As I remember it, the conversation began, like nearly all conversations between strangers in smoky dive bars around these parts, when I asked the man on the stool next to me what he did for a living. He told me he looked at dead people. Specifically those who’d died under suspicious circumstances. He told me he had to sign off on every such dead body in the eastern half of Oklahoma, and that he was a recently retired member of the Tulsa Police Department. He’d spent most of his career as a closeted gay man. That was our topic of conversation for a while. It was difficult, he said, but it felt good when he finally came out, and he attended his retirement party with his partner. To finally be recognized for who he was, he told me, was a great feeling. Super gratifying.
At this point in the conversation I had a feeling I was talking to one of the Good Ones, a cop who was different from those who’d been in the news all that summer of 2016, when there had been a spate of police shootings of unarmed black men, like Philando Castile in St. Anthony, Minnesota. The most recent shooting in the news, and certainly the one most prominent in the minds of people in the city of Tulsa, where I lived up until a few months ago, was of Terence Crutcher, killed on September 22 by officer Betty Shelby, on a so-called routine traffic stop.
Officers on the scene claimed they saw Crutcher, who had exited his vehicle and was standing beside it, attempt to reach into his car. Officer Shelby pulled the trigger, and Crutcher fell to the pavement. He died later that day. The street where the shooting happened was in a rural stretch of North Tulsa, a predominantly African American part of town.
I myself am a nearly life-long Oklahoman, from the extreme southeastern part of the state, Little Dixie, as it was once commonly called. I grew up in a tiny town called Smithville, where, for the whole of my childhood, a Confederate flag hung in the town cemetery.
Around the time of Trump’s election several other such flags made their appearance. One hangs from the doorway of the town’s only gas station. And now here I was. In Tulsa. Sitting in a bar with a former cop who seemed like he might be one of the Good Ones—the phrase sounds interminably stupid to me now, but it’s almost certainly what I thought, after having had a few cold ones myself.
I was sick of talking about police shootings with my mostly white, educated, left-leaning friends. Their opinions, as well as mine, all ran in the same direction. Nobody I talked to about the subject had any personal experience with police brutality. Neither did I. But here was someone who did, at least from the perspective of the police. Furthermore, I thought with my dumb Millennial sense of certainty, was not only a policeman, but a policeman who, because he was gay, had almost certainly been oppressed.
And so I asked him what he thought of what Shelby had done.
She absolutely did the right thing, he said.
I asked him if really meant that.
If the same thing were to happen to me, he said, and I was in Betty Shelby’s place, I’d shoot Terence myself.
The statement sank in. What he’d said, and the use of Crutcher’s first name—the paternalistic familiarity with which he freely deployed it—was jarring.
I said: That’s fucked up.
Maybe so, he said. But that’s what you’re trained to do. He leaned back on his stool and launched into a lengthy description of how cops are trained in such situations. Essentially, to shoot to kill.
When he was finished I suggested that the training was also fucked up. It was obvious that the training had to be changed. The cop—he no longer seemed to me former, and the fact that he was gay mattered not a whit—gave a resigned laugh. He conceded that what I was saying might be true.
Shortly after the shooting, Betty Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter. Less than a year later she was acquitted. Afterward, she left the TPD and took a job with the Sheriff’s Department of neighboring Rogers County. In August 2018, The Tulsa World reported that Shelby was ‘scheduled to teach a class on “surviving the aftermath” of officer-involved shootings’ at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
There was no word on whether officers at the TCSO or the TPD would learn about the aftermath for the victims of such shootings.
I bought the cop a beer and headed home, my head swimming with more than alcohol.
When I arrived this past weekend at the location for Trump’s planned rally in Tulsa—a several block radius was cordoned off near the venue, the 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Center—one of the first things I saw was an emaciated-looking man waving a confederate flag. The second was a man carrying a cross—it was a ‘life-sized’ version—who stood a few feet from the flag waver. The cross-bearer had slung an arm around a young white man who was wearing a purple shirt emblazoned with a grenade. The young man was smoking a cigarette. Both their eyes were closed, presumably in what is often called prayer.
I found a parking spot and made my way along the line of Trump enthusiasts, who were camped out beneath tailgating tents along the perimeter. Some had even arrived as early as Tuesday. Mostly they sat in lawn chairs, some drinking, most decked out in MAGA-regalia, talking and laughing.
The mood was expectant, excited. An atmosphere of hail yay-us and fuuuck yay-uh.After the past three months of being told to stay at home by the libs, these people’s favorite person, the president of these United States, had offered a smashing endorsement of gathering together. This, one sensed, was going to be even better to them than regaining their God-given right to a haircut.
I walked north along Boulder Avenue, and turned right along the line on Third Street, looking for a particular spot, a building that was no longer there. 319 South Main Street. The Drexel Building—a place where another, quite different person, had sparked another gathering.
His name was Dick Rowland. A young man who ninety-nine years ago entered the Drexel Building and boarded the elevator. Most likely all he wanted was to use the segregated bathroom located on the top floor. Most contemporary accounts hold that he likely stepped on the elevator operator’s foot; the elevator itself was reputably prone to ‘shaking and shuddering’. The operator’s name was Sarah Page. She was seventeen and white. Dick Rowland was nineteen and not.
At that time Tulsa was home to Greenwood, one of the most prosperous Black communities in America. It stood just north and east of downtown, across the railroad tracks. By the next day Rowland was arrested and locked in the city jail. The charge: attempted rape. By nightfall he’d been moved to the county courthouse. A crowd gathered; there were rumors of an impending lynching. Word reached Greenwood and a small group of African Americans armed themselves and headed for the courthouse, determined to prevent a lynching from happening.
