Protesters chant in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a rally to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Ian Maule/Tulsa World/AP
For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones’ newsletters.As a child, Greg Robinson II would walk the streets of the Tulsa’s Greenwood District with his father, a longtime community activist in the city and former head of the city’s Civil Service Commission. “My father fought every day,” Robinson II told me this week. “He used to walk around with me and tell me our ancestors’ bodies are underneath the soil and they have not been given proper recognition. They have not been given proper burials and we’re building things over them.”
There had been a massacre here, in what was once known as Black Wall Street—hundreds of Black residents killed, scores of businesses destroyed. In 1921, mobs of white residents shattered the heart of Black prosperity in the United States, just blocks from where, on Saturday, 99 years later, a racist president has decided to hold a rally.
What struck the elder Robinson to the core was the fact that Tulsa had rebuilt itself quite literally on the bones of its people and then just…forgot about it. For years, officials resisted acknowledging the massacre, let alone reckoning with the generations’ worth of reparations due to the descendants of massacre victims. It wasn’t until four months ago, not long after the HBO show Watchmen shocked viewers with a stark recreation of the firebombing of Tulsa, that state education officials added the massacre to its curriculum.
“It was great pain that he went through as somebody who knew the history and wanted to honor the ancestors,” Robinson II told me of his father, who died in 2003, two years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission acknowledged the massacre and called for reparations, as determined by the Oklahoma legislature. That call went nowhere, but Tulsa activists continue to press the case. Historians estimate that the death toll is a significant underestimate—as many as 300 people could have died. The city had planned to begin a “limited excavation” this summer of possible sites of mass graves as part of an ongoing investigation into the 1921 killings. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and forestalled that reckoning.
In the recent weeks, as demonstrations erupted throughout the country in response to the killing of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Tulsa residents protested, too—in Floyd’s name and in the name of people who have been killed by Tulsa police, like Terence Crutcher.
Into this collision of past and present comes the race-baiting presence of Donald Trump, who’d originally scheduled the rally for today, Juneteenth, but who reconsidered supposedly on the recommendation of some unnamed Black “friends.” Against the warning of Tulsa’s own health commissioner, Trump has elected to go forward with the event on Saturday. On Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slaves, Trump on Twitter issued a thinly veiled threat to “protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” going to Tulsa for his rally. Meanwhile, Tulsa’s current mayor, G. T. Bynum, rescinded a last-minute curfew put in place in recent days, and the state’s Supreme Court blocked an attempt to prevent Trump’s rally from happening. Robinson II, a community activist in his own right who is on the committee overseeing the mass graves excavation and who is running for mayor this August, has a message for the president: Stay away.
“You’re not coming to bring us justice,” Robinson II says. “So what are you coming for?”
I spoke to Robinson II ahead of Juneteenth festivities in Tulsa about Trump’s visit, what criminal justice reform looks like in Tulsa, and the connection between the Tulsa race massacre and George Floyd’s death. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Where were you when you heard that President Donald Trump was heading to Tulsa for a rally?
I was probably on a Zoom call. I’m running for mayor. So I was probably talking to somebody about that. I don’t really know where I was. I can tell you how I felt about it: I was insulted and gaslighted. But I can’t say that I was surprised because it’s true to the president’s form that he chooses to insult African Americans and communities of color instead of supporting them. He chooses to provide pathways for ideologies like white supremacy instead of standing with communities of color and African Americans who have been hurt and oppressed in America for far too long. It’s true to form. It was disappointing that that would happen from someone who is the leader of a country that is supposed to represent freedom and justice, and yet he would not acknowledge an independence day for African Americans in this country and would instead bring hundreds of thousands of outsiders into a city that, if they support his ideology, certainly don’t support the needs of African American communities in the city of Tulsa and across this country.
It is particularly insulting he would come on Greenwood at a time such as this, just a few weeks after our anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre and those victims. To disrespect the soil that those victims died on and have yet to receive justice on, quite frankly—I’m not really sure I have the word for the level of disrespect that that showed. And lastly, I will say, if he didn’t know, that’s even worse. If he didn’t know, that’s even worse.
Did you see the comments he made today?
No, I haven’t.
The president told the Wall Street Journal: “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” What’s your response to that?
It shows a total lack of understanding and context around communities of color that make up the country he wants to lead. The fact of the matter is Juneteenth for African Americans, for many years, we’ve been arguing it should be nationally recognized. It shows why so many Black people are standing up across this country and saying enough is enough. We aren’t heard. We aren’t seen. Our holidays don’t matter. That’s what the president is saying. He’s telling you the truth. He’s telling you his truth. It didn’t matter to him until it affected his reputation. It didn’t matter to him until it started to possibly affect economics. It is a microcosm, it is a personification of what Black people have to deal with in this country, being invisible, being people who went through slavery and recovered, being a people who went through Jim Crow and recovered, being people who are going through police brutality now and are trying to fight for our own freedom and recover. Yet people don’t see us. The president of the United States doesn’t see his own people. So how are we supposed to feel? I mean, honestly, what do we have say to a president who doesn’t see us? That’s what Black people are mad about. We are demanding to be seen. Period.
