Remembering the Tulsa riots:
'Racism is still alive'
My name is Edwin Torres, I am 26 years old, born and raised Catholic and Democrat in a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx, New York City. My culture is a mix of black, Spanish and indigenous Caribbean. My family came to New York in the late 1980s to pursue the dream as native-born Latino citizens. We have also lived through generations of racism and poverty with our African-American brothers and sisters in the years of the burning Bronx and after.
The recent killings of black men at the hands of police constantly remind me of situations that can happen to me. As a photographer, I always worry that my camera might be mistaken for a gun.
In the United States, Black Lives Matter has practically become a political party representing the interests of my people. I lived through countless black lives lost and subsequent protest here in New York with Eric Garner in Brooklyn and Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. I covered the riots in the wake of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
When The GroundTruth Project asked me to contribute to a nationwide photo series on youth and the election called “Season of Discontent,” I wasn’t entirely sure what to do until the morning I scrolled through Facebook and found that another two unarmed black men, Keith L. Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, had been killed by police. I was outraged, like many of my generation.
Amid the breaking news frenzy, we wanted to know how young people in Tulsa were responding, and I flew to Oklahoma to find out. While Charlotte rioted, Tulsa prayed. Tulsa has a deep, rich history, but also a dark one. One of the largest race riots in American history took place 95 years ago in the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.
I asked many of my subjects if they knew about the riots in which more than 300 African-Americans were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, while 35 city blocks of “Black Wall Street” — named for its affluent, black-owned businesses — were burned to the ground.
Was Tulsa peaceful in the wake of Crutcher’s killing because residents remember the city’s history? A mother I met during a rally, Tracie Skinner, was in prayer with her daughter and shared her thoughts as to why Tulsa didn’t riot.
“Damaging won’t get us to where we want to be. But speaking up and protesting and being here, we have gained a lot more and we have done this before,” she said.
Many Tulsa residents were thinking about the bigger picture ahead of the presidential election, saying they wanted to vote to create change but felt politically disenfranchised.
“I knew people a few years ago who were like, ‘I am never gonna vote,’ but this election has awoken people,” said Stephen King, an artist born and raised in Tulsa. “Other countries already hate America, so when you think about the possibility of [Trump] representing our country to other countries, [it’s] worrying … I am not a fan of Hillary, either. When I saw Bernie speak, it was like, ‘Is this what it felt like to hear Dr. King talk?’ I straight up believe he was robbed and cheated.”
Melissa Lewis, 25, founder of the Dreamers Initiative and a master’s candidate in social work at Oklahoma University, hosted a forum to encourage the next generation not to give up on the democratic process.
“I feel, in order to address systemic racism, you have to address the system and one of the best ways to do it is to vote making sure you get the right people in office, who are going to advocate for your community on all levels not only presidential but your state-level, your local government,” she said. “That’s really where you see a lot of the changes. Those are things that directly affect you and your everyday function. We, as young people, we are the people who are going to be monumental in making this change.”
This portrait series follows the voices of young people in Tulsa and we have to listen to truly hear them. One takeaway: just because people are protesting peacefully in black and white crowds, it does not mean that they were not angry and that race was no longer an issue.
Many of my interviews and portraits shed light on tension with history, racial segregation and political disenfranchisement that were tearing at the seams of the present-day peace.
As April Coger, who works as a nurse’s assistant for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, was taking her car for a wash after work in North Tulsa. She offered a reminder that all is not well in Tulsa.
“If I could change it, I would set up something where all the youth have somewhere to go and [something to] do,” Coger said. “There’s nothing to do here in Tulsa, so if you don’t have a job and you’re a felon, you’re going to end up in prison or jail. What can they do to help us? We are in desperate need.”
Tracie Skinner, 35, and Courtney Williams, 7, take part in a moment of prayer at the We the People Oklahoma Rally for the Crutcher family.
“We’ve invested a lot in this town. Why would we destroy something we’ve invested [in] when we can speak our voices? We’ve made more of a come up than North Carolina, just because of speaking. Damaging [things] won’t get us to where we want to be. But speaking and protesting and being here, we have gained a lot more – and we have done this before. This is not the first time we have done this.”
