A group of young Black men stands at attention. Clad in black, they are practicing military drills at BS Roberts Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Original salute! Left face! Back at attention!”
They’re preparing for a Juneteenth weekend tinged with tension, in a small city that has garnered national attention. Just a stone’s throw from where these men are practicing, President Donald Trump will take the stage on Saturday for his first rally since the Covid-19 outbreak.
The men are all Tulsa natives following the tenets of the original Black Panther movement, which was created in 1966 as a force to create social reform. In that vein, they are advocating against the oppression of Black people. Although the small group is comprised of fewer than a dozen men and not affiliated with any national movement, they hope to keep the peace by employing de-escalation tactics if the rally descends into chaos.
“This is unity, this is brotherhood. All of us come from these streets out here,” Akono Bey, one member of the group, told CNN. “All of us have dealt with the same problems. We all want better for our children out here. And the only way to get better is to do better.”
As Tulsa braces for Trump’s visit, civic leaders and others here are mindful of the city’s troubled history with racial violence while also cautiously hopeful for the potential of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many are concerned about Trump’s visit yet also curious if now is the moment that Tulsa will reckon with its complex racial history.
Greg Robinson, a native Tulsan running to become the first Black mayor in the city’s history, says he’s learning a lot from the young men. But he understands some might view them with a degree of fear, given how young Black men are often depicted.
The men have read reports of outside agitators, including white supremacists, disrupting protests in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death. They believe this devalues the Black Lives Matter movement, and they say they will be vigilant for potential trouble as President Trump descends on their city. While the movement is not armed, Oklahoma residents have the right to carry arms. However, they say that is only out of a need for self-defense.
“They’re so much more peaceful than what society and media would have you believe,” Robinson said, referring to the group. “They want an education, they want economic opportunity. They want the space to be able to express themselves and not feel like they have the police hanging over their neck.”
Lasting emotional trauma
Like many American cities, Tulsa has experienced well-publicized controversies between the local police department and the Black community.
Earlier this month, two teenagers were detained by police for jaywalking after walking down the middle of a street that did not have sidewalks. Police body-cam footage and eyewitness cell phone video show some of the interaction between the officers and the teens.
In a video shot by a bystander, one of the officers is seen leaning into his police car where he had placed one of the handcuffed teens. After a few seconds, the officer is seen kicking into the car. Moments later, that officer throws the handcuffed teen out of the car and onto the sidewalk.
In police dash camera video released by the Tulsa Police Department, an officer can be seen searching the pocket of the teen who had been put in the front seat of the police car. A few minutes later, the officer can be seen kicking his legs as the teen struggles.
Although the boys were eventually released, and the Tulsa Police Department announced an investigation, the lasting emotional trauma of incidents like this one often runs deeper than some realize, Robinson says.
“A white boy wakes up and says, ‘What do I want to do today?’ And a black boy wakes up and says, ‘What can I do today?’” Robinson said.
He hopes that as mayor he can clear a path forward in a city with a long history of racial violence, dating back to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which destroyed the Black Greenwood District and killed some 300 Black residents.
“When you look and think that we are just on the sunset of the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, and not one descendant of a victim has yet to receive justice,” Robinson said. “There are still families that are being victimized by police violence, and no justice is found.”
‘Rally cry’ for alt-right?
Anissia West is an educator and activist who has also lived in Tulsa her whole life. A descendent of Creek Freedmen, former African slaves of Muscogee Creek tribal members, West says it’s crucial for Tulsa to reckon with its past as it looks to the future, starting with President Trump’s rally this weekend.
She says he should have moved the rally to a different weekend.
“Juneteenth is a whole weekend celebration. It might start on Thursday and last through Sunday,” she said.
She says Trump’s decision to rally in Tulsa, not far away from the site of such a deadly racial massacre, is more than coincidence.
“I can’t help but look at it as anything other than an act of terrorism,” she said. “He knows that whether he believes he is racist or not, he knows that members of the KKK and other alt-right organizations are following him and that they will see what he is doing as a rally cry.”
Although West is dismayed by the President’s visit, she says she has never been prouder of her city and its response to the police killing of George Floyd.
“I’ve spent years protesting in Tulsa and other places in Oklahoma with really low turnouts,” West said. “I was mad at Tulsa because we have a tendency to do the thing we call ‘Tulsa nice,’ where we’re fighting for something, but we’re gonna also have a barbecue. This time was different.”
West strolls to a popular spot in the Greenwood District, where a large mural commemorates the neighborhood that was once known as Black Wall Street, at one time the beacon of hope for Black life.
“This is sacred space,” she said. “We know this is a space where buildings were destroyed. People died here. But the spirit is still here. But we’re still here, and we’re going to keep building, and we’re not going anywhere.”