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99 Years Later, Wounds of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Have “Never Been Remedied”

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President Trump’s first campaign rally since the start of the pandemic takes place Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, despite a spike of COVID-19 cases there. Trump rescheduled the rally to Saturday after facing backlash for saying it would happen on Juneteenth — a celebration of African Americans’ liberation from slavery — amid a nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality. Tulsa is also the site of one of the deadliest massacres in U.S. history, when a white mob in 1921 killed as many as 300 people in a thriving African American business district known as “Black Wall Street.” For more on this history and the pervasive racism that remains, we speak with civil rights lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents the last known survivor of the Greenwood massacre living in Tulsa. He’s also the attorney for the family of Terence Crutcher, a Black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tulsa in 2016. Terence Crutcher’s sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, also joins us from Tulsa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where President Trump will host a massive indoor campaign rally Saturday, despite a spike in COVID-19 cases there. This is his first since he stopped them during the pandemic. Attendees are required to sign a waiver absolving the campaign of liability if they get the virus, but they are not required to wear masks. Oklahoma reported a record number of new COVID cases Thursday for the fifth consecutive day.

Trump rescheduled the rally to Saturday after facing enormous backlash for saying it would happen on Juneteenth — the celebration of African Americans’ liberation from slavery — amidst a nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality.

But Tulsa is also the site of one of the deadliest massacres in U.S. history. In 1921, 99 years ago this month, a white mob attacked a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, killing as many as 300 African Americans. Over two days, white mobs set fire to homes, businesses, churches in Greenwood, a thriving African American business district known as “Black Wall Street.”

To talk about this history and the pervasive racism that remains, we go to Tulsa, where we’re joined by Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights and sports lawyer, who represents the last known survivor of the Greenwood massacre living in Tulsa. He’s also the attorney for the family of Terence Crutcher, a Black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tulsa in 2016. Terence Crutcher was unarmed, with his hands in the air, when he was killed. He had pulled over on the side of the road because his car broke down. The officer, Betty Shelby, was later acquitted. Terence Crutcher’s twin sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, also joins us from Tulsa. Her great-grandmother was a survivor of the 1921 massacre. She’ll introduce the Reverend Al Sharpton today at the 2020 Juneteenth celebration, “I, Too, Am America,” that’s taking place in Greenwood, in Tulsa.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dr. Crutcher, let’s begin with you. The significance of this day for you, and your family bringing together all of these horrors, from 1921 to the loss of your twin brother in 2016 at the hands of a Tulsa police officer?

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Good morning. Good morning. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Crutcher?

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Yes. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: I think we may have lost Dr. Crutcher for a minute, but we’ll go to Damario Solomon-Simmons. You’re intimately connected to the Crutcher family. You represented Terence Crutcher’s family in his [death] at the [hands] of, by police. And you also represent the last living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre. Let’s begin there.

We’re going to see if we can hear you. Damario?

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, now we can hear you, yes. Go ahead. Go ahead, Damario.

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: OK. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We can.

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: OK, good deal. Yes, I represent Mother Randle, who’s the last known living survivor that lives in Tulsa, and she’s 105 years old. And she has been waiting for justice for 99 years. And we are excited about this new opportunity that has come about because of COVID-19 and the unfortunate, tragic death of George Floyd, that just has really riveted this entire country, if not this world, to really try to look at injustice, white supremacy and anti-Black discrimination and find true ways to try to remedy this long-standing injustice in Tulsa, that has just been sitting here festering and has been a continual — what we call a continual massacre that has never been remedied.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain who the last survivor of this race massacre is and how you came to know her and represent her.

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Yes, she’s a wonderful woman. She was about 5 or 6 years old when this happened. She was visiting her — she was at her grandmother’s home. And she has vivid memories of running out of the house. Unfortunately, she still says she can see the bodies that were in the street and that were stacked up on top of each other. Her home — her grandmother’s home was destroyed. She recalls having to flee, like so many thousands of refugees, out of the city of Tulsa — those who were able to get out of the city — and go down into the country and basically hide out there for a long period of time.

And she talks about the fact that she feels like the city of Tulsa and others who were responsible had a duty to try to help her and her family and others like her get back on her feet, as she would say. And she said, “At least they could have given us some type of a pension.” That’s the terminology that she uses. And she says, “You know, I’m 105 years old. I don’t need this necessarily. It would be nice. But for my family, because we’ve never been able to heal. We’ve never been able to get back on our feet.”

And that’s what’s important about understanding what happened here in Tulsa. It was a complete stripping of generational wealth and opportunities for people, and it was never fixed. And it just continued to get worse and worse and worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And your reaction to President Trump coming to Tulsa on this 99th anniversary month, and originally set for Juneteenth, today?

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Yeah, my reaction to that is that President Trump is doing — he’s following a long line of powerful whites here in Tulsa that are utilizing the history of Black Wall Street to leverage that for his own benefit.