Terence Crutcher, 40, was shot and killed by police on Sept. 16, 2016, after waiting on the side of the road for help when his SUV reportedly broke down. Protests broke out nationwide after a video of the incident was released – it showed Crutcher walking toward his vehicle with his hands up in the air.
Brando West, 26, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, but has lived in Tulsa for many of his adolescent years.
“Man, what brings me out here today is that an innocent black man was killed for no reason, and and we need to stand up and learn our laws and we need to come together so we can change things. It ain’t right. It ain’t a race thing. I think it’s more so the police. It ain’t a black and white thing, you see – there are black people out here and white people out here. Black people need to come together. All that black-on-black crime needs to stop – that gang banging stuff. If all people come together as one unit and let these people know, [who are] in city hall, how you feel and we start voting and we get these people out of office, and get them out the way and we come together – that will be the best thing for us. All these people out here – this is all love. This right here is good. They don’t want this for us. A positive protest is good. I came out here by myself because I like this stuff. It so segregated down here. You don’t really see this out here, all people are out here.”
Zach Miller, 33, is protesting police in Tulsa.
“I think that police departments across the country has seen cowardice infiltrate them. They’re scared. They’re the guys who are out on the street supposed to be our heroes. They are the guys who put their lives on the line for us. You know they take that heat. But, if they’re coming out and using their gun to solve their problems, why do we have them at all? We can shoot each other ourselves and we know how well that works out, you know – not very well.”
Mackenzie Toliver, 15, participates in a pep rally at Booker T. Washington High School, a historically black school where #BlackLivesMatter is celebrated.
“My dad is an African American police officer, so hearing him talk about some of this stuff is interesting as far as some of the decisions you have to make as a police officer. But, in this case, it was completely not okay. He has both sides as an African American and a police officer – the decisions he has to make everyday and how you perceive someone versus how you are trained to do something is interesting. He’ll say, ‘In certain situations, your options are killed or [will] be killed because you don’t know what they are doing, and you want to come home to your children as well.”
Dwight Hamilton and Donald Broadnax, both 15, standing before a football game at Booker T. Washington High School, a historically black school.
“It feels great to know that Booker T. is unified like that. It was a last minute thing for everyone to wear black for solidarity for Black Lives Matter. This school has a big impact and is tied into the community like that. They are are aware of what is going on.”
Melissa Lewis, 25, hosts a gathering to find solutions for Tulsa. Lewis is part of the Dreamers Initiative and is a also pursuing for a master’s degree in social work at Oklahoma University.
“I feel, in order to address systemic racism, you have to address the system and one of the best ways to do it is to vote, making sure you get the right people in office who are going to advocate for your community on all levels – not only presidential, but your state level, your local government – that’s really where you see a lot of the changes. Those are things that directly affect you, your everyday function. From school, we – as young people – we are the people who are going to be monumental in making this change. As you can see with President Obama, the reason he is in office is because young people came out.”
Youself Ageil, 26, moved to Tulsa from Saudi Arabia when he was 5 years old. He is now the co-founder of The Dreamers Initiative.
“For one, I am muslim, so we begin our conversations with, ‘As-Salamu-Alaykum,’ which means ‘Peace be upon you.’ Everyone here acted in that way They acted in a peaceful way – the representation of what true humanity should look like. Go and do things intellectually without having to fight or retaliating. The way the community came together here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has the true representation of peace.”
“See, I am half black, half brown, so I have racism coming from both ends since I am black and Middle Eastern. People don’t even know what I am. They stutter. ‘Are you black?’ I am labeled a terrorist in one end, and the other end, I am the N-word. I am split basically, but I am united at the same time. I am coming together and putting that bridge to connect the two – to bring my family and friends from around the world to come together as one to make a difference.”
Stephen King is an artist born and raised in Tulsa.
