Sparked by George Floyd’s excruciating death by asphyxiation on the heels of Armaud Arberry’s execution in coastal Georgia, the United States is the focus of worldwide protests demanding a reckoning of racial inequity. In this climate,
the President turned national attention to Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre. A campaign rally was planned in Tulsa on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating Emancipation. Although the rally was rescheduled, Tulsa’s history was national news.
On May 31, 1921, white mobs attacked the Black neighborhood of Greenwood killing hundreds and dropping firebombs that burned thirty-five blocks of a prosperous community, including a hospital, a school, hotels and businesses.
The massacre began with a complaint against a young Black man by an elevator operator. Dick Rowland was arrested. When whites gathered outside the courthouse where Rowland was held, about twenty-five armed Black men, many World War I veterans, went to the courthouse and volunteered to help the sheriff protect the prisoner.
In History.com’s account, the Black men left and returned at about ten o’clock with seventy-five men, only to meet a crowd of one thousand white men. Conflict began, and the Black men retreated and held the white men at bay for several hours. The groups, including a group of special deputies recruited from the mob, battled through the night. The next morning an organized assault on Greenwood began. Hundreds were killed, although officially the death count was thirty-six. There are stories of Osages watching Blacks running through their allotments near Skiatook and offering water. The events, spoken of in whispers, sank from public view for decades.
While Donald Trump was in Tulsa, more than one hundred members of a gun rights group for people of color held a rally in Oklahoma City. The group known as 1,000 Brothers and Sisters in Arms walked from the Ralph Ellison Library to the Governor’s Mansion to present a list of demands, including reopening the case of a man killed by police in 2015.
Omar Chatman, one of the event organizers, told The Oklahoman, “We aren’t going to allow people to come into our communities and brutalize us. If you come into our community, know we are armed.”
The image of a group of Black men and women armed with assault rifles and pistols carries a powerful message. An Osage looking at the pictures said the marchers looked hostile. My first impression was that they looked serious as a heart attack. Carrying a gun as a Black person is fraught, as Kiese Laymon, African American essayist and professor at Ole Miss describes in multiple essays.
Given that a Black man without a gun is often perceived to be threatening and presumed to be so dangerous and violent as to provoke lethal force in police encounters, these images vibrated with both determination and the vulnerability of the human body.
Some whites joined the crowd in Oklahoma City, including Tulsa resident Cody Hartley, who told Pablo Angulo of NonDoc Media that he believes everyone has the right to bear arms because evil exists. “Whether that be common criminals, the police – in some cases – or the government itself, all those people need to be kept in check, and a well-armed populace is the best way to do that,” he said.
I know Osages who hunt, ranchers and veterans with weapons. I’m married to a gun owner from a commercial fishing and farming family, but I don’t find images of white men carrying automatic rifles into the Michigan State House in April reassuring. I don’t want armed militias deciding what I want in law or policy.
As the United States tiptoes toward a discussion of reparations, with more white Americans beginning to grasp the impact and legacy of slavery, economic oppression, inequitable policing and mass incarceration, and redlining on Black well-being, health and wealth for the first time, the elephant in the room is the indigenous genocide on which this country rests.
As we mourn the grievous deaths of Black men, similar deaths of Black women, Native and other people of color struggle for attention. Natives are barely mentioned in the discussions and protests of police violence, although Natives are the group most likely to be killed by police, ahead of African Americans, Latinos, whites, and Asian Americans, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In 2014, the Center reported that Natives, 0.8 percent of the population, comprised 1.9 percent of police killings.
It’s as if public attention and social media can only hold so much at one time, and the bloody red palm print that calls for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women is pushed aside.
To read testimonials and see photos from the Black Lives Matter protests during President Donald Trump's rally in Tulsa, pick up a copy of the July edition of the Osage News.