa for a historic rally of peace and hope.
Nestled in the historic church, Mayor Bartlett and his wife Victoria, District 1 City Councilor Jack Henderson, Tulsa NAACP President Warren Blakney and First Baptist's senior pastor Anthony Scott welcomed national civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. to the pulpit.
Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke from the same pulpit.
Jackson arrived in Tulsa on Friday morning, one week after the shootings. He attended the funeral of 54-year-old Bobby Clark at Crown Hill Cemetery Chapel.
City officials sat at the front of the chapel, while hundreds packed into the red and cherrywood pews of First Baptist Church North Tulsa. A church band played along as people clapped their hands and sang along with the choirs. People rustled about and chatted, babies chirped and were snuggled and kissed on their cheeks.
A little boy in a short-sleeved white dress shirt and mauve tie passed out paper fans to the sweating crowd. In their Easter finest, north Tulsa packed the chapel. Some sat on red-carpeted stairs while others perched on stained glass windowsills to hear the music, to take comfort in soothing words, to hear a legendary reverend speak about civil rights.
A children's choir, all dressed in bright purple shirts, sang a song about putting one's life in the hands of Jesus. The two men who survived the shootings, Tucker and Hall, sat up front, one with his arm in a sling. Family members of the fallen victims also packed the front rows. Some slowly stroked precious mementoes from their loved ones.
Henderson spoke first. "All those people who told you that Jesse Jackson came to stir some mess, you can tell them that they don't know what they're talkin' about," he said to wild applause.
"God is going to make this city a better place," he said. "Amen!" shouted the congregation.
"Black, white, north, south, east, west, there was not one incident" of retaliation, Henderson said, though he acknowledged there are still "some racial problems" in Tulsa.
"But we're going to work on those problems together," Henderson said, before he gave the floor to Mayor Bartlett.
The mayor welcomed Jackson to Tulsa, and said that since he met the civil rights leader, he came to understand that Jackson "is a man of faith.
"He's a man of peace. He's a man of reconciliation. He's a man of conscience, a man of healing. And he's a man of commitment to the very things that Martin Luther King died for," Bartlett said. The crowd punctuated almost every word with an "Amen."
"This past week has been one that words will never describe," the mayor said. Bobby Clark was a "friend of the homeless" who played guitar from the age of 11, Bartlett said.
Donnaer Fields has a very large family and sang in the church choir. Her favorite hymn was "I Won't Complain," he said.
William Allen had a good heart.
The mayor promised the north Tulsa congregation that he'd work on providing jobs for the community, and they responded with a standing ovation.
After a few more exhortations, another choir took the stage and sang about being done with the troubles of the world. About going home to live with God. The organ and guitar wound the crowd into a sparkling groove of singing, clapping -- a beating heart of sound.
Pastor Scott introduced Jackson. "We are witnesses to one more significant moment in the history of this nation, one more giant step for equality and civil rights in this city, and a historic moment in this historic church," Scott said.
But first a worship leader led the gathering in a hymn about falling in love with Jesus. "In his arms I feel protected," they sang. "There's no rather place I'd rather be."
Jackson took the pulpit and called the church a "place of refuge in a time of crisis."
"Let's not let what happened in Sanford happen in Tulsa," he said. "Tulsa has the potential to become even more explosive than Sanford."
As Jackson surveyed the crowd, he said, "You're well-dressed, stressed people." They laughed.
"It's our burden to move from revenge to redemption," he said.
"We're the most violent nation on earth ... We make the most bullets and we shoot them. We make the most bombs and we fire them."
Jackson spoke out against the Iraq War, against concentrated wealth, concealed carry legislation and racism. He insisted that politics are an important part of handling race relations and leveling the playing field. "You take politics out of Christmas, all you got left is Santa Claus," he warned. "You take politics out of Easter, nothing left but the Easter Bunny."
Jackson said Jesus "was born a poor Jew," without "good clothes," who would've "come from the north side of Tulsa."
"It's redemption night," he said. "I cry sometimes. I'm knocked down sometimes. I get up again and again and again.
"Nothing's too hard for God at Easter time," he said. "Hold on and hold out, for joy cometh in the morning."
Jackson finished up his half-hour sermon with shouts of exhortation. "God will! Heal our land! It's healing time, Tulsa! It's healing time!"
With the organ cueing up again, Jackson and the other ministers and church elders gathered around the two wounded men -- Tucker and Hall -- and grieving family members. In a legendary group hug, concentric circles of intertwined arms held one another through one more heart-wrenching hymn.
"Let's internalize the seriousness of this moment," Pastor Scott said, praying. "They could've been dead and the city could've been in flames. But somehow, some way, Your blood put out the fire."
A choir leader plunged into a deeply resonant hymn about the blood of Jesus. "It washes white as snow." And after three hours of healing in the womb of First Baptist's chapel, people began filing back out into the night.
It Washes White as Snow
On the evening of Sun., April 15, north Tulsans gathered once more to celebrate the lives of those who died in the shootings.
At a memorial march organized by the Tulsa/Dallas African Ancestral Society, people brought flowers and candles and gifts to the McClain Shopping Center on N. Peoria Ave. They honored the fallen with drink and song and African drums.
As the sun set on the march, two ambulances screamed up N. Peoria Ave. With lights flashing, the two emergency vehicles pulled up into Comanche Park Apartments, the same place where suspected shooter Jake England's father, Carl England, was killed two years before. Carl died following a physical altercation with a black man, Pernell Jefferson, who was not charged in Carl's death.
On Monday, the suspects pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against them during a video arraignment. A preliminary hearing will be held May 30.
It's healing time, Tulsa.
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