If You Oppose Rioting, I Have Three Words for You: The Tulsa Massacre

If You Oppose Rioting, I Have Three Words For You: The. Tulsa. Massacre.

June 5, 2020 Updated June 9, 2020

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Photograph of an African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds rising above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

It’s so damn important that we speak up about the explosive rioting that has taken place in our country. I personally refuse to stay silent about it, because this is one epically twisted part of humanity, and it needs to be discussed. Protesters took over city streets, lit buildings on fire, looted and damaged property, and endangered countless vulnerable human beings in the process.

You may think I’m referring to the riots currently sweeping our nation as American citizens protest the brutal murder of George Floyd. But I’m not. I’m talking about the Tulsa Massacre, one of the deadliest and most covered-up acts of racial violence ever committed in our country.

In the summer of 1921, Black residents and families living in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were ambushed, and many were obliterated. Thousands of white supremacists, including a bunch who had been deputized and given weapons from city officials, stormed into Greenwood, looted businesses, took to the air to light buildings on fire, and murdered hundreds of Black human beings in cold blood.

Photo shows the aftermath of the white mobs that attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Photo shows the aftermath of the white mobs that attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bettmann Archive/Getty

According to researchers at the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot, approximately 11,000 Black citizens were living in Tulsa at the time, and most were in the Greenwood section. It is estimated that as much as 300 Black Americans were killed and over 8,000 homes destroyed. The fire department showed up way too late and blamed innocent Black Americans for why they didn’t arrive sooner. By the time the National Guard got there and declared martial law, the massacre was basically over. Guardsmen also imprisoned a ton of Black citizens and held 6,000 people in a temporary detention space.

Oh, and did I mention that not a single fucking white person who partook in this mass murder has ever been arrested, prosecuted or held legally responsible for the horror they inflicted?

In other words, our country has a royally fucked up secret that’s been conveniently kept out of U.S. history textbooks and public knowledge until the 1990s. So, in addition to slavery, white people have also committed genocide against Black Americans – and they got away with it. This would be horrible enough if it only happened once. But white supremacists got away with brutality, destruction, and murder again when they burned down the entire town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923.

Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.
Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

“White people have controlled the narratives and stories allowed in our history books and conversations for years,” says shea martin, a Boston-based educator and community organizer whose work is rooted in antiracist pedagogy and intersectional coalition-building. “I didn’t even know about the Tulsa Massacre until I went to work in Tulsa a few years ago. And that — that intentional erasure of history, of a thriving Black community (and the brutal state-sponsored decimation of it), is white supremacy in action. They can’t see us thrive, so they kill us and then write us out of history. So, it’s up to us as learners, educators, and critical consumers of content to intentionally seek out untold stories of resistance and survival.”

This dark chapter in our country’s history was swept under the national rug and hidden from the general public for years until eye-witness accounts surfaced and were added to the public domain. You might be wondering how this is even possible. Well, the answer is as obvious as it is infuriating. White supremacy has dictated the narrative of our nation’s past and present to favor and prioritize one group of people over another. Even if mass murder, theft, larceny, and looting is involved.

Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.
Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

This begs the question: If the vast majority of white people are cool staying quiet while other white people have committed genocide against Black people, partaken in and supported police brutality against Black people, killed Black people, oppressed Black people, discriminated against Black people, and quite literally looted Black people from their native country to enslave them for over 250 years so that white people could achieve and maintain economic prosperity – then how can any single white person have the audacity to oppose a completely justifiable uprising of Black Americans?

Because white supremacy is a mental, physical, and psychological pandemic far worse than COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, I am not surprised at the police’s violent attacks on protestors over the past week,” martin tells Scary Mommy. “White supremacy is a violent system that was built on the backs and graves of Black people. This system has been killing us for years, so I’m not surprised the police are using force against protestors who are fighting against that system. Some people say, ‘Why are they burning cars?’ ‘Why are they looting stores?’ I will not judge the way any Black person in this country grieves and expresses their rage against a system that was designed to kill us – and has been successful in doing so.”

Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921
Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

It’s easy for white folks to look at the violent outbursts occurring all over this country right now and make the biased argument that it detracts from the issues at hand. It’s more challenging to dig deep, do your own damn research, own that white privilege, and realize that we are fortunate enough not to have Black Americans exact full revenge for everything we’ve stolen from them. White supremacy has decimated the very livelihood of being a Black human being in this country. And it is time for us to stop making self-centered and biased opinions about the matter and start fucking listening.

“People see fires and smashed windows and call it terror; I call it grief, I call it desperation, I call it generations of pain on display,” martin explains. “George Floyd begged for mercy as he died. He cried out in desperation with his words until he could no longer. Black folx are tired of begging a system that thrives on our oppression for mercy. White people who say ‘we’re taking away from the focus’ will never be able to fathom the trauma, pain, and rage that is involved with being a Black person in this country. I wonder why they are more outraged about the damage of property than they are about the murder of Black people. There is no right way to protest because protest is not a monolith. It is nuanced, it is personal. And in this moment, it is absolutely necessary.”

I’ll end by sharing an infuriating little tidbit from this past week. Donald Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany made a statement about why the president decided to walk across Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square, moments after peaceful protestors were abruptly tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets by police so that he could clear a path to walk through it and get a super awkward photo op across the street. Trump’s apparent goal was to channel Winston fucking Churchill when the late Prime Minister surveyed on-site damage after World War Two. Once he finished his leisurely stroll, our president posed in front of a church with a Bible, a ridiculously out-of-touch act that religious leaders have gone on record to vehemently denounce.

There is one particular quote from McEnany’s press conference that bugs the shit out of me.

“For this president, it was powerful and important to send a message that the rioters, the looters, the anarchists — that they will not prevail — that burning churches are not what America is about,” McEnany says in her statement.

You know that white supremacy is alive and well when our commander-in-chief feigns protection over America from the incendiary grief of Black Americans but has never, not once, granted Black Americans the same fucking protection when their lives literally depended on it.