What does it mean to you then that he’s holding a rally blocks away from Greenwood?
It’s disrespecting the still-unrecognized graves of our ancestors. Here in Tulsa, we’ve yet to receive justice. The victims of the race massacre, the victims of having all 40 blocks destroyed, all the businesses, all the murders that took place, not one person was brought to justice. Not one insurance payout has been made. Not one. So why would you come here if you aren’t coming here to bring us justice? You can’t talk about race and unity and all of that if you’re not coming here to bring us justice. We still don’t have justice. Like the police killings that are happening here in Tulsa and across the country—that’s just a continuation of non-justice. But we’re sitting here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we still don’t have justice for the race massacre. African Americans across this country still don’t have justice for building this country on their backs, slave labor, getting nothing from it. Too long in this country have we tried to make it okay by saying, “Oh, we feel bad for you.” Don’t feel bad for us. Pay us. So if the president is not talking that, he doesn’t have anything to say to us. I just cannot stress that enough. There’s nothing to say. So go away. Stay away, seriously. Don’t come on the 19th. Don’t come on the 20th. Don’t come. Why are you coming here? You’re not coming to bring us justice. So what are you coming for?
Not long ago it was the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. Next year will be the centennial. To what extent do you think Tulsa has reckoned with that event?
We still don’t have justice in Tulsa. Still. We don’t have reparations for the victims. We don’t have anyone brought to justice. Right now we are trying to have a conversation about it. But what we have to do as a city is push beyond and understand that just having a conversation is not going to be enough. As long as Greenwood is not owned by the descendants of the race massacre, we still have not received justice. There’s building popping up, developments being made—they are not owned by the descendants. How can you take land, kill people and then those people don’t have land anymore? And then they are supposed to be looking at you building wealth on it and supposed to be okay with that? We absolutely have more work to do. It starts with finding and identifying the mass graves that we know exist based on tradition. We know we won’t find many of the bodies because many of them were dumped in the Arkansas River. We know the city supported this, we know the Tulsa Police Department supported this. And so there’s just a tremendous distance to go for Black citizens of Tulsa, descendants of Greenwood, to receive justice. That’s a hard truth that we are trying to face here in the city of Tulsa right now.
As the pandemic hit, the actual investigation into unearthing mass graves was delayed. As a member of the mass graves oversight committee, could you describe where things stand right now?
Meeting have been delayed. We were right at the point of actually starting to dig in places where we found anomalies and and very likely mass graves. Now, we don’t know if those mass graves have race massacre victims or influenza [victims]. We don’t know that, but we were right there digging, about to start digging, when COVID hit. So we fully expect when it is safe again for digging, that they will commit as soon as possible.
But again, I stress: Why are we doing this? We’re doing that so that we can establish a murder investigation, because a murder investigation doesn’t have a statute of limitations on it. You must understand that the city of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma, the United States of America has already denied descendants of the race massacre justice because they said the statute of limitations is up.
I don’t know how we can call ourselves a country of freedom if we’re going to say the statute of limitations is up and we know that happened during a time when African Americans didn’t even have all of the rights everyone else did. But if we’re going to play that game, then one way we can get around it is by establishing murder occurred by finding victims’ bodies, and then we can have a murder investigation. There’s no statute of limitations on that. And then who was complicit in murder? Who was complicit in the cover-up? Because the places that we’re looking at, at the cemetery that we’re looking at where mass graves may be, they were owned by the city of Tulsa.
One thing that stood out to me was that Tulsa massacre happened around the same time as the influenza pandemic.
The influenza pandemic took place in 1919. By all verbal accounts, people literally saw wheelbarrows of bodies being walked to these sites and dumped. We have to be careful that there’s been a lot of apologists, there’s been a lot of wanting to distract. The fact of the matter is, the bodies went somewhere. There are thousands of people missing still to this day from the race massacre. We know we’re not going to find them all because we know a lot of them were disposed of in a lot of different ways. But we also have oral tradition that there were some who were buried in mass grave sites, and that’s what we hope to unlock so that we can begin to dispel the myth that this is somehow a legend. It’s true. It actually happened.
Do you personally have a family connection to the race massacre?