“I knew people a few years ago who were like, ‘I never am gonna vote,’ but this election has awoken people. Other countries already hate america, so when you think about the possibility of [Trump] representing our country to other countries, [it’s] worrying … I am not a fan of Hillary, either. When I saw Bernie speak, it was like, ‘Is this what it felt like to hear Dr. King talk?’ I straight up believe he was robbed and cheated. I was a Bernie supporter. It’s funny – every primary, there is something that happens. Bernie was that light. He cares about people. He was always talking in the form of ‘we.’ To me, that is something that I could believe in. It’s funny here in Oklahoma. We can’t vote for Jill Stein – ‘excuse [me], the Green Party is not even included in our ballot.’ Why is it so difficult? Why is it that, in certain places, you can’t vote for certain people? I have friends who wanted to switch from Republican to Democrat to support Bernie, but they couldn’t switch in time.”
Omar, 37, is one of the only African Americans openly carrying a gun during a rally outside of the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is originally from Oklahoma City, but has family roots in Tulsa.
“People speak about the Tulsa Riots, but they forget everything that led up to the Tulsa Riots. My great grandmother’s brothers were executed in the south of Tulsa – all three of them hanged. Tulsa was a powder keg from the beginning. So, when African Americans came and created this black Wall Street, that became the envy of everyone around them. It became, ‘Oh, here we go, somebody create this false accusation,’ and it just exploded, and it did, it did.”
“To be honest, I would love for more of people who look like me to understand that they have this right and that, when they stand up to carry their sidearm with them – and in large numbers – the police aren’t going to do anything to you. When individuals are carrying, because they know if you shooting at people illegally, something is going to happen. People are going to shoot back. Granted, I don’t want violence. I’m not a violent person. I’ve never been violent in my life. But some people look at me and think, ‘Man, this guy look kind of violent.’ I have never been violent in my life. That’s why I can carry – because I have never been in trouble with the law.”
Brian Nhira, 24, was practicing his song, “Flaws,” before a church service for Terence Crutcher. The songs asks how differences in skin colors became a flaw, and is a call for people to come together as one.
“I got tired of posting on social media and rants. If I can post something, then I can step up and involve myself in different events. That’s why I am here – to lend my voice.”
Cameron Brewer, 24, is a former teacher and now a stand up comedian and spoken word poet in Oklahoma City.
“The reason I wear these huge glasses isn’t only because I have bad vision, but [because when] people see someone with glasses, they think, ‘This guy might be smart, nice and kind – not someone to be afraid of.’ I’d rather use this as a buffer between me and the white gaze to effect a little bit of empathy. I guess, you know, people see someone with glasses and they think, ‘This guy is all right.’”
Jody Ruffin, 30, stood with his nephew during a rally called “100 Big Bad Dudes” in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
“I wanted to come and support what’s been going on. This is about showing we aren’t the big, bad dudes. Me, personally, I am a felon and some people might conclude that, with me being a felon, that I am a big, bad dude. I am a felon for selling drugs. Even though I got a past and a history, I am still first and foremost a father, a brother, an uncle and a cousin. I am a wonderful father to the four children I have.”
Hazel Jones, 97, is a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. White supremacists killed at least 300 black people during the race riots.
“I was a baby when the riot came. I was living on 1205 North Madison when the riot came. I was 3 years old. It’s like I tell everybody – my older brothers and sisters, we talked about it – we tried to survive. We didn’t get burned out or anything. During the riot, they came and got us and took us to the fairgrounds, where they were gathering people who didn’t have a place to stay. We couldn’t really talk about it because we didn’t know who was behind the white robes of the Klu Klux Klan. It was the KKK because they used to burn a cross on the hill. When we see the cross burn, we thought they had some people and they gonna do some bad things to them. My dad didn’t want to let people know where we were. They didn’t treat us fairly with the riots. They haven’t done anything for us. They haven’t done anything.”
Daniel Marrow, 40, is the director of the Tulsa Open Carry Association and a former US Army veteran. He attends a Blue Lives Matter protest to support Police Officer Shelby, who shot Crutcher, outside of the Tulsa County courthouse.
“I am a military veteran and a huge second amendment supporter. I am not a single issue voter, but the simple fact of what’s on the democratic ticket, I had her for governor’s wife and I know what she was like – there’s no way in hell that anyone who is in the military or law enforcement or anyone who believes in their rights will ever support her. The other side, we have somebody who has no true political affiliation and may honestly be, I’m not gonna say, ‘a breathe of fresh air,’ but it’s gonna be a breathe of something we haven’t taken. I think this is where the real change happens. It’s not the ‘same old, same old,’ wearing a different pants and suit.”