The crowd grew, both black and white, with armed men on both sides. A white man ordered one of the African Americans to disarm. He refused. There was a brief struggle and a shot rang out.
Twelve hours later as many as three hundred lives had been extinguished, most of them Black. The entirety of Greenwood—at least those parts of the neighborhood that hadn’t already been reduced to ash—was still aflame. Fire destroyed the whole neighborhood, and its occupants were rounded up, thrown into jails around the city.
Here, in June 2020, I turned onto Main and passed the last of the Trump enthusiasts. Less than a hundred feet away I found, standing on the opposite side of the street, that there was no 319 South Main anymore. Instead, roughly where the Drexel Building once stood, there were two empty storefronts. One was marked 317. The other had no discernible address at all, much less an information plaque. There is perhaps no city—at least no city government—in America in whose interest it is to preserve history. Tulsa more than most.
Greenwood was eventually rebuilt, and even flourished, but greatly diminished in size, reduced to just a handful of city blocks split by a highway overpass. I’d heard that the Juneteenth celebration planned there was going to be huge, with Rev. Al Sharpton as lead speaker. I headed in that direction.
A massive crowd had gathered in Greenwood. The atmosphere was jubilant and determined. Terence Crutcher’s twin sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, spoke movingly to the crowd, with their whole family standing behind her on the stage. She spoke of being ‘heavy with love’. That love seemed to move through the crowd, assembled in the place that had once been invaded by a white mob and burned to the ground. The dead man’s sister raised her fist in the air and proclaimed: I am Terence Crutcher.
The next day, before entering into the cordoned-off section near the arena, I heard a man chanting One more massacre at Black Lives Matter demonstrators. He was draped in a flag depicting Trump as Rambo clutching a bazooka. Once engaged by demonstrators, the man said he had Black and Hispanic family members. Because of course he did. He was grinning the whole time.
A few hours later, standing near the overflow stage area where President Trump had less than twenty-four hours before been convinced such a large and enthusiastic crowd would gather that he’d announced his intent to give not just one, but two speeches, I spoke to one of the perhaps twenty-five attendees standing there. His name was Rich. He had on a T-shirt printed with the words IN MEMORY OF WHEN I CARED. I asked him when was the last time he’d cared. He said he couldn’t remember. “Are you going inside?” I asked him. He wasn't. I asked him if he was he scared of the virus.
“No,” he said quickly. “Not for myself” he added, mustering .
Rich had a couple of nieces he planned to visit soon. One of them had health problems.
So you do care, I said.
I guess I do, he laughed.
I recognized in that laughter the sound of that retired gay cop, the one who told me he’d shoot Terence Crutcher himself. It was the laughter of someone who feels his moral failure, and perhaps even recognizes its source, but who has absorbed a kind of absolute helplessness. I’d heard it all my life from men who live here and work for the energy companies—oil and gas continue to be this state’s greatest revenue source—knowing those same companies wreck the land they live on. It’s the nervous sound of any person who says I’m just doing my job.
Shortly after Trump was finished speaking the protestors headed for Greenwood. There, in what appeared to me a crowd of at least a thousand people, predominantly African Americans, but with people of all races included, the atmosphere was once again not so much one of protest but of a celebration. The day before had seen the place packed with Juneteenth celebrators. Now they were back for more: Greenwood, Juneteenth, Part II. It didn’t matter if Trump failed to recognize them. They recognized each other, and they were ready for a party.
For a while I hung around, waiting to see if the police would arrive and attempt to bring what is called law and order to the situation. Amongst the celebrators I saw a couple of young black men silently patrolling the downtown-facing edge of the party’s loose perimeter at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street. One was armed with an AR-15, which he held loosely, pointed at the ground. The other wore a bulletproof vest and cradled a pump-action twelve-gauge shotgun in his elbow.
They formed a the counterpoint to the many open-carriers I’d seen amongst the Trump adulators earlier that day. These guys, it seemed to me, were here to protect the crowd. I thought of another moment when Black men had armed themselves in Greenwood, and the torrent of violence rained down on them by the city’s white population. Then I thought of the predominantly white crowds of Covid-19 protestors who’d jammed themselves into state capitals back in late April and May, who’d struck me as grown men playing dress up, and how different the reaction would’ve been if Black men had done the same thing.
These guys were not playing dress up. In the end no one with a gun is. If the point of the coronavirus protestors was to intimidate, these two were out to protect. One is the most essential service that police departments are supposed to provide. The other is the one this country has been seeing for much of the past month.
By that point Trump was on Air Force One, on his way back to Washington, and, as the New York Times reported, furious. The Tulsa Police Department and the National Guard, in their more humble but nonetheless intimidating modes of transport, headed home, too.
No second invasion of Greenwood was forthcoming.
Today, as public protests continue over George Floyd's death, Democrats blocked a Republican police reform bill. Crafted by the Senate's only Black Republican, Senator Tim Scott, the bill was opposed by the Democratic leadership and by the Congressional Black Caucus, which represents more than 50 African-American lawmakers. The Caucus called on senators to oppose the measure, calling it "a completely watered-down fake reform bill."
Nathan Knapp was born in Talihina, Oklahoma. He now gets his mail in Tennessee. His writing has appeared in The TLS, Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere.
Police & Thieves ::: Junior Murvin
Police On My Back ::: The Equals
Police Dog Blues ::: Ry Cooder
Police Sounds ::: Gabriel Rios
Policeman :: The Silencers
Music selections by Brian Cullman.