So, I’m not surprised that President Trump would do that, because that is what the white power structure is doing here in Tulsa right to this day. They are leveraging the massacre that they created, so they can utilize it as a cover for the gentrification that’s going on inside of Greenwood. We call it glorified gentrification here in Tulsa. And we know that these individuals or these entities, like the city of Tulsa, they are happy to talk about making Greenwood a tourist attraction and talking about the history, but they do not want to talk about or provide reparations, as that is a badge of slavery. If you are someone who has been injured and you know who injured you, but you don’t have an opportunity to have compensation for that injury, you’re being treated like an enslaved person or a person who does not have rights.

And so, I’m not surprised that President Trump is doing what he’s doing, because he’s proven that he does not respect Black life. He doesn’t respect anyone. He only wants to do anything that helps himself get reelected.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, if you could weigh in here? I want to start with the rally. And if you can talk about what this means? Nineteen thousand people are expected to be in the arena. And while Trump understands the lethality of the virus — right? — they are going to require people who come in to have waivers signed; they won’t hold the campaign responsible, liable — they will not require masks. What does this mean, Dr. Crutcher, for the workers? There must be hundreds of workers who have to be there, on this day, tomorrow, where this arena hasn’t been open for months because of the coronavirus. Who are the workers?

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Well, thank you so much. I’m definitely outraged, because those workers are the most vulnerable among us — African Americans, the elderly population. Those are the citizens that have to work in that arena. Also, they need their jobs. You know, COVID-19 has definitely amplified a lot of the issues that we, as African Americans, face in this country as a result of systemic racism. But for the president of the United States to host the largest rally since the pandemic shows just who he is. I mean, we should not be surprised. He is only concerned about himself. And to put the health and the lives of the American citizens at risk for his own, you know, benefit and ego is just atrocious.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, your family’s life spans the trajectory, from the race massacre — explain — your great-grandmother survived that massacre in 1921 — to 2016, when your twin, your twin brother, Terence Crutcher, was killed by police in Tulsa.

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Absolutely. Well, you know, there are so many stark parallels. And it’s just unbelievable that my family, we’ve had to endure racial terror, violence, down through the generations, and nothing has changed.

And my great-grandmother, Rebecca Brown Crutcher, as Damario stated, had to flee in fear of her life. They owned a barbecue pit down on Greenwood. They were living their best life, and then it was all stripped away from them. And she had to run off to the country and was fearful, and never, ever talked about it because of the fearmongering. They stated if they said anything, it would happen again.

And so I didn’t learn about this until I went off to college, and I heard it from some other classmates from all around the country. And I went to school on Greenwood, and no one said anything. We didn’t even learn about it in Oklahoma history. And that’s devastating, because I didn’t get the opportunity to ask my great-grandmother questions. I want to know how she felt, you know, and what happened. But she did return and eventually moved to Kansas City, Missouri.

And I always say that this same anti-Black, white supremacist culture that burned down my great-grandmother’s community is the same culture that killed my twin brother almost 100 years later. So nothing has changed at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened with your brother Terence. I hate to ask you to do this, but, to say the least, at this time, when we’re dealing with one police killing after another, from Minneapolis to Atlanta and in so many other places, what you can share with us?

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Well, I’ll just say this. On Friday, September the 16th, 2016, Terence was leaving school. He started his first day of community college. And according to some of his professors, about 15 minutes later, after he left, he was shot, and he was dead, by a white police officer by the name of Betty Shelby.

After watching the video, we saw that Terence’s hands were in the air, he was unarmed, he wasn’t belligerent, he wasn’t attacking the officer whatsoever, yet he ended up dead. Police officers fled to the scene. He was tased simultaneously. Helicopters loomed in the air. Police officers in those helicopters said he look like a “bad dude.” And I’m not sure what a bad dude looks like that far up in the air. All I could think of is they saw the color of his skin. And they didn’t render any aid. He laid on the ground like roadkill, and the officers trampled over him and went to check to make sure that officer Betty Jo Shelby was OK.

And I just can’t get over that. I have that visual of Terence lying on the ground, with blood everywhere, in my head every time I lay down and go to bed. And so, those same parallels, 1921 — my great-grandmother never received reparations. There’s been no atonement. And to this day, my family — the city of Tulsa, they have yet to atone for what they did to my brother, and won’t even acknowledge that they violated his rights. And so, the culture just hasn’t changed. And so, on today, even though —

AMY GOODMAN: And the police officer was charged but acquitted. We just have 10 seconds. You’re introducing Al Sharpton at the Juneteenth celebration today in Tulsa?

DR. TIFFANY CRUTCHER: Absolutely. I’ll be introducing Reverend Al Sharpton just to bring some energy and help us channel the fear that we’re dealing with and the anger. And hopefully we’ll actually start that process of liberation, because, in reality, 2020, we’re still not free. We’re fighting just for the right to live as Black Americans in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, we want to thank you so much for being with us, and Damario Solomon-Simmons, civil rights lawyer in Tulsa.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Happy Juneteenth. Stay safe.

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