My family has been here since before Oklahoma was a state. My family is Creek Freedmen. The Creek allotments are what we built Greenwood on. My family was here in the 1900s, through the 1900s, through the time of the race massacre, and we’re still here today. So this is very personal. I mean, you’re literally talking about our family’s livelihood destroyed, and no justice was done.
What were the oral traditions your family passed down about the massacre?
The stories of the fear, of burning, fear of being awoken by the smoke, being awoken by the screams of neighbors. I had family members who were taken and held up in the Red Cross shelters and given identification tags. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures but literally, it looks…the scene is devastating. I have family members taking cover in the Red Cross safe places. Homes destroyed. They helped rebuild. Stories of rebuilding Greenwood with help from other Black townships locally coming down and rebuilding. It’s true Greenwood rebuilt itself by 1926. Many people say and passed down to me that it was even stronger than it was in 1921. And then you have the effects of urban removal, the effects of bringing a highway through the community itself. So my uncles and aunties who obviously weren’t alive during the massacre but heard the stories passed them down. They were alive in the late ’40s and early ’50s right before urban removal was happening—they would talk to us about the movie theater and the bowling alley and the entertainment district and the doctors’ offices, having everything in a central location—and it’s quite frankly very sad to talk to them about what it is now. It’s almost like talking about something that’s imaginary. Those conversations have happened in the last three to four years. Those are not conversations we grew up having. Nobody talked about it.
Why didn’t anybody talk about it as you were growing up?
We call it a conspiracy of silence. It was erased from the history books. Perhaps our ancestors were sent the message: We are not going to talk about this. The thing you have to realize about the massacre is, to us, we’re studying it. To them, it happened. Imagine having everything you ever own taken from you, destroyed, and the people you loved killed? Most people left, but if you did stay, what was there to talk about? What were you going to talk about? The city did that to you. The police did that to you. So if you look across the history of Tulsa, nobody talked about it in the late ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. The first race massacre commission was in 2001. That’s 80 years. It took 80 years to get the courage up to talk about it again.
How did your father feel about the massacre?
My father fought every day to bring justice to the ancestors. The thing that hurts me the most is that he’s not here today to finish this fight. It’s why I have such a responsibility. He used to walk around with me and tell me our ancestors’ bodies are underneath the soil and they have not been given proper recognition, they have not been given proper burials and we’re building things over them. It hurt him to his core. At that time, the big battle was for the city of Tulsa to acknowledge their part in the race massacre. It was great pain that he went through as somebody who knew the history and wanted to honor the ancestors. Like many of us, we are fighting a white supremacist system, a system that wants to protect order instead of providing justice.
How does today’s Greenwood compare to that of the district before the massacre?
We no longer have control of the Greenwood District. The Greenwood District originally was 40 blocks. We don’t have it on the national registry, which would give it certain protections in terms of what can be built there and who can have a say in that. We don’t own much of the land because it was taken and now has been given to private developers who have developed things like baseball parks and banks and hotels. Nothing wrong with those things, except none of the money from them is benefiting the community from which the land was sold. We just have a few blocks left that are still in African American control, a few buildings left that are in African American control. So it’s infuriating that the city says that they want to honor the race massacre, yet we haven’t figured out a way to provide reparations and tax benefits from revenues that are being created in the Greenwood District and give it to the descendants of the race massacre. That’s ridiculous, and there’s no reason why that can’t happen. It just hasn’t.
We are at this confluence of moments where yet another Black man was killed in police custody while Tulsa is going through this self-reflection. How do you think, given his work, he would have seen things today?
He would have been on the frontlines protesting. But he also would have been on the frontlines pushing for policy. My father was not just an activist. He was the head of the civil service commission for the city of Tulsa. He started and was executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services giving homes to low-income people. I believe he probably would be disappointed that we’re having the same fight that he was having. But he would be demanding justice for the ancestors, but also demanding justice and economic freedom for the Black citizens of Tulsa—so that we can have homes and home values that are rising, so that we can offer them land that stolen from us, so that we can begin to develop and build some of the wealth and opportunities that have been hidden from us for so long. He would not be okay with placating. He would not be okay with waiting longer.
He would be a lot less patient than I am, at this point. People like that, they fight their whole lives. You think about the Maxine Horners of the world, the Regina Goodwins of the world—these are people who have fought for decades for justice, and at every turn have been given an excuse. We’re now at a seminal moment where I think the nation is waking up and saying enough is enough. We are going to get justice or there will be no peace. We are not going to go home at this point. So I think he’d be right there on the frontline teaching us the lessons of the past and demanding justice, as we are today.
What inspired you to run for mayor?