Julia Clayton participates in an All Lives Matter rally outside of the Tulsa County courthouse.
“My biggest issue has been us working the American dream everyday and so many of our tax dollars are going to those sitting at home and receiving it. I am all about working for yourself making something of yourself. We have a whole generation that has been raised on, ‘what can you give me?’ So many people in Oklahoma just want to sit back, take the things that are free and live off the government and not do anything in return. If you’re out there working and having a tough time, that one’s thing, but if you’re out here have five babies from five different men and collecting as an income, that’s when I have a problem.”
Reverend Al Sharpton flew into Tulsa to lead a Rally of Justice for Terence Crutcher at City Hall.
“A guy asked me, getting off the plane, why I was here and I told him, ‘I heard ya. We’re looking for a bad dude because what’s the difference between Terence Crutcher and me or anyone in this crowd, if you’re walking with your hands up to your car? His father taught young people in church to do whatever you can to show police you are not being antagonistic. He did what his daddy told him to do and he got killed. We want to know why and we want everybody held accountable.’”
Cayla Davis, 25, stands amid the Rally of Justice for Terence Crutcher and in front of City Hall.
“Here in Tulsa, a lot of people don’t even know about 1921. They don’t even teach it to us in school, so a lot of people don’t know what’s going on out here. I believe it’s bringing us together as people – each killing is bringing the community together. We are more about love, peace and prayer.”
Vashonda Sherra Pinnell, 35, stands on the border of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, formerly Black Wall Street. She is a musician and singer.
“It does make me think of what happened in 1921 – the type of feeling I am hoping will take place, the direction towards healing. One of the things about the 1921 riots is that it wasn’t the black community that was rioting. They were attacked. It was a massacre. It was bombed. This was the original bombing. 300 lives. It’s huge to aim at that type of population of people and killing and burning churches, schools and hospitals. Growing up and knowing about that history, I think, for me, is something I am aware of but I don’t live my everyday life functioning in a way that is negative. We have a problem. Racism is still alive, not gone.”
Akono, 31, works as a cook at Walmart and supports his daughter.
“I just felt change had to come from within. I had to work on myself because all my younger siblings were picking up their gang influences from me. I would throw up and they would [mimic] what I was teaching. I realized then that I am a teacher, so if I can teach them something, it should be positive instead of negative, you know, because like when I was gang banging, my brother would always say he got that from me and I never understood that. I was like, ‘Nah, you got that from friends at school.’ Then, after that particular incident where I said he wasn’t going to be the next one, I don’t know, I just saw everything they were saying. I started listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror.’ I swear, for about a week, I played that song. Change started slowly coming, but it started with the man in the mirror.”
April Coger works as a nurse assistant for patients with Dementia and Alzheimer’s at a clinic, and is on her way to a car wash in North Tulsa.
“If I could change it, I would set up something where all the youth have somewhere to go and [something to] do. There’s nothing to do here in Tulsa, so if you don’t have a job and you’re a felon, you’re going to end up in prison or jail. What can they do to help us? We are in desperate need and another riot is not something that is going to fix the need for the black community.”
Darion “Tha Supa” Woodard is a rap music artist born and raised in Tulsa.
“I was shot the first time when I was 16. A dude wanted to fight or whatever. There was a little girl who was 4 years old, I picked her up and took her inside the house. I turned back around to confront the situation, and he let me know it wasn’t that type of situation for hands – and he pulled a sawed off and shot me in my leg and my back … The second time, one of my best friends shot me because the police wanted me to tell some information on people, and I didn’t, and they told me that they were going to have me killed. I thought it was a joke and they had told some people that I was supposed to be cool with that I had told on them, and they tried to set me up and get shot. I was19 at the time. That was on my block – 49th and Elwood.”
Sunday Dixon, a beauty salon owner and a member of the Black Lives Matter Tulsa Chapter, stands with Pastor Mareo Johnson, director of Tulsa BLM chapter.
“Last time I heard about the race riots was from a white man on Facebook. He said that the reason we were so peaceful basically is because we know not to act out because the last time we did, we all ended up dead. So, if we do it, we end up in the grave next to the person we rioting.”