Continued apathy and misinformation by those in power showcases need for community members to tell their stories

by Executive Editor Timantha Norman

Tulsa’s city council held their first listening session Wednesday evening regarding the disparities in juvenile arrests and financing the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM). The position was created in response to the Equality Indicators report, which highlighted rampant justice-oriented disparities for African-Americans in the city. Community members gathered to share some of their past traumas and stories from interactions with the Tulsa Police Department.

One community member, Bernice Alexander, used her three minutes to turn her back to the council members and stand in silence protest. Other members recounted stories that detailed profiling and mistreatment by TPD. Rochelle Davis recounted an experience involving her teenage daughter where she was confronted and questioned outside of their house. The officer had called for four cop cars and a police truck as back up despite the fact that the first officer was responding to a call about “black boys” vandalizing the neighborhood. “We are girls,” Davis’ daughter replied. Rochelle was disturbed by the extreme police presence called in response to her daughter despite the officers identifying that they were not the suspects that they were looking for. She highlighted that it was the color of their skin that made them a target for the police’s excessive show of force. Internal Affairs insisted that the officers used “the lowest level of force and they did not really see her complaint.”

While the majority of the speakers were decidedly in favor of additional police oversight in connection to the negative encounters they had either directly or indirectly experienced during interactions with TPD, one speaker in particular, retired TPD Sgt. Dave Walker seemed to be more undecided on TPD’s role in the excessively high juvenile arrest rates of black Tulsans:

“We can argue and have different opinions of what they [juvenile arrest rates] mean… but the numbers are the numbers… But the hidden numbers behind that big number… What types of arrests happened? Code citations for juvenile curfew violations, not being in school, that sort of thing, that counts as an arrest. Those things need to be ferreted out to determine bad policing or just [inaudible]. Because of the arrest being minor sorts of things. Now I have sat across the table from juveniles who have killed people, who have raped people… Those juveniles need to be arrested. So, the numbers, are they officer-initiated calls that are leading to the juvenile arrests or are we saying law enforcement are searching juveniles to harass and [inaudible]? And if that’s the case, then that needs to be asked of the council or the group. If they’re initiated calls from rape victims, or because somebody killed somebody, or they’ve stolen a car or there’s a chase, then that too needs to be addressed. ‘Cause those things are what law enforcement is hired to do… I’m not going to say the justice system is not there. It’s there. The community also has an obligation to make sure that they’re doing the right things”.

As Sgt. Walker concluded his remarks and walked back to his seat, he was greeted by a noticeable cloud of audible gasps and groans from multiple people in attendance in response to the hasty generalizations and false dichotomies that were expressed in his speech. The other speakers preceded to speak about the experiences of young people in their lives who had lived under the intimidating presence of law enforcement due to their racial makeup.

Community member Tyrance Billingsley spoke about the humanity of young black boys and girls and challenged the non-black members of the council to change their thinking about the ways in which they see them:

“At this point, I can only say, these are all of our kids. And to those of you on the council, and in the police department, and to anyone who will listen who do not have children of color, hear me when I say, until you plug in so deep that you toss and turn and cry at night at the prospect that children of color in this city [inaudible], you do not feel this urgently enough…. Until you see your childrens’ faces when you look at these numbers, until you see your child being treated suspiciously, until you see your child being deemed dangerous to the point of the use of force simply as a result of expressing common human emotions and frustrations, you do not feel this urgently enough…. The reality is, to those of you without children of color, your kids will likely never experience the reality that these indicators paint for ours…. And on the topic of urgency, and with all due respect, I simply would like to point out that our mayor is here but our police chief is absent yet again. I would ask the people who implement these policies: When you define the practices that lead to these results, do you see your children?”.

One of the most powerful moments of the public comments portion of the city council meeting was delivered by a young man named Simba Williams. Despite the obvious pain and turmoil he was experiencing while having to recount the traumatic experiences he and his family ensured throughout his childhood, he continued to tell in vivid detail a couple of those incidents:

“Black juveniles are always treated like adults, spoke [to] like adults, and being punished like adults… In 1996, I was three years old when my father was severely beaten after coming to the aid of a pregnant woman who was body slammed by a Tulsa police officer after a Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Tulsa. A few months later, my father was tried by a jury and the case was thrown out because of video evidence revealing false testimony made under oath by Tulsa police officers about my father. My father sued the City of Tulsa for violation of constitutional rights and excessive force. He won this case six years later in 2002. During that six-year period, we faced unbelievable harassment. I can tell you today that I was traumatized in ways no child should be.”

As Mr. Williams drew close to the end of his allotted speaking time, he attempted to finish his testimony in a timely manner despite being overtaken by emotion at the retelling of such horrific incidents that had taken place during his formative years. During one of the most emotionally heightened moments of Mr. Williams’ comments, city council chairman Phil Lakin interrupted him mid-sentence to say that he was running out of time. Several members of the audience urged Lakin to let Williams finish what he needed to say, with Lakin looking visibly uncomfortable at this point. Despite Lakin’s objection, Williams continued speaking. Lakin again interrupted Williams, saying in a nonchalant fashion, “Can you finish in like 20 seconds?”. A woman in attendance who had signed up to speak who chose not to offered to give her time to Williams so that he could properly finish expressing what he needed to express. Lakin slightly cocked in head to one side and said “No.” As the audience was growing weary of Lakin’s blatant disrespect towards Mr. Williams, Williams continued on and was able to finish.

In his closing remarks, Williams stated that “This is the America we know. This is the police we know. We are the descendants of 1921 Race Massacre survivor Raymond Beard. We have no past trauma. We have concurrent trauma. Next to me our my siblings: survivors of police terrorism through the eyes of children.” Even in the face of blatant indifference, complacency, ignorance, denial, bigotry, hatred, and fear, our stories must be told and we must continue to demand what is rightfully owed to us: justice in all its forms.

Illustration: Patrick Norman