We deserve better. We can do better in this city and across the country. This is a seminal moment where we don’t have time to settle for the status quo. And so we have a mayor right now who has spoken well about issues of racial justice but has not acted on it. This is a mayor who has called reparations divisive. This is a mayor who has said Terence Crutcher’s death was not due to racial bias, but due to his inability to control his drug addiction. This is the mayor who got a large percentage of African American votes, and yet has not done right by African Americans in the city of Tulsa. And so I’m simply running because I don’t believe that justice, freedom, equity, and safety are things that should belong to just one group of people. I think that all Tulsans should have them. I think all Americans should have them.
We can learn from our racial past and create a city that is devoted more to justice than to order, create a city that is welcoming to our immigrant communities, create a city that provides economic opportunity to African American communities and historically oppressed communities, create a community in the middle of the Southwest that says, “We want you here. We want your talent here.” Because that is what has built Tulsa in the past. Oklahoma has always been a land of the migrants, and Tulsa has always been a land of opportunity. But it can’t be a land of opportunity just for one particular group of people. It has to be a land of opportunity for everybody. And we just do not have a leader who is willing to take the moral stands that are necessary to move us forward.
Your senior adviser is Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother Terence was killed by a white Tulsa police officer in 2016. [A jury acquitted officer Betty Shelby of manslaughter in 2017.] How did she influence your approach to addressing criminal justice reform?
Dr. Tiffany Crutcher is a nationally renowned figure on how to improve policy and municipalities to protect citizens and to improve the ability of the police department to actually protect and serve, as their duties outline. So I’m glad to have her not just on the campaign but to have worked with her for the past three years on commonsense police reform policies, policies like an Office of the Independent Monitor, with the powers to investigate and to provide recommendations on police use of force investigations. Policies like divesting in enforcement and investing in mental health and public health resources for citizens of Tulsa. Policies like ending the city of Tulsa’s contract with Live PD, which really just put people in the city of Tulsa on TV on their worst days for people to look at them like they were animals. Certainly having a person who is motivated by personal loss but is an example of how we can make policy change in the country on this team is extremely helpful.
Right now, people do not feel safe. They don’t feel protected from with the police department. We just had a situation where two boys who said they were jaywalking in their own neighborhood in downtown Tulsa where people jaywalk every single day. [A video captured Tulsa police handcuffing the Black teenagers in North Tulsa.] Yet no one is being harassed and is arrested by the police department. We had a police officer, Maj. Travis Yates, who said that actually Tulsa police aren’t killing enough Black people, based on his data.
So the police department—and this comes from leadership—has to make it unsafe for bad police officers, for people who have those sorts of ideologies, and they have to have the ability to get rid of bad police officers. We have to go after the Fraternal Order of Police if they’re going to hold the city of Tulsa hostage and not allow for the police officers that are doing good and want to do good to have protection by getting rid of bad officers. That’s the reason we asked for an Office of the Independent Monitor, and yet the FOP is fighting back and spewing misinformation. So there is a tremendous amount of reform that has to go into the police department.
When you look at Floyd’s death and Terence Crutcher’s death and the ensuing protests, and when you look at the fact that 99 years ago Black people in Tulsa were killed, their communities devastated, what if any connections do you see there?
When that police officer stuck his knee on George Floyd’s neck, that was personification for and an example of Black America having their neck stepped on by this white supremacist system that we have in America. And for Black Tulsans having their neck stepped on by the city of Tulsa. It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing, man. You can’t separate that. That’s why, when it happened to George Floyd, we went out and protested not just for George Floyd but for Terence Crusher, not just for Terence Crutcher but for Joshua Barre, not just for Joshua Barre but “Live PD,” not just “Live PD” but to divest in a police department and invest in mental health. Not just to do that, but to have an Office of independent monitoring, not just to do that but to call for reparations for Greenwood, not just to do that, but to call for reparations across the country. It’s the same thing.
Until we are valued as human beings, we have to keep standing up and saying enough is enough. And no, it is not enough for politicians to come and march with us. Politicians’ job is to change policy. So what you didn’t ask me that you should have asked me: What should Donald Trump have been doing? He didn’t have to come to Tulsa. He should have been meeting with members of Congress to pass legislation on reparations. He should have been meeting with members of Congress to pass legislation to build wealth in communities of color. He should have been meeting with the Department of Justice to put pressure on police departments and sheriff’s officers across this country to bring justice to families of excessive force and police brutality. He should have been meeting with Gov. Stitt and Mayor Bynum to see what he could do to support funding for communities of color in the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa. That’s what he should have been. And that’s what public officials should be doing, not marching with us. Police officers don’t need to kneel with us. They need to change policies within their department
So that’s what it meant. That’s why everybody from across the country stood up because we said enough is enough. I am George Floyd. We can’t breathe. Not, I can’t breathe. We cannot